ELKHART — Next year, after their athletic programs merge, the Central-Memorial rivalry will be a thing of the past, but tonight, Elkhart fans celebrate with one final Mangy Lion football game.

The winner of the crosstown rivalry game, the first game of the season, will be the last holder of the traveling Mangy Lion trophy – which Memorial Assistant Athletic Director Phyllis Tubbs hopes will remain on display at the new Elkhart High School, on Memorial’s existing campus, for the foreseeable future.

“Friday night will be a zoo,” she said. “Half of Elkhart, and we’re getting calls from graduates. Hopefully neither team gets too caught up in it and realizes they are there to play football.”

The Mangy Lion game has been a staple of the school district and the city since a few years after Elkhart High School was divided into Memorial and Central in 1972.

Rod Roberson, a former football player and 1977 graduate of Central High School, remembers the Mangy Lion game’s unique atmosphere.

“You couldn’t help but look across the line and look into the eyes of someone you knew and you’d played with over the summer,” he said. “They’re trying to beat you as bad as you’re trying to beat them.”

The split happened when Roberson was in seventh grade at Pierre Moran.

“Half of us went to Memorial and half of us to Central,” he said. “It was different and awkward. It wasn’t really a rivalry yet, but over the years it grew into one. Some of our best players went to Memorial and we have to face them.”

Students today experience those same feelings.

“There’s a lot of great people at Memorial,” Central senior and outside linebacker Will Branch said. “For example, Tyler Lehner, such a smart quarterback and I have nothing but respect for that guy. He’s one of my friends. I love that guy and I can’t wait to see him on Friday.” 

City historian and former city councilman Paul Thomas, a cheerleader for the original Elkhart High School, graduated in 1942. He had children who experienced the merger, some graduating before and some after from both Central and Memorial.

“I was really loyal and used to go to all the games,” he said. He remembers not being convinced the district had enough students to warrant the division with less than 500 per school.

“Our athletics programs suffered because of kids going to two different schools,” he said.

For his part, Thomas is happy that after 48 years, Elkhart Community is merging into one high school. He believes it will benefit more than just sports teams – arts, music and other opportunities will abound, he said. 

“I think down the road, maybe in five years, we may be top in band, debate, basketball, football,” he said. “I think we will be back again.”

Branch, the linebacker, agreed.

“We are both really good schools, so coming together is going to make us stronger,” Branch said. “I really think we’ll stand a chance against some of these bigger teams.”

Roberson, a candidate for mayor and, until June, the director of co-curricular activities for the district, will have a student in the last of the high school sports at Central and another in the first.

“As a parent, if the community supports it and we make sure we engage and create excellence inside and outside the program, in a few years Elkhart High School will have absolutely robust participation from these kids,” Roberson said. “We have too many kids to not treat them to the best.”

The first three years of the Mangy Lion game were won by Central, and the next three by Memorial. Then in 1981, Central began a winning streak that lasted until 1995. Elkhart Central leads the series 27-20.

Memorial’s mantra this year, “The Last Ride,” is an effort to make this year a positive one as students and staff look toward the merger in the next school year.

“The game represents tradition, history and memories,” Memorial Athletic Director and Memorial graduate Jacquie Rost said. “I have many family members who attended Memorial. It’s the end of an era, the end of a great history. This really is a symbol of this phase in Elkhart coming to an end. It’s going to be fun to celebrate this.”

The Mangy Lion trophy was created by James Holland, an art teacher at West Side Middle School in the 1970s to support the growing rivalry between the two teams. It was paid for by the Lion’s Club, supported by Warren Brenneman, and is made of a walnut stump.

It is the only one of its kind, but it’s not the only trophy passed between the two Elkhart schools. In fact, every sport played between the two rival teams has its own unique trophy. After this school year, they’ll be on display at the new building as a part of the history of Elkhart Community Schools.

Josh Shattuck is entering his third year as coach for Central and is experiencing the last of the rivalry first-hand.

“It’s about as unique of a rivalry as you’ll find. One town, two schools, same district. All up through middle school, it’s not really designated and kids aren’t really separated until high school.”

He tries to keep his players grounded, but the team knows what’s at stake – the bragging rights, the trophy.

“It’s always a big game. It’s like our Super Bowl. It’s our crosstown rivals and it’s the first game of the season,” Shattuck said. “There’s going to be people at this game who watched the first Mangy game and they’ll be watching the last one. It’s a very interesting dynamic here.”

For the kids, though, coaches and athletic directors want them to play like it’s just another game.

“We don’t want them to bear the burden for almost 50 years of history. We want them to know it’s their chance to play in this year’s Mangy game.”

Nonetheless, less significant Mangy Lion games have brought in nearly 5,500 spectators, a far cry from the estimated 2,000 attending other games of the year.

“It’s still about these kids and their experiences in high school,” Roberson said.

Next year, there won’t be a Mangy Lion football game, and this year’s will be the last, but for tonight the competition is on.

Central senior Branch and his teammates, and those he’ll be playing against at Memorial, are just excited to be playing.

“I’m just really grateful to be starting for this Mangy game,” he said. “I’ve got all these guys counting on me.”

IF YOU GO

Elkkart Memorial at Elkhart Central, 7 p.m., Rice Field

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