It's always a good day when you find another reason to love your hometown. Last Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium, I found a great one in the annual football game between the Baltimore City College Knights and the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute Engineers. It was the 125th yearly meeting of City and Poly, but my first-and hopefully my first of many. Perhaps the day itself was somewhat responsible, surely the gods of football and Lady Baltimore herself, the goddess who tops the city seal, were smiling on Ravens Stadium that day, a perfect one for football. Inside the stadium bowl, the air was warm beneath a cold, high sky of the clearest fall blue, ribboned by the white contrails of passing planes unaware of the historic clash taking place on the earth below.
City vs. Poly, thought to be the second-longest-running public high school football rivalry in the country, is more than a game. From the throng waiting for tickets to the sea of blue, black, and orange pouring into the stadium gates, there is a buzz, an energy very different from a professional game. As big a game as it is, the schools don't fill the 70,000-seat stadium, so there's one gate and one side of the field for Poly, and the opposite for City. In the crowd on either side, there is a camaraderie rarely felt. It's more than just being from the same place, being Baltimoreans, it's born in shared experience, shared history, shared pride. It's not something you feel in high school-a place of dread and cliques and dreaded cliques- it's a feeling you get when your whole school goes somewhere else together, or even stronger when, years after you left, you come back to that place with memories sweetened by time.
I sat with City. I live closer to Poly, but I was parked way closer to the City side, so the choice was an easy one. I don't think I'd have gone wrong either way, though. I'd forgotten the joy of high school football. It's a very different game than the one played on Sundays, simpler, and in many ways better. No one is throwing 60-yard spirals or making diving fingertip catches; the titanic, concussive blows are noticeably absent-a 160-pound 15-year-old just doesn't pack the same energy as a 350-pound man-and for most high school kickers, even an extra point is a challenge, so teams generally go for two. For most of the first half, the game resembled the ebb and flow of the tides as the squads pushed back and forth, battling for field position. The half ended, knotted at 8, and without the never-ending breaks to sell Budweiser and Hondas, it flew by.
When halftime arrived, there was barely a seat in use, not because the crowd fled to buy hot dogs or grab a smoke, but because they rose as one to cheer on the bands. A teenaged girl a few rows behind me yelled, "Here comes the good stuff!" and she was right. I'm not trying to take anything away from the football players, but watching these kids wail on the trombone while balanced on one leg and kicking with the other was a demonstration of some serious skill. Halftime was a glorious spectacle, with City fans cheering on their band as Poly booed from the other sideline. I listened to the girls behind me cheer when they saw the dance team's uniforms hadn't changed from when they graduated just a few years ago. The man next to me lamented the band had shrunk to practically nothing compared to when he'd been there in '92. I lost count of the ovations from the folks around me before the Poly percussionists stepped out in their ferociously white suits, meeting at midfield, where the boos from City met the roar from Poly. If you're not a football fan, go for the halftimes.
In the second half, the game started to open up, and Troy Robinson, City's quarterback, caught fire. Late in the third, Robinson faked a handoff to the inside and sliced through the Engineers' defense, breaking the tie with a sizzling 10-yard touchdown that lit the fuse on the assembled crowd. Chants of "Woop-woop-woop-woop! C-I-T-Y!" erupted all around. Robinson would score two more TDs on the ground to go with his passing touchdown from the first half. On defense, he even threw in a back-breaking interception with a long return deep into Poly territory on the way to City's 36-14 pounding. The victory should ensure them a spot in the state playoffs, but for most of the people in attendance, a state championship would mean little compared to beating Poly, and on the other side, most of the crowd would have gladly traded their six victories on the season for just a takedown of City, but both teams still lined up to shake hands and pay their respects. It's hard not to respect your greatest rival.
As the stadium cleared out, the mass of old men that stood together through the whole game, some in their 70's, high-fived and hugged. The young families, babies strapped to chests, toddlers waving orange towels, cheered and high-fived and made plans for next year. The kids all around, the current Knights, chest-bumped, sang, and screamed as Robinson hoisted the game trophy before being mobbed by his teammates, caught up in a wave of elation. And I made plans to come back for the 126th game.
You can catch Jim Meyer's standup at the return of his Bar Bacon Joke Club comedy show Thursday, 8 p.m. at Hampden's Gallery 788.