This Friday night, the Panthers of Cincinnati Elder travel to Cincinnati St. Xavier High School to face the Bombers. As the game approaches Elder and St. Xavier are ranked #3 and #25 in the nation respectively by USA Today. This game could turn out to be the precursor to a rematch in the Ohio Football Regional Semi-Finals. Despite the obvious playoff, state championship and even national championship implications, this game is 89 years in the making and is emblematic and more important than which teams scores the most points.
The “West Side” v. The World
Cincinnati, Ohio is an expansive city with an eclectic blend of several cultures, creeds, and races that live and work together yet simultaneously maintain lives unique to their specific values. Between 1858 and World I nearly six million Germans immigrated to the U.S. Many of which made their way to the Cincinnati, one the nation’s largest cities. By 1900 nearly 40% of the city’s population was German American. In 1870 a rail car that quickly transported civilians to the far “western hills” of the city, moved these immigrants to a small neighborhood named “Price Hill. They did whatever it took to survive and took the undesirable jobs in slaughterhouses and rail yards. ”. With them came Catholicism, native foods (i.e. goetta, bratwurst, sour kraut), and a “no holds bar” / “pull yourself up by the boot strap” work ethic that has resounded for generations.
By 1922 the population swelled so much that Cincinnati’s Catholic Archbishop commissioned and began constructing Elder High School, the cities first Catholic High School, in Price Hill, to serve the “West Side”.
By 1930 students and their families constructed the now Legendary “Pitt” in the hillside behind the schools main building. Seating 10,000 it was known for its rowdy, sometimes threatening fans. It was decided that the panther should be mascot. After discovering purple dye was much cheaper it was a no brainer. The schools colors were to be purple and white. With no professional team within traveling distance Elder, the “Pit”, and those purple jerseys became a rallying point for all of Western Hills especially Price Hill. The students played with the same hard nose, gritty attitude and work ethic that carried their parents, and grandparents from Germanys Rhine River, to America. In short…They would bust you in the mouth and dare you say something about it. All within the confines of the loosely defined rules football offered in the 1920’s. Blood stained purple Jersey were likely as common as goetta for breakfast during this period. But of course they did not “bleed their own blood” creating a respectable reputation for winning. Overall the school has come to represent what it means to be a blue collar American, willing to do whatever it takes to win on the field or off the field.
A world away from the hog blood soaked hills of price hill , stood St. Xavier High School, an institution that was just as elite and prestigious as Elder was blue collar and scrappy. St. X was founded as the Athenum in 1831, and was in Downtown Cincinnati. It began as a boarding school for wealthy Catholic boys across the country. Despite the wealth of its students, parents, and faculty St. X went through and survived its own personal hardship after the cholera epidemic of 1854. The school over came and continued on, making the unspoken statement “don’t let the money fool ya!”
Since the school predated and hence was not a part of the Cincinnati Archdiocese it pulled students from all over Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. So unlike Elder, it never gained the backing of any one community. However the school did have, MONEY. By 1960 it had spun off its college into what is now Xavier University, and moved to a new building that even then cost an unheard of $4 million. The school was expanded in 1998 to include several new buildings, and the renovation of the “Tom Balliban Football Stadium”, that cost an estimated $12.6 million.
St. X was founded and run by the world’s richest order of Catholic Priest, the Jesuits aka “the Black Robes”. Service and education have been the focal points of their educational philosophy. They instilled the concept of “Magis” or “Excellence”, and the needs to be “Men for and with others”. This spawned generations of alumni that would go on to be leaders and successful at whatever they attempted. The education model, MONEY, and commitment to being the best is the only way to explain how one school can produce over 40 state championships and still argue that it is the best academic high school in the state.
Classism Rich v. Poor - The Battle against Elitism
Their shared religion and Catholicism binds these schools but their class differences divide them. The success and reputation Elder and their alumni, struggled and sacrificed to build through toiling in the city’s slaughterhouse, was bought whole-sale and passed down through generations by St. X. Of course this is not true in all cases (especially since many Elder alumni now send their children to St. X). However the perception that this is the truth has likely created some resentment and anger dating back well before our time. Basically…Elder fans, students and alumni “hate” on St. X for their elite status. In the same manner the assembly line worker revels in every opportunity available to make the company president squirm in discomfort, Elder fans rejoice in abusing their cross town rivals.
Conversely St. X and its fans have been known to look down upon the “purple people” as less than cultured “grits” who will one day be there employees. This attitude inspired the now banished chant “THAT’S ALRIGHT THAT’S OK, YOU’RE GONNA WORK FOR US SOME DAY!” The shots only get worse as Elders student section was heard chanting “ANAL BOMBERS!” referring to St. Xavier mascot the “Bomber”. Even worse, during a pep rally in the late 1990’s a St. Xavier student created a “Top 10 list Why St. X is better than Elder”. Number one on his list “Elder H.S. is basically 3 mobile homes welded together, and rigged for lighting with a 2 car batteries”. Go ahead and laugh. It’s not politically correct but it’s definitely funny. Being P.C. has never been the goal of this battle and never will. Each schools administration has done their part to curve anything distasteful but the undertones still exist, and I doubt they will ever go away. How could it? As long two schools that are so different, yet so alike compete there will be tension.
To sum it up if Elder sends the message “Hard work and determination pays off”, St. Xavier replies “ *shoulder shrug* So what. Money and influence can change the world”
Despite the history and cultural implications of this game it would be nothing without the players and their “Dream”. The 23 feeder schools on the West Side of Cincinnati all have football programs. The player’s coaches, uncles, father, and brothers likely attended Elder and from birth it was assumed they too would attend Elder. Moments after leaving their mother’s womb it would be no shock if they were wrapped tightly in a purple blanket embroidered with a small white “E”. Nestled snuggly in an awaiting incubator a tiny panther and accompanying purple football were placed next to them. Elder High School and its football team was this Childs destiny. As a small boy he gleefully scurried onto the field after the game to play catch with his buddies. For Christmas his dad got him an Elder jersey. When he turned 9 his mom bought a t-shirt that read “Elder High School Class of 2012”. His grandfather told him how he and his parents built the school and the Pit with their “bare hands”. His “Dream” was to one day wear his purple Jersey, play in The Pit, and bring a championship back to his community. That is pretty impressive for a high school kid, ain’t it?
Just as impressive is the foresight of the St. Xavier student that has the next 15 years of his life planned out. Beginning in the 9th grade he knows what it will take for him to graduate at the top of his class, win at least one football state championship, get a full ride to Harvard, beat Yale, go to Georgetown Law, and come back home to take over his dads law firm. Once again, that’s pretty impressive for high school kids...ain’t it?
Either way both kids understand that this game and this night is the only way to their "Dream". Unfortunately, the other team is in the way…someone will fall.
(Listen, if you watch that clip...turn it up real loud or with some headphones...then I promise you will be prepared to run thru a brick wall)
THOUGHTS FOLKS? GAME STARTS TONIGHT AT 7:30...LET'S GO!
-Jeremy K. Smith