Williams-Amherst Preview: Why ‘The Biggest Little Game In America’ Matters

Williams AmherstEditor’s note: NESN.com assistant content producer Darren Hartwell played wide receiver for Williams from 2009 to 2013, compiling 1,813 receiving yards and 21 receiving touchdowns in that span. The Ephs were 1-3 against Amherst during his college career.

If you tune to NESN at 4 p.m. Saturday, you might have a few questions. Why is a Division III football game on TV, and why should I care? And what the heck is an Eph?

First, the facts: Williams and Amherst, two tiny liberal arts colleges separated by the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, have squared off on the gridiron since 1884. Dubbed “The Biggest Little Game in America,” it’s the most-played rivalry in D-III and the fourth-most played in all of college football (Williams leads the series 71-52-5).

The game is 17 years older than Red Sox-Yankees, has been played 19 more times than Ohio State-Michigan and was the first D-III contest featured on ESPN’s “College GameDay” in 2007.

I knew all this when upon arriving at Williams as a freshman in 2009. At least I thought I did until the day before my first Williams-Amherst game.

A former Eph (for the record, the name is an homage to the school’s founder, Ephraim Williams) addressed our team after practice. An ex-member of a U.S. military special operations team, he had led a rigorous life. So what carried him through? The friendship and trust he developed with his teammates at Williams, solidified by a win over Amherst in his final season.

I wasn’t quite sold at first. But as I watched my teammates walk off the field the next day with tears in their eyes after a heartbreaking 26-21 loss, it hit me. This was more than just another game.

For the seniors, it was their final chance to play a sport they had known their whole lives, as Williams players rarely went on to professional football careers. For everyone else, it was the opportunity to stake their claim on a historic rivalry, one that transcended the game of football and dated to 1821, when Williams president Zephaniah Swift Moore skipped town and founded Amherst College some 60 miles away.

Sure, there are plenty of bigger rivalries out there. No HBO documentaries have been made about Williams-Amherst, and the Purple People Feeders don’t hold a candle to an SEC tailgate (sorry, Mom).

But ask anyone who has ever been an Eph or Lord Jeff — New England Patriots president Jonathan Kraft (Williams ’86) and Red Sox vice president and general manager Ben Cherington (Amherst ’96) are a couple — and they’ll tell you the same thing: It doesn’t get any better than Williams-Amherst.

“No matter where I am on Nov. 8, I’ll be watching,” a Marine Corps officer and former teammate recently told me as he awaited his orders, unsure of what his future held.

So when you tune in for opening kickoff — the Ephs are underdogs on paper, but all bets are off when it comes to this rivalry — don’t be thrown off by the odd purple uniforms or the purple cow dancing on the sidelines.

This game is for real.

It was in 1884, when Williams beat Amherst 15-2, and it remains so 130 years later, when 75 players on each sideline will square off in the biggest game of their lives.

Until next year, that is.

Photo via Hartwell Event Photography @2012

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