Good Sport

This story originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of The Red Cent and is reprinted with permission.  If you are a graduate of Grand Forks Public Schools and would like to receive The Red Cent – as well as membership into the alumni network – click here.

There is something so satisfying about a good ol’ fashioned sports rivalry.  While many such conflicts are manufactured by marketing departments and beer companies and fizzle out after a few seasons, the really solid rivalries – Red Sox and Yankees, Canadiens and Maple Leafs, the Vikings and themselves – require a Paul Bunyan-sized origin story, a contentious championship game featuring a loveable underdog of a team, and impressionable children to carry the hope and the fury forward to the next generation.  I am here to tell you the tale of one such competition, an enmity so contentious it puts the battle of “Is it a hot dish or a casserole?” to shame.  Of course, I mean the rivalry between Grand Forks Central and Red River High Schools.

I should probably note that I am extremely biased.  I am the third generation of my family to attend Grand Forks Central High.  My Grandpa Sam and Uncle Louis were the first; walking the short few blocks from the school to our family store, Silverman’s, each day after class.  Sam graduated in 1933, went off to law school and then the war, and came back home with my Grandma Evelyn in order to do his part in creating the second generation of Central Highers – my dad, Steve, and my Aunt Stacey.  Steve graduated in 1970, went off to business school, and came back home with my mom, Robin.  Together, they held the maroon-and-grey line with the emergence of my little sister, Erica, and me.

My five-year-old considers my childhood the “oldie, oldie times;” and so, back in the “oldie, oldie, oldie times” of my own father’s youth, there was only one public high school: Central.  Central was bursting at the seams – so much so, that the school had to run double shifts; one set of students and faculty attended class in the morning, and the other set went in the afternoon.  While North Dakotans are fine with a few minor inconveniences we still have our limits, and so the decision was made to put up a second public high school on the south end of town, and to call it Red River.

With the rise of this sparkle-shiny high school from out of the prairie came an immediate and intense condescension for the dusty, forlorn, aging edifice downtown and all that it represented.  Everything about Red River was brand-new.  New books.  New desks.  New luxuries, including hallways laid with carpet instead of cold marble.  The district had held a competition for a peppy new school song, exciting in contrast to the vintage beat of “Central, We Sing to Central.”  The comparisons didn’t just end at the building; word on the street was that even the Central teachers felt they got the short end of the stick, commenting to one another behind closed doors that all of the “better” kids went over to Red River.  As you can imagine, Central students and families were none too thrilled.

Nowadays, the Central and Red River sports rivalry is best known through the game of hockey (and the Cushman Classic); but the original conflict came through basketball.  The first Red River-Central basketball game took place in Red River’s fancy gym.  The Red River players took to the court in their spankin’ new uniforms, which look bright and cheery compared to the tatters of Central.  In a bit of symbolism so overwrought that even the writers at Disney would tell you to take it down a notch, standouts Jon Tufte (Central) and Craig Skarperud (Red River) kept the game to a tie, ultimately ending in an emotional overtime win for Red River that left much of the Central crowd in real or metaphorical tears. 

The schools would meet again in the state championship three years later.  Two new standouts, Glenn Hansen (Central) and Reed Monson (Red River), once again went back and forth, tying up the game six times in the second half.  Central ultimately won the trophy – cementing an enmity that would carry forward to everything from theater to parking lots to mascots and back again.

While Red River came out on top most of the time, hockey was Central’s saving grace.  Between 1967 and 1987, Central won state 13 times, and Red River only three (one of those was a shared co-championship win, which I’m sure made everyone VERY HAPPY).  My dad was the student manager during Serge Gambucci’s final seasons, in which he went an unprecedented 10-for-10 at state tournaments.

By the time my sister and I skated into the picture in the “oldie oldie” days, the Centralites and Red Riverers of the 1970s had made sure the now-decade-old conflict was alive and well.  At night our dad would whisper to us the (unsurprisingly banned) cheer, “Hey, dam Red River.”  Plenty of other parents whispered to their own impressionable children, and so we offspring dutifully took our place in the Grand Forks version of the Hatfields and the McCoys.  A few of our classmates were brave enough to attempt a Romeo and Juliet situation and date someone from the opposite school, but beyond that we all basically created an unofficial/official line in the snow and stayed on our side until graduation.

This brings us to today.  Well, this brings us to a few years ago, when my oldest son was six years old.  My husband is not from Grand Forks and isn’t at all invested or interested in the Central-Red River rivalry; which is why it took him an entire lunchtime to casually mention,

“Oh, by the way, our boy has been asked to be a Central Bench Buddy at the next Red River game.  Do you think he should?”

A Bench Buddy is a younger hockey player that is selected by one of the current high school players to pick up pucks after the game warmups, in exchange for having his or her name called during the starting lineup.  I was on the phone to my mom and dad before he could finish his sentence.  My parents had their suitcases in the car before we had hung up.

The night of the Central-Red River game arrived.  Purpur Arena was packed; and the Central band was playing its heart out to be heard above the din of the crowd.  My parents and I had parked ourselves right on the glass.

The players took to the ice, and the crowd erupted in cheers.  On the bench, my son wiggled and danced to the music in his too-large Central jersey, turning back every once in a while to give a smile to his adoring fans.  Serge’s daughter, MaryAnn Gambucci Lindgren, sat behind us, and she and my dad spent a few minutes complimenting the players, the arena, the school – and, of course, the Bench Buddies.

My son was still dancing as he skated around picking up pucks.  Every time he’d drop one off in the bucket, he’d turn and wave to us.  My mom and I would wave back with the enthusiasm and aggression of two people guiding a ship into a foggy port.

We were sitting next to a group of Central students who had become pretty entertained with all of our carrying on, and so when they announced my son’s name, they stood up and cheered with us.  They cheered him on again when he popped up in the stands after his five minutes of fame were over, although he didn’t notice because the Buddies had been awarded a FREE blue Gatorade and a hot dog and my mom had supplemented it with a pack of M&Ms, and so all memory of Bench Buddying was long out the porthole.  But for my dad and I, the pleasure we gained from singing the school song together as my son skated around in a Central jersey will be burned in our mental yearbooks forever.

I am legally obligated to tell you that Central beat Red River that night, and also won the state championship later that season – and, ahem, the two seasons following.  I’ve heard that Red River took home the title last year, but I wouldn’t know anything about that.

The “oldie oldie” times have changed.  The school district has done a great job bringing parity and uncarpeted hallways to the two schools, so much so that there are several families in town with one child at Central and another Red River.  I may still whisper “Central Rulz” to my sons while they sleep at night, but if they end up going to Red River, I will take heart knowing that I always have our mutual disdain for the Green Wave to keep me warm.

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