“Off the field, the athletes are buddies. They attend the same churches, fish the same lakes, and hunt the same woods. On the field or court a switch is flipped.”
— Paul Gregerson, BunkhouseStudios.com
BY PAUL GREGERSON / June 2008
I don’t think world-renowned psychologist Charles Cooley was from a small town in Northern Minnesota, but he could have used the Polar League rivalry of the Barnum Bombers and the Moose Lake-Willow River Rebels as a case study.
Cooley once wrote, “The general fact is that the most effective way of utilizing human energy is through an organized rivalry, which by specialization and social control is, at the same time, organized cooperation.”
When I moved to Moose Lake – four miles of Carlton County Highway 61 separates the communities – I was amazed by the intensity and complexity of their rivalry.
I’ve come to know many of the Rebel and Bomber athletes since, and I’m still confused and amazed by the whole ordeal.
Off the field, the athletes are buddies. They attend the same churches, fish the same lakes, and hunt the same woods.
On the field or court a switch is flipped, like a trigger similar to the one that turned Bill Bixby into Lou Ferrigno, minus the green makeup and cheesy ’70s catch phrases. They cebome fierce competitors who are ready to tear each other from limb to limb. They love to hate each other.
But once the final out is made or the buzzer blows, the switch is flipped back. Again, they are their mild-mannered selves, but like Bixby, the shirts might be ripped off their backs.
The transformation is most certainly “Incredible.”
It’s not uncomon to drive the streets of Moose Lake and see the remnants of spray paint that have been scrubbed off a building. I can faintly see the word “Bombers” on the worn brick. I often wonder during which sports season years ago the graffiti artist felt inclined to sneak over in the dark to do the dirty work on behalf of his school pride.
The reason for the fierce competition? . . . the parents and grandparents, elder statesmen of the infamous rivalry. From a young age, the young Bombers and Rebels are taught to respect, fear, and dominate the other side.
The competition and history between the two teams is almost romanticized like a classic novel. The story could be called A Tale of Two Cities, War and Peace, or at times, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.
On the field, though things may get heated, the players are usually able to keep it civil. In the stands it’s another story. The elder statesmen and fans are at each other’s throats like the Hatfields and McCoys.
The cops may be called as teenagers arrange to take care of business after the game in the parking lot.
Fathers who live vicariously, in an unhealthy way, through their young athletes, yell and scream in hopes that the results of the game will be different than theirs were years ago back in their hay day. If not, there is always next year.
Refs and umps are dished obscenities and insults faster than pancakes at Art’s, Lou’s, or Peggy Sue’s Cafe. The losing team’s fans usually accuse the officials of calling the game crooked. The winning team accuses the other side’s fans of blowing everything out of proportion. It doesn’t matter who wins or loses for this to occur.
But no matter what happens between whistles or innings, after the game the athletes manage to greet each other on the sidelines with smiles and handshakes, acting more grown-up than the adults in the bleachers.
No hard feelings, no bad blood, just pats on the backs.
Like Cody wrote, their rivalry is “organized cooperation.” By competing with such heart and soul, they force their respective teams to become better.
Not only are they better teams because of the rivalry, they are drawn closer and are better friends because of it. Because no matter who wins or loses, they’ve got each other’s backs. No matter what their jerseys say on the front.
Last winter the Rebels beat the Esko Eskomos in three overtimes to win a share of the boys basketball Polar League title. The game, in typical Eskomo/Rebels fashion was intense and down to the wire. Rebel fans went wild as time ran out and the buzzer blared. The Esko gymnasium had Rebels fans rushing to the floor to congratulate the visiting champions.
The loudest group cheering wasn’t parents, classmates, or teachers of the Rebels. It was a group of guys sitting in the front two rows toward one end of the court. They were just as proud to see the Rebels win.
It was the Barnum boys basketball team; proud to see their buddies come out on top.