Over 100 Years of East Aurora-West Aurora Football Rivalry

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Over 100 Years of East Aurora-West Aurora Football Rivalry

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Aurora resident Steve Solarz has teamed up with The History Press to publish his new book, Aurora’s East-West Football Rivalry, documenting Illinois’ longest running high school football series. East Aurora High School and West Aurora High School first met on the gridiron in 1893 and have met annually in all but two seasons since. Aurora’s East-West Football Rivalry is available online at EastWestRivalry.com and at the David L. Pierce Art & History Center (20 E. Downer Place, Aurora, IL 60505).

The 2014 edition of the East-West rivalry game will take place on October 17 at the East campus. East Aurora’s 26-23 victory in 2000 knotted the series at an even 48-48-12, but West Aurora has rattled off 13 straight victories since and enters 2014 with a 61-48-12 advantage. Steve talked to IHSAState about his book, the rivalry and some highlights from the first 121 years:

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
Although I didn’t grow up here, I have lived my entire adult life in Aurora. I like to say that I am uniquely qualified to have written this book, because I don’t think anyone from either school could have done so objectively. I was a member of the West Aurora Sports Boosters and back in 2001, then Athletic Director Randy Konstans asked me to do some research on the history of the program. I began documenting all of the football games in West Aurora’s history and when I completed that, I figured I might as well do East Aurora too. Writing a book had been on my bucket list for some time, and about a year ago I decided to turn all of this research into the book.

Q: Can you pick a ‘best game’ in the history of this storied rivalry?
For my money, the best game in the series will have its 100th anniversary on Thanksgiving this year. West was undefeated in 1912 and 1913, and had lost just once in 1914 to a team from Iowa. So they had essentially gone three years without losing to a team from Illinois. East was 7-0 and had only allowed 10 points all year. The game was billed as the state championship in the media, and unlike other years, there wasn’t much dispute. In 1914, there were about 30,000 people in Aurora and around 9,000 of them showed up to Hurd’s Island in the Fox River where the game was played at that time to see East beat West 14-7. Three players on the field that day would go on to play pro football in the earliest days of the NFL, including Frank Hanney (East), Elliot Risley (East) and Sid Bennett (West).

Q: What about the best ending?
East fans love to talk about the 1988 game when they scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes to steal a 28-27 win and knock West out of making the playoffs.

Q: Who are some of the great players who have gone on to successful playing or coaching careers?
Kurt Becker (East, ’78) is probably at the top of the list. He is the current coach at East Aurora, was an All-American at the University of Michigan and played on the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl champion team.
Gus Tebell (West) was a 1917 graduate who enlisted in the Army before graduation and fought in World War I. After the war, he went to the University of Wisconsin, where he played football and basketball before playing professional football. He coached football and basketball at North Carolina State, then went on to coach both sports at the University of Virginia. He is the third-winningest basketball coach in school history. Virginia still hands out the Gus Tebell Memorial Award to the top student-athlete.
Andy Gustafson (West) played football at Pitt and went on to be the head football coach at Virginia Tech and Miami (Florida). He was an assistant coach at Army in the mid-1940’s where he coached Mr. Inside (Doc Blanchard) and Mr. Outside (Glenn Davis).
Paul Patterson (East) played football at the University of Illinois where he teamed with Buddy Young to lead the Illini to the 1946 Big Ten Championship. He played pro football and then worked in the Chicago front office. He also served as a Director of the United Negro College Fund and the University of Illinois Athletic Board.

Q: Any other interesting info on some of the alumni of the rivalry?
Eddie Gillette didn’t play in the rivalry because his parents wouldn’t let him play football in high school, but he was a basketball and track star and went to the University of Wisconsin. At Wisconsin, he went out for football and became an All-American quarterback. He eventually went on to serve as the Mayor of Santa Monica, California.
Mercer Barnes graduated from West in 1941 or 1942 and went on to the University of Illinois before serving in World War II. He went to California after his enlistment ended and played football at USC. He became an actor and appeared in several movies, including The Stratton Story. He did a lot of sports themed movies and his acting career lasted into the 1960’s.

Q: Did you unearth any new information from the rivalry during your research?
For a long long time, Aurorans have said that there were two games played between East and West in 1896. I could only find evidence of one game in 1896, and the coverage was really good that year. They definitely played on Thanksgiving, which ended in a 10-10 tie. A second game from 1896 started to appear in recaps of the annual series a few years later. The second game was reported first as a 6-0 East victory, and then later as a 0-0 tie, while some years it didn’t appear in the recaps. I could find no official record of it, so we decided to continue to count it as a 0-0 tie, but I doubt it ever happened.

Q: Why didn’t the schools play in 1894 and 1897?
In 1894, the teams actually couldn’t agree to terms on the game. It was set for Thanksgiving, but a kid named Archie Sylvester, who was known to be a stud athlete, but wasn’t going to school, enrolled at West in early November. East threw a fit and said they wouldn’t show up if Sylvester played in the game. West countered that he was a legitimate student and was going to finish the school year there. West alleged East was just complaining because he had turned down an offer to come play at East. East then said he could play, but they wanted two-thirds of the gate receipts instead of the usual 50-50 split. West said forget it and that was it.

In 1897, West had de-emphasized its football program, and although they played five games, they didn’t play East. West floated the idea of combining the two programs into one team, but the eastsiders essentially laughed at that offer.

Q: Any other interesting tidbits you came across in your research?
There was a strong connection between Aurora and Amos Alonzo Stagg during his early years at the University of Chicago. There were six players from 1892 to 1905 from East and West who were stars for Stagg at Chicago. This is something I had discovered since finishing the book and I plan to do more research on.

Q: Who do you root for at the annual rivalry game?
(laughs) I guess I root for West because my son played four years of football there, but I have to be honest, there are times when I am in the stands secretly rooting for East because they are the underdog at this point.

Photos courtesy of The History Press:

Above: East coach Del DuFrain with quarterback John Lacart in 1964

The first night game in the rivalry was played in 1929:

West Aurora's undefeated 1936 team featured the backfield of (L-R) John Duke, Don Stephens, Oliver Hahnenstein & Vernon Williamson:

Action unfolds during the 1953 tilt:

East on offense in 1982:


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