For the head coach of Stephen F. Austin, the feeling that our friendly rivalry had wandered off-course could not slip his mind. Maybe it was the fans’ choice of four letter words. Perhaps it was the bizarre one-fingered hand signals radiating from students unacquainted with sign language. Likely, though, it was the blow to the head he received from a Bearkat football player while frantically trying to stop the fight on Homer Bryce Stadium’s field.
The 2004 SHSU vs. SFA game will sadly be remembered as the day both benches emptied to reenact a rather refined bar brawl. One player even managed to immerge unscathed from the battle, only to grasp a wooden axe and sling it like Braveheart into the field. That October’s game became one more display of a dirty rivalry extending as far back as 1923. While 2004 involved a clash, the rivalry in the 60’s involved a cage.
“One of our guys was up at SFA for something like a prank and they caught him,” explained Ferol Robinson, a retired SHSU faculty member and former head of the journalism department.
The Lumberjacks took their time with their trophy catch, shaved his head and literally shipped him by railway express to Huntsville while perched in a cage. The young Bearkat was delivered as instructed to the SHSU flagpole where he was released back into the college wildlife.
“That stirred up the rivalry again,” Robinson recalled.
Robinson’s SHSU career between 1939 and 1982 presented multiple situations in which Bearkats and Lumberjacks were at each other’s throats. When recruiting students in the 1950’s, the former faculty member played an involuntary role in one such incident when he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“One time they caught some of our boys in a dorm at Nacogdoches and they had turned on the fire hose,” said Robinson. “There was quite a bit of damage.”
Lady Luck didn’t smile on Robinson when he ventured the next day onto the SFA campus to recruit students. Completely oblivious to the previous day’s prank, he was baffled why a small platoon of angry Lumberjacks concluded that it was Robinson’s day to meet his maker. At the first yells of ‘HEY, THEY’RE BACK!,’ Robinson took a u-turn back to his car.
“I didn’t linger long.”
Throughout the 50’s, SHSU students and faculty couldn’t hear themselves think at basketball games due to SFA students whacking the floor with axe handles. During the 60’s and 70’s, graffiti pranks grew to such an extent that both campuses passed a Student Senate act banning the prank. Yet the year a group of Bearkat football players stole a Nacogdoches city limits sign ignited a chain reaction leading to sweet vengeance from our friends at Nac-a-nowhere.
“During the 70’s or 80’s, we played a football game at SFA and some of our guys pulled the Nacogdoches City limits sign up and marched around the stadium during halftime with it,” said Robinson. “It wasn’t received with open arms.”
During the rivals’ basketball game a few months later, a suspicious group of SFA football players huddled in the back of the stadium. Tension filled the air as common sense indicated that toting around Nacogdoches sign might have lacked intelligence. When halftime finally arrived, the SFA football boys sprang onto the court and fed Sam’s finest a happy helping of right and left hooks. In a panic, the head of the band conducted the National Anthem to extinguish the chaos.
“Everybody stopped and stood at attention with their arms down,” said Robinson. “But for one SFA guy, the opportunity was too much and he ran up and popped some guy in the face.”
With students and football players wailing at each other like piatas, the band conductor frantically played the Bearkat fight song. The fans, now filled with a fiery pride, evacuated their seats to go punch someone. Dr. Ty Cashion from the department of history finds that our schools’ similarities are the real culprit for what is actually a standard and friendly rivalry.
“When you think about it, we compete for many of the same students, we are the same size schools; really, it’s kind of like a sibling rivalry in many ways,” said Cashion.
During the early 80’s, our sibling rivalry joined our two establishments at Pritchet Field before Bowers Stadium was developed. On a wet, muddy and grey November afternoon, Kooter Robertson from KSHU radio watched Sam and SFA go head to head, at least until halftime. The two universities then resumed their theories of thinking with their fists.
“Oh man, it was like both benches emptied and people came out of the stands. No one really hurt each other because they were wearing football pads and slipping around in the mud. The officials finally just gave up trying to break it up and the coaches had to do it,” said Robertson.
Robertson acknowledges, though, that he’s very interested to make sure the rivalry continues. He has even participated in it himself.
“There was a year we went over there and, with a couple minutes to go, they punted to us and we took it all the way back for a touchdown,” Robertson laughed. “That’s the first time I remember Sam Houston players and fans, and I was included, going down to the field and smoking victory cigars while standing on the SFA logo on the field.”
The cages, cigars, fights and missing mascots still don’t compare to our SGA, in all their wisdom, passing a senate bill declaring war against a befuddled SFA in 2004. Only a year earlier, two Sam Houston students were taken to the Nacogdoches County Jail with criminal charges for vandalizing SFA’s campus. The university returned the favor in 2005 by spreading 30 feminine products across the softball complex. “SFA” was spray painted in purple, red and white behind home plate at the baseball field.
Finally in 2005, both universities merged to heal several hard feelings against each other. For the first time in a near 80-year rivalry, the two establishments combined their efforts to develop a resolution prompting better sportsmanship from both colleges. Specifically, it was an attempt to bring a truce to the war.
With the help of the Student Government Associations of both universities, the two very related colleges may discover a few years without speed bumps in relations. If not, the great universities of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin may forever pummel anything with a pulse on the 50-yard line.