Arlington has many historic ties with Alexandria, but perhaps most visceral for those of the right age is the decades-long football rivalry between Washington-Lee High School and its former Alexandria counterpart, George Washington High.
On Nov. 18, I looked in on a reunion of players and fans of the Old Oaken Bucket Thanksgiving Day gridiron match, which drew thousands to the bleachers annually from 1935-68.
“It was the rivalry that put Northern Virginia high school football on the map,” I was told by reunion co-organizer Greg Paspatis, a labor-of-love sports historian who, at 54, was easily the youngest in the crowd of 100 that included a pair of Arlington sports celebrities.
Lining the walls of the Alexandria’s Old Dominion Boat Club during reminiscences by a panel were displays of school jackets and sepia team photos from the “leather helmet, no-facemask era,” as characterized by GW alum Dave Beach. He was Most Valuable Player as a fullback and linebacker for the Presidents (which headline writers shortened to “Prexies”) in the early 1950s.
(Games between the two high schools actually began in the 1920s, before giving way to the Thanksgiving Day extravaganza that ended in the late ‘60s because of new regional playoffs and GW’s eventual conversion to a middle school.)
Former Alexandria Mayor Patsy Ticer, a cheerleader for GW in the early ‘50s, teared up while recalling the importance to the community of the Old Oaken Bucket, which often drew 10,000-12,000 spectators.
Making a rare appearance was Reggie Harrison, W-L ’69, the onetime Pittsburgh Steelers running back who was a hero in the 1976 Superbowl. He humbly recounted his six touchdowns in the 1968 turkey-day game that the Generals won 46-6.
But the clear highlight of the Old Oaken Bucket reunion was revisiting the feat of Wayne Ballard in the 1956 contest, which Washington Post sportswriter Tom Boswell called the most memorable school game in Northern Virginia history.
On that freezing Thursday in Eisenhower-era Alexandria, undefeated W-L found itself tied with the Prexies 0-0, with two seconds to play. Quarterback Wayne Ballard, who at the reunion spoke from the audience, attempted a 43-yard field goal with the wind at 30 mph. Radio audio and video of what happened next drew groans from many in last month’s crowd as they relived their shock.
The ball Ballard kicked hit the crossbar, bounced up and finally fell to the opposite side. That gave W-L a 3-0 victory, along with the county, regional and state championships (as well as an end to GW’s recent-year victory streak in the series). One GW back who had stood near the goalposts for the field goal recalled wanting to swat the ball back.
Ballard would see his photo in Sports Illustrated, go on to play at the University of Virginia and then sell insurance in Arlington. (Retired, he still attends W-L games.) One GW alum recalled the time in later life Ballard called him on business and began, “You probably don’t remember me.” The GW alum cut him off: “Oh, yes I do.”
Thanks to Alexandrian Joe Adamoli, I got a copy of the rare video of that game, and readers can hear audio on YouTube.
Over the three decades, the Arlington boys won 21 Old Oaken Buckets, versus 12 for Alexandria, with three ties. The ties between the two hometowns live on.
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On a smaller scale is a recent milestone in my own Arlington youth football career. Nov. 27 marked the 50th anniversary of the First Annual Toy Bowl, held at W-L’s War Memorial Stadium in 1964.
In a charity event for underprivileged youth, my 85-pound Tops Cubs teammates and I joined with 75-pound Arlington All-Stars to take on visiting counterparts from Bessemer, Ala. The two games were filmed before a crowd of thousands with pro-sportscaster Nat Allbright doing the play-by-play. Just months ago, a friend presented me with the original Toy Bowl printed program, which includes complete team rosters and photos. A recovered thrill.