Poor Robert’s Ruminations with Rob Whittle: A game to remember

Poor Robert’s Ruminations with Rob Whittle: A game to remember
Rob Whittle (Courtesy Photo)

By Rob Whittle

In 2000, the movie “Remember the Titans” immortalized the 1971 T.C. Williams football team as it successfully struggled to integrate its squad and the school itself. T.C. Williams went on to win the state championship with its mix of Black and white players, led by Coach Herman Boone, played in the film by Denzel Washington. 

But T.C. Williams wasn’t the only Alexandria high school football team that provided drama during that 1971 football season. While no books or films have memorialized it, there was the clash of St. Stephen’s – now St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School – and Episcopal High School, which those who participated in or witnessed it will never forget. 

It is a story of honor, grit and determination that helped shape the lives of dozens of young men on both sides. 

Like St. Stephen’s, EHS had a long history and tradition of living under an honor code: No lying, cheating or stealing. This credo would be tested just six days before the annual tilt between the two teams. Episcopal coach Jim Seidule called a special meeting of the squad the Sunday before the game. When angry, Seidule’s face looked like the breakup of a hard winter, as Mark Twain observed of a particularly fierce Union general. And Seidule was indeed angry. 

As one player remembers it, “Coach said he’d heard that some players had broken training rules which, by rule, requires that the player be suspended for one week from the time the infraction was discovered. Coach demanded that those who’d broken training raise their hands. We all knew that if we were guilty and didn’t confess, then we were in violation of the honor code. We looked at one another in deathly silence.” 

The campuses of Episcopal and St. Stephen’s are a quarter mile from each other, which, in itself, creates a natural rivalry. That rivalry extends not only to football, but other sports, academics, college admissions and, not insignificantly, girls. 

Competition on the gridiron extended to Saturday nights on the dance floor. Many a bad feeling was created when an Episcopal student breached what St. Stephen’s boys viewed as their natural turf – the campus of the all-girls school St. Agnes. And vice-versa. One Episcopal alumnus said while Woodberry Forest is their traditional rival, St. Stephens is their “blood” rival. 

At the Sunday meeting, the deadlock was broken when the starting tackle slowly raised his hand. He was followed by a star linebacker, then a wide receiver. Before the meeting was over, 18 players had raised their hands. The next day, four more players fessed up, decimating the team by a total of 22 players, many of them starters. To compound the problem, St. Stephen’s in 1971 was ranked in the top five in the Metro area. 

That week Episcopal’s headmaster called a meeting of senior faculty and one student leader. He wanted to call the game off out of concern the players would get hurt. One faculty member disagreed and the others seemed on the fence. The headmaster finally invited the student to speak up. 

“May I speak candidly?” asked Randy. Assured that he could, he said, “Let’s play the game. We’re going to beat the s—t out of them.” 

Saturday finally rolled around. The Episcopal team had installed a new offense, inserting a safety into a guard position, a 145-pound bench warmer into a linebacker spot and on like that throughout the line-up. Fortunately for EHS, they still had their quarterback and running back. 

A St. Stephen’s alum remembers game day: “Instead of taking the bus over, the Episcopal team and its student body walked over. I can still remember the only sound was their cleats on St. Stephens Road – ‘clomp, clomp, clomp.’ Man, it was eerie.” 

Episcopal’s team proceeded to do “silent cal” wherein the players warmed up – jumping jacks, stretches, push-ups – in total silence. Silent cal was reserved only for blood rivalries. 

Game on. 

Legendary St. Stephen’s coach Sleepy Thompson’s first play was a trick tackle-eligible long pass for a touchdown. Seven-zip St. Stephen’s. An EHS player recalls saying to another, “Let’s just try to keep it close.” 

Episcopal did more than that. They stunned the crowd with a 32-20 victory. 

The rivalry has produced many stirring victories for both teams, but none more memorable in its drama than the 1971 clash of these two titans. 

The writer is CEO of Williams Whittle Advertising and is the author of two historical novels, “Pointer’s War” and “Pointer and the Russian.” He can be reached at rwhittle@williamswhittle.com.