E/A: The anatomy of a rivalry

America’s oldest high school sports feud began in 1878.

November 9, 2021
collage of Exeter athletics images current and historic

Days before America’s oldest high school sporting rivalry took root, the editors of The Exonian newspaper expressed high hopes for the occasion:

“We are looking forward with interest to the game of football with Andover,” they wrote in the Oct. 26, 1878, edition. “We trust that the game will be a friendly one, and that the beaten party will accept their defeat as a fair and an honorable one.”

If the ensuing 22-0 Exeter defeat altered those warm thoughts, it didn’t stop the schools from continuing their “friendly” competition. On Nov. 13, Big Red and Big Blue will resume a thrice-annual athletic clash for the 143rd time.

Ahead of that renewal, we offer a quick snapshot of E/A history:

Exeter starts on top

The 1878 football game wasn’t the first athletic contest between the schools. That came the previous spring, when the two met on an Exeter baseball diamond. The result: A 12-1 Exeter victory on May 22, 1878. PEA second baseman E.H. Brown rapped out three hits and Big Red took advantage of 13 Andover errors.

Big Red is born

So, how did Exeter come to be Big Red? That first baseball game against Andover set the style. From The Exonian: “The uniform of the school nine consists of the following: knee-breeches, sweat-shirt, square cut blouse, of white flannel trimmed with cardinal red, cardinal red stockings and a white flannel cap.” The PEA football team also wore red that fall, with The Exonian noting, “This bright color and the color of the Andover suits will make a very pretty contrast.” The rest is history.

Reversal of fortunes

Exeter lost the initial football game, but the wait for revenge was brief. The following November, Andover stepped off the train amid a tempest and was figuratively if not literally blown away by Big Red. The 18-0 victory was the first of 54 for Exeter in the long-running series.

Bittersweet victory

Andover rode an eight-year winning streak into the 1913 football game. PEA Principal Harlan Paige Amen beseeched the entire student body to pray for victory, claiming that Exonians needed a win to regain their faith and hope. Exeter responded with a stunning 59-0 victory at home before a reported crowd of 8,000 people — only to learn the next morning that Amen had suffered a stroke and passed away. “Rarely have the joy and sorrow of life more strangely confronted each other than in the events of the past two days at Phillips Exeter Academy,” the Boston Transcript reported. “Few of the thousands who witnessed the phenomenal football victory of its students over the sister institution of Andover knew that the head of this famous school was dying at his home.”

One for the ages

"The place was Brother’s Field; the clay was fair; the teams were in perfect condition; and the score was 78 to 7. Such a victory with such a score may never take place again in the rivalry of the two schools." So goes the opening paragraph of The Exonian's report on Nov. 18, 1914 from the biggest rout in E-A football lore. The writer was prescient: Andover holds the overall edge in the series, but Exeter forever boasts the most one-sided win.

A kick in the grass

Exeter’s first interscholastic soccer match fittingly came against Andover. On Nov. 7, 1928, a veteran Andover side, which had lost just once in four years, arrived for an exhibition match. Beyond all expectations, Exeter reportedly dominated play but lost, 1-0. It would be 11 years before PEA finally tasted victory in the series, with a goal from Bud Palmer ’40 leading to a breakthrough 1-0 victory in 1939.

The comeback

In what may be one of the greatest Exeter victories in the long-running football series, quarterback Mike Lynch '72 rallied Big Red from a 20-3 deficit to stun Andover 30-20 in the 1971 meeting in front of a crowd of 5,300. The win gave Exeter a share of its first New England title in 15 years.  

You lose some ...

The Exeter-Andover rivalry began a new era on Nov. 7, 1973, when girls teams first represented their respective schools in the feud. It was a less-than-grand opening for Big Red; Andover swept matchups in field hockey and girls soccer. The losses in the debut of girls sports were part of an Andover sweep of all the varsity competitions that fall.

... and you win some

A year later, Exeter turned the tables entirely. Highlighted by a first-place finish in boys cross-country in Interschols (Andover was second) and a 4-2 boys soccer win to complete an unbeaten season, Exeter enjoyed a clean sweep of its own, with victories in football, girls soccer and field hockey.

Not this time

The superb field hockey team of 1983 had its shot at an unbeaten season spoiled on the last day; a 1-0 loss to Andover. Big Red gained some revenge the following fall, with Peggy Proctor's goal sealing a 1-0 win over Big Blue and capping a 10-1 season. 

Better late ...

Exeter's 12-0 girls soccer season of 1989 was consummated with a resounding 3-1 win over Andover, a match that started more than an hour late because the guests were a late arrival. 

"Exeter Beats Andover 20-20"

In the 1994 football clash, Exeter erased fourth-quarter deficits of 14-0 and 20-6 to rally for a 20-20 tie. The result knocked Andover out of the New England Class A title game and prompted The Exonian to declare victory by emulating an infamous Harvard Crimson headline.

Fit to be tied

The 2002 football game ended tied 14-14, the 10th and most recent tie in the long rivalry. Tradition dictates that the teams do not play overtime. In that 2002 game, Big Blue was driving for the winning score, but Exeter’s Austin Blackmon ’03 intercepted a pass in the end zone on the game’s final play. 


Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2019 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

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