Across the country, football rivalries are reaching their peak. And none are more intense than the one about to be played out before some 10,000 fans at Pratt Field in Amherst, Mass.
Amherst and Williams will face one another for the 125th time this Saturday. It is the fourth-longest-running rivalry in the country and doesn’t take a backseat to any game you’ll find in Ann Arbor or South Bend.
How serious is this rivalry? You’d have to go back some 190 years to the day some members of the Williams Board of Trustees decided the far west reaches of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was no place for such an august institution. They proposed moving the school some 60 miles east to the Pioneer Valley. When the state legislature turned down the proposal, then-president Zepheniah Swift Moore resigned, took a few books out of the library and founded Amherst Academy.
Williams faithful have been calling the good people of Amherst College “The Defectors” ever since. The Williams band once presented the president of Amherst College a bill for more than $1 billion to pay for the overdue book fees!
This year, Williams travels east with a 7-0 record, trying to make Aaron Kelton the first Williams coach to ever go unbeaten in his rookie year. He’s got a great football background, serving on the staffs of the Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Arizona Cardinals before spending four seasons on the staff at Columbia. Now he’s back in his native Massachusetts looking to run the table with the biggest win of his young head-coaching career.
“It’s been a great ride,” said Kelton. “The school, the players and the community have been awesome. I’ve spent my whole career preparing for this environment, so the transition wasn’t difficult at all.”
The transition has been helped by a great core of offensive players. Quarterback Pat Moffitt already owns five school throwing records and is averaging more than 294 yards per game in the air. The Ephs have outscored their opponents by a stunning 83-14 margin over the last two games. None of that will matter to Purple Cow Nation if they lose to the Lord Jeffs, but Kelton is downplaying the significance of this week.
“Our approach remains the same,” said Kelton, the first African-American head football coach in NESCAC history. “We go about our business and maintain a relaxed atmosphere. Our focus remains on what we do each and every day. Our track record is pretty good right now, so we’re maintaining a relaxed atmosphere.”
This was almost a matchup of unbeatens, before Amherst saw its 14-game winning streak snapped at Trinity last weekend. Now, the Lord Jeffs can salvage the end of that streak by winning the game that matters most to their student body and alumni — a game that was chosen by ESPN’s College Game Day back in 2007 to serve as backdrop for their weekly show.
“For our seniors, it’s always about winning the last game,” said Amherst coach E.J. Mills. “Our goals haven’t changed. We want to win the NESCAC, and the Little Three Conference (the oldest continually played football conference championship in the country featuring Wesleyan as well as the two archrivals). We’ll have a share of the NESCAC title with a win and the Little Three title. So we still feel good about the season.”
Mills, about to coach his 18th edition of The Biggest Little Game in America, knows there won’t be many good feelings around Pratt Field if the visitors win. He’s got one of the few quarterbacks with the stats to match up to Moffitt. Alex Vetras will play in this rivalry for the third time and has thrown for more than 5,000 yards in his career (an Amherst record). This is a team that scored 70 points in a win against Tufts earlier this season.
None of those numbers matter now. For these two schools, and the dozens of alumni groups gathering around the globe to watch NESN’s telecast, the only game that matters is this one.
As former Williams assistant coach Renzie Lamb would say to his players before this game each year:
“If you wish to be happy for an hour, get intoxicated. If you wish to be happy for three days, get married. If you wish to be happy for eight days, kill your pig and eat it. If you wish to be happy forever, beat Amherst.”
There might be bigger schools meeting up in rivalry games this weekend, and there might be bigger national audiences watching some of those games. But if you want to get the feel of a true rivalry, a matchup that has bloodlines going back more than a century, get out to Pratt Field this Saturday morning. Or settle in front of the game on NESN.
Kickoff is at noon.