“We are apart of history, it seems like we have broken a curse,” said third-year Cornerback Noah Humphrey. “Now we can start a legacy that should have been done a few years [ago], it’s been something that has been waiting all this long and now the beast is out.”
On Oct. 6, The Whittier College Football Team earned their first win in over three years, since the 2014-15 season, against Occidental College by a score of 28-13.
One of the largest rivalry game west of the Mississippi in Division III is the annual Battle for the Shoes. Over 100 years of competitive play, this rivalry between Occidental College and Whittier College was established back in the 1940s, when All-American running back for the Poets, Myron Claxton, had his cleats stolen from his locker room just before a match up against Occidental. Stolen by a few members of the Occidental’s Football Team, his shoes were held captive on the Tigers’ sideline, forcing Claxton to perform in his work boots. It did not matter the footwear Claxton had on. Despite his shoes being stolen the Poets managed to finish the game with a 36 - 0 victory. Claxton walked to the Tigers’ sideline and grabbed his shoes, claiming he was “Bringing [the shoes] home.”
Several years later, members of the Orthogonian Society, which Claxton was a member of, had his shoes bronzed and the historical battle for those shoes began. “When I went to school here , we used to have pep-rallies before football games on Friday night,” said Assistant Athletic Director for Communications Lance Franey. “There’s been bad things. They were burning a tiger for one of the pep-rallies we had. [Occidental] would color the “W” in with tiger stripes – even change the wording where it said Penns‘ [near the field]. It used to always go back and forth.” As of now, the advantage goes Occidental — they hold a one-game edge in the trophy game, 38 – 36 record, and lead 57 – 51 in the overall matchup.
Last season, Occidental College had cancelled their season due a to low number of players on their football roster and not meeting National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) regulations for their equipment. “Last year’s game cancellation was certainly disappointing. Obviously, we not only lost one of our few guaranteed opportunities to play a football game, but also lost the opportunity to play for The Shoes, Homecoming, and send our seniors out with their final game at Memorial Stadium,” said Head Coach Mike Neale. “While all of that was something that we were disappointed with last season, we were focused on the opportunity that we had in front of us this season.”
Cancelling the final home game in the 2017 – 18 season did not sit well with some of the players, “They decided to fold the week they played us. It definitely left a sour taste in our mouths,” said fourth-year Free Safety Andrew Rosales. “This rivalry is special to me because it’s bigger than just this team. [It] means something to Poets going back decades. Knowing the history and tradition, We did not want to disappoint.”
‘Tradition’ is a word consistently used when describing these two teams. Tradition runs deep, whether it is with family or in sports. A few of the Poet players kept their football tradition by bleaching their hair as a representation for the rivalry game. “It shows unity,” said Jackson Jr. “My [first] year, I saw a picture of the team a year before me when they won The Shoes, and there were so many guys with bleached hair,” said Rosales. “I asked an upperclassmen why. He said it’s tradition, and I never questioned it.”
Saturday’s game at Jack Kemp Stadium at Occidental College marked the beginning of a new chapter in this rivalry as Tiger players lined up against the Poets. The Whittier College Football Team was coming off a loss against the University of Chapman, 54 – 14. “It was a tough loss, but it made us really think about who we are and what we are going to turn this program into,” said Humphrey. “I want more than 30 minutes. I want the full 60 of being hungry, being competitive, and not [letting] up. We feel like we can be a threat in league.”
Whittier’s Football Team had heard the comments and jokes about them. Playing with a chip on their shoulder, they took advantage of their rivals to rewrite the narrative after consecutive losing seasons. “We never let [losing] define who we are as a team. We used the losing streak as motivation,” said Rosales.
With the motivation from the cancellation of the final home game last season, Whittier came out hot scoring in the first two quarters to lead 14 – 0. The Tigers came roaring back into the game, scoring during the closing minutes of the second-quarter. After a failed extra point kick, Poets held a one-point lead as they began their first offensive series in the third. First-year Running Back Alex Retana rushed for two three-yard touchdowns in the third and fourth quarter to give Whittier the lead, and second-year Wide Receiver Miguel Gonzalez played on defense and would come down with an interception to seal the win for Whittier College.
As the game clock hit zero across the scoreboard, Whittier prevailed and brought home Myron Claxton’s shoes to their rightful school. “It was an amazing feeling to earn a win on Saturday,” said third-year Free Safety Sean Hamilton. “We’ve worked so hard each week and faced a lot of adversity. The team had a lot of energy and our offense, defense, and special teams all came together to play team football.” A huge weight was lifted off this team’s shoulders — being given The Shoes was more than rewarding. “It was very emotional for me as well as my other [fourth-year] brothers. To finally win a game gave us a feeling I can’t even explain,” said Rosales.
“F.A.M.I.L.Y, Forget About Me. I Love You,” is the slogan for Head Coach Mike Neale and his players this year. This means putting all egos and personal accolades aside, and focus on your teammates that are to your left and right side. “We have the people now. We have the environment in order for these players to grow and be a great force in SCIAC (Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference),” said Humphrey. “Players stepped up and balled out. Everyone rose to the occasion, and we definitely showed that this meant more to us than it did to them,” said Rosales.
Let us see if this winning streak can continue on Oct. 13 at 5 p.m. for the annual Homecoming game at Memorial Stadium. Poets have a date with the University of La Verne, as they try to ride the momentum of their victory to play in front of alumni and their home crowd. “The victory against Occidental was the reward for a great week of preparation, and total commitment from every man in our program last week. We were able to gain the valuable experience of leading a game for all four quarters,” said Neale. “We had a great start, great finish, and tremendous effort in between. We will use the experience gained from our win last week to help us continue to grow this week as we prepare for La Verne.”