One of the best local rivalries in small-town football took a shattering hit this week when Johnstown announced it would cancel the remainder of the varsity Sir Bills’ season, having too few players.
The announcement means there will be no non-league game with the arch-rival Huskies of Gloversville.
They last met on a cold November night before a packed crowd in 2011, the first time in years. While the frequency of their clashes had declined, the intensity of the rivalry remained, said former players and coaches. Whether the teams would have met this year depended on sectional competition and the preferences of coaches.
The matchup goes back decades and defined the season for the teams and the communities, which look at themselves as distinct despite their many similarities and common city border.
“It was more than a football game and someday we might have that rivalry back,” said Bruce Heberer, who played for the Sir Bills in 1981. He currently is chief of the Johnstown Fire Department.
“We played Gloversville because we played Gloversville. Everyone threw their records out and you came into the game like a Super Bowl,” he said. “It was the last game of the season and that is what you did. The whole last week was training to beat the Huskies.”
Their games were legendary, drawing in excess of 5,000 spectators. The community treated the players like astronauts back from a moon landing, feting them with parades, dedicating full-page newspaper advertisements to them and sponsoring banquets the night before they met. After the big game, players were paraded down Main Street while people cheered.
“It was what a small-town football rivalry was all about,” said Matt Shell, who played with the Huskies in 1987, the year the team went undefeated and was Section Three champion. He currently coaches varsity football in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake school district.
“One of our games was written up in a Texas newspaper. If you know anything about football in Texas, that is quite an honor,” he said.
Bob Wager, a 1988 Johnstown graduate living in Texas, said the end of the Sir Bills’ season shocked and saddened him. He is currently head football coach at James Martin High School, a Five A program, which is Texas’ largest classification.
Wager said football shaped his early life and is now the main focus of his career. “My strongest memories from third grade on were that all I wanted to be was a Johnstown Sir Bill,” he said. “The phenomenal experience that I had playing football for my hometown and playing with buddies who I went to school from kindergarten and up were the foundation of my entire professional career.”
He said football is more than a game and that its absence at the varsity level in Johnstown will be felt among this year’s students. “The life lessons I learned on the football field — how to be unselfish, the self-discipline and putting the team before myself — those life lessons have served me well in my adult years,” he said. “My greatest sadness is the kids will not have the opportunity. It is a heartbreaking for me.”
Bob Gould, who coached the Huskies for 29 years, retiring in 2003, called the end of the Sir Bills’ season disappointing. “Hopefully, it is a temporary thing and it will be full-blown next year.” He called the battle between the two teams huge.
His wife, Gladys, said, “It was just the biggest deal of the season. That is what you waited for. You could lose all the games, but as long as you beat Johnstown, that was the game that mattered.”
Said Wager: “You lived 364 days for that one night, knowing you were playing before a packed house. You were fighting for the pride of your town, you were fighting for your uncle, your brother, for the people who wore the uniform before you.”
When he comes to visit the area, he said he spends about five minutes talking about family and three hours talking about the Johnstown-Gloversville game.
The matches were highly competitive until the early 2000s and the introduction of sectional competition. That was when Gloversville, the larger school, joined the Class A league and Johnstown became a Class B school. When they would meet thereafter, Gloversville tended to dominate, once winning 50-0.
Despite the infrequency of match-ups, Gould said, the rivalry never ended between the two schools. “They just do not have the opportunity to play each other any more,” except in crossover competitions.
Heberer, who coaches junior varsity football at Johnstown High School, said the Sir Bills wanted to play the Huskies last year, even knowing they would likely lose. “It was packed and it was a cold night. There was snow on the ground,” he said.
Wager remembers those days well. “We did not care about their record, we did not care if we were undermanned or outsized. We didn’t care. We went across town and got ready for a 48-minute fight and you played to win. You played for something greater than yourself,” he said.
Heberer said the Sir Bills varsity program will likely be back next year. “The program will revive itself,” he said. “We have some great kids in the program right now. We have 27 kids on JV level and 13-15 juniors on varsity and we have over 40 kids in the modified program.”
He said this year, 24 students signed up to play varsity and only 19 showed up. The state requires 16 students on a team, and the team was down to 13 due to injuries when the announcement was made that the season was over.