RHINELANDER/ANTIGO - One of the biggest football rivalries in Wisconsin will be renewed Friday.
Rhinelander will host Antigo in the 81st playing of the historic Bell Game.
"The Bell Game was always more than a rivalry," says former Rhinelander Athletic Director and Antigo player Charlie LaHam.
You'd be hard pressed to find a coach or player in northern Wisconsin who doesn't know about the storied Bell Game rivalry.
Gene Shepard, the man behind the Hodag legend, donated a bell from his ship as a traveling trophy for the winner of the rivalry.
The Hodags and the Red Robins have been playing for that bell since they were original members of the Wisconsin Valley Conference in 1935.
"I was watching my niece, who plays volleyball for Antigo, and while we were in Rhinelander's gym, Antigo's student section started cheering at us, during the midst of a volleyball game, 'We got the bell. We got the bell,'" says current Rhinelander coach and former Antigo player Gary Zarda. "So that brought it home to me how important this game is."
Since the start, Antigo leads the 80 year history of the game with a 51-27-2 record.
That includes a significant streak in the 1960's and 70's when Antigo won 12 straight.
"It was a terrible, terrible feeling to think that Rhinelander would ring that bell on our field, and it felt the same when I was up here coaching," says LaHam.
Back then, players took losses a lot harder.
"I remember having potatoes thrown at bus as we left town," says LaHam. "I don't know what our fan base did to here. And I know that there were people who tried to steal the bell from the schools. You know, little pranks. One year, not all that long ago, but while my nephew was playing, they came up here and fertilized our football field and burned part of it."
For all the bad blood, it might not be what's different about the schools that fuels the fire.
"I think high school players are high school players, and that's one of the things, I think, makes the rivalry special," says Zarda. "We're two very similar towns, two very similar student bodies, and I think that that contributes to the rivalry rather than there having to be some sort of difference."
That's why, 80 years later, the candle still holds a flame.
"This is a game that means a ton to them," says Zarda. "It's a game that they literally feel in their bones, and we hope that they get the pay off after all of that hard work."
It's also why you'll see the Red Robins and Hodags trying to ring the bell for years to come.
"I think, just the fact that this has gone on for so long, that people are pretty proud of the rivalry, actually, on both sides," says LaHam.
Rhinelander will try to end their eight year Bell drought Friday at Mike Webster Stadium.