story by Aric Mitchell
Use the phrase “Battle of Rogers Avenue” anywhere else in the world, and you’re likely to see both kids and adults flush with embarrassment because they just know it’s something they’re supposed to remember but can’t. Civil War? Revolutionary? It has to be one of those, doesn’t it?
But if you use the same phrase in the city of Fort Smith, it doesn’t matter how young or old the company is, they will know instantly.
The annual crosstown rivalry featuring the Northside Grizzlies and the Southside Rebels has been played since 1965. The 2011 high school football season will mark the 46th encounter between the two schools. With Rogers Avenue the dividing line, there is always a lot at stake, whether it’s a winning season or a losing one.
The rivalry traces its origins to Fort Smith High School. Once the largest school in the state of Arkansas with approximate enrollment of 1,738 students, Fort Smith High School bid its younger brother Southside High farewell in 1963. The Rebels didn’t field a high school team for the first two years, instead focusing on the junior high up-and-comers. In those two years, “the Southerners,” as they were sometimes referred, split four meetings with their Cub counterparts. But as the entire city prepared for Thanksgiving 1965, the stakes were about to get higher.
In the early days, the Rebels were the underdogs and with good reason. Fort Smith High School, renamed Fort Smith Northside, had an experienced Head Coach in Bill Stancil and an impressive tradition of winning. In fact, it had been 1954 since the Grizzlies had lost a season opener. While Southside was trying to get its bearings as a school, Northside was posting a 9-1 record, its only loss a 7-6 contest to Pine Bluff. The 1963 squad outscored their opponents 143-53. To say the Rebels would have their work cut out for them on Nov. 19, 1965, when the two squads met at Grizzlies Stadium, would be an understatement.
Still, more than 4,000 adults and students showed up to support the birth of a rivalry in its infancy. The audience was evenly divided, showing that even at such a modest time in Rebels history, its faithful could not be ignored. But if Rebel fans were hoping for an upset, they would not get one. The Grizzlies oppressed Southside with a humbling 26-0 victory, moving to 9-2 for the year and leaving their neighbors to the south with a 4-3-2 record.
The Rebels offense was anemic, only breaking in to Grizzly territory twice and never advancing beyond their 40-yard line. Meanwhile, Northside senior Lynn Garner had his way with the new school. Garner, following back David Carter’s first half touchdown, piled on 12 of the 19 unanswered points in the second half.
First, Garner, a fullback, actually hit Curtis Barlow with a pass in the third period that resulted in a TD. Then, Garner blocked his fourth punt of the season and returned it for another six. Finally, Bobby Crouch connected again with Barlow to round out the scoring.
The first game had not been all that competitive, but it lit a fire in the Southside program that would motivate Rebels student body, parents and players to work harder and harder on their way to a city championship. It also established the in-town rivalry that remains to this day.
Following the first contest, shouts of “The South shall rise again,” according to the Southwest Times Record circa Nov. 1965, were heard from those leaving the field. Rebels Head Coach Charles McGibbony, former Grizzly coach, took it pretty hard.
“The scoreboard speaks for itself,” he told the newspaper. “It may be a different type game next year.”
But it wasn’t.
Until 1973’s contest, the Grizzlies would win every game and outscore Southside by a monstrous margin of 210-43. That’s an average of around 26−5 per game. However, gearing up for the 1973 meeting, the Rebels were hungry for a change, and they had just enough manpower to get the job done.
Running back Steve Mathews, in a 1973 interview with his school’s yearbook staff, said: “The Northside game was a very emotional game for the team. All week the Rebel squad was getting ready for the game. This year the team thought that we could end the long record of victory the Bears had against us.”
While the hope would not come true, Southside did not lose this time. The 14-14 tie would be a sign of things to come, but not before the Grizzlies jumped back on the winning track in the following two years with a 24-7 beat-down in 1974 and a 3-0 defensive triumph in 1975.
Following one more tie, this one a 7-7 stalemate in October 1977, the talk started brewing. Mike Barber wrote of the rivalry in 1977: “It had to come to an end. Everybody knew it had to come to an end sometime.”
The next edition of Rivalry Road examines the day that sometime finally came: the night of Oct. 21, 1977.