B y T o m D a n e h y
THE COCHISE COUNTY towns of Bisbee and Douglas sit about 20 miles apart along the Mexican border. Both grew up around the copper industry, with Bisbee built around the massive Lavender Pit mine and Douglas springing up alongside the giant copper smelter in the Sulphur Springs Valley.
Both towns were rough-and-tumble at the start of the 20th century, populated by tough men who did dirty work, lived hard and often died young. So rowdy were these towns back then that Arizona territorial officials brought in the famous Texas John Slaughter to clean them up lest the violence stand in the way of Arizona statehood.
It was against this backdrop in 1906 that Bisbee and Douglas high schools began playing football. Theodore Roosevelt was president, and while old Teddy had a well-earned reputation as a Rough Rider, he was at the time giving serious consideration to banning football in America because of its extreme violence.
Bisbee won that first game 7-6 in a bone-jarring contest that would set the tone for the more than 120 (and counting) games that would follow. It's the second-highest number of games played between two high school teams in the country.
After the first decade the series was dead even, 8-8-2. It was again tied after 20 years (17-17-2) and 30 years (26-26-6). Even the fact that they could play four ties in 10 years is remarkable.
In the early days of the rivalry, the games had a particularly violent edge to them. After the silver boom had gone bust in Tombstone and before the "modern" community of Sierra Vista was transplanted onto Ft. Huachuca, Bisbee and Douglas were the population centers of Cochise County. As sometimes happens in sports, unwarranted importance was placed on the outcome of the games. However, the rivalry was jealously guarded by both sides and the series remained alive, sometimes against powerful odds.
In 1915 the game had to be played in Bisbee because Pancho Villa was laying siege to Agua Prieta, right across the border from Douglas. The next two years Bisbee was consumed by union-busting violence which culminated in the infamous mass deportation of IWW "Wobblies" by company thugs and nominal law-enforcement personnel. Despite the turmoil, Bisbee managed to win three shutouts during that period including an 82-0 romp, by far the biggest margin the history of the rivalry.
(Amazingly, just two weeks after the 82-0 games, Bisbee could only manage an 8-0 victory in the second matchup that year.)
Football became something of a national passion in the '20s. Bisbee and Douglas settled into a home-and-home routine which saw the teams playing at one school on Armistice (now Veteran's) Day and at the other place on Thanksgiving afternoon. During the 30 or so years this format was in place, the two teams split their games more than half the time, both winning on their home fields.
One-time Bisbee football player and later coach Mike Frosco heard stories of those times. "Those Douglas guys would come up to Bisbee and the 6,000-foot altitude would get to them. But then Bisbee would go down there and the Douglas people would crank up the smelter so the sulfur fumes would settle on the town and cause breathing problems. It was really crazy."
Current Douglas High Principal Mike Foster was also a player and coach in the series. He remembers well the buildup to the game.
"It was so intense; there is no way to describe it if you haven't gone through it. Both towns would focus completely on the game that whole week, and come game time, both towns were closed down. We had crowds over 10,000 all the time.
"We had some strange things going on around the game, too. One time a Douglas guy dynamited the 'B' off 'B' Hill. It was wild."
The series was cut back to one game in the '50s. Bisbee had taken the series lead in 1941, expanded it to seven games and still held a six-game bulge in 1972.
The economic roof fell in on Bisbee in 1974 when the Pit was closed. Almost overnight the town's population was cut in half. An influx of post-Woodstock hippies chased away even more longtime residents and the football rout was on.
Coinciding with Bisbee's woes was the Golden Age of Douglas football. Ken Sawin and later Mike Foster built the Bulldogs into a perennial powerhouse. Bisbee became little more than a blip on the screen. Between 1974-82, Douglas won all nine games by a combined score of 312-40, taking the series lead.
The 1983 game was a 7-0 Douglas win in Bisbee. The captain of that Douglas team, Jesse Gutierrez, is now an engineer for Pima County. "I remember that game. We only had about 20 guys suited up. We had injuries and all kinds of problems, but we weren't going to lose to Bisbee. My Dad had played against Bisbee in the '30s; he told me that I had to win."
Jesse blocked a punt late in the game to help set up the only Bulldog score.
In 1990, a Bisbee High administrator, whose infamy shall cause him to remain nameless, unilaterally decided the series would be called off. By that time Douglas had won 18 straight, although there were several close games in the late '80s. People in Douglas were disappointed to see the rivalry end the way it did, and Bisbee loyalists hated to go out on a losing streak.
The population of Bisbee has rebounded recently and the Pumas moved up from Class 2A to 3A. Bisbee has become something of a tourist attraction these days, an artisans community which was recently featured in Rolling Stone as a "Hot Travel Spot." The football team has improved, with all those artists' kids playing ball as somewhat of a subtle "screw you" to their folks.
This year's game was hard-fought, if sloppy. After a half-hour rain delay, the home-team Pumas overcame a 10-0 deficit with two fourth-quarter touchdowns to win 13-10.
The Copper Pick returns to Bisbee for the first time since 1972. The 126-game series now stands 64-54-8 in favor of Douglas. People on both sides vow it will never be interrupted again.
Says Jesse Gutierrez: "As long as both sides can put 11 men on the field, that game should be played."
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