Allegany Radio Corporation Sports
That is usually how the great Tom O’Rourke merrily opened his broadcasts on WCBC Radio for the annual Allegany-Fort Hill Homecoming football game. That and, after setting the scene and making the proper introductions of his partners in the booth, “Happy Homecoming, everybody.”
Tom did not go to Allegany, nor did he go to Fort Hill. He was a proud graduate of LaSalle High School and had no dog in the hunt. He just loved the Allegany-Fort Hill football game (or games, given the Maryland playoffs). He loved football; he loved high school football, and, other than family, friends and life itself, Tom loved high school football in Cumberland more than anything.
The Homecoming Game, in particular, was his very favorite and when you heard “Happy Homecoming, everybody,” you could see and feel his delightful Irish smile and the twinkle in his eye, because, professionally, nothing made Tom O’Rourke happier than “Happy Homecoming, everybody …”
He was the Santa Claus of high school football in our area, and Homecoming was his jolliest day.
And why is this?
For 85 years, the schools have stood 2.7 to 4.5 miles from each other in the heart of Cumberland, Maryland — Allegany High School on the west side of town, and Fort Hill High School on the south side of town.
Their students grow up together, they go to church together and they go to dances and hang out together. They also compete against one another in every conceivable event, academic endeavor, fundraiser, contest or sport you can think of. Yet it is the football game that has brought these schools the most acclaim, the most renown, and that produces the most focus and awareness for every student, former student or future student who has walked the hallways of either school.
It is the football game, the Allegany-Fort Hill football game, that serves as the dream and the target point of every young and aspiring football player playing in the backyard with his friends. It is the football game that is the high-water mark of the year, within the schools and within the community. It is the football game, like it or not, that is the benchmark moment of every school term and every senior year that will dictate the tempo of the remainder of the year and, in some instances, follow a select number of its participants for the rest of their lives – for good, or for not so good. Trust me …
Did you beat Fort Hill? Did you beat Allegany?
Beginning in the fall of 1936, the Allegany Campers and the Fort Hill Sentinels have played each other in the final regular season football game 84 times — 38 times on Thanksgiving and, since 1974, 46 times on Homecoming, which is nothing short of a holiday in Cumberland, Allegany County and around the country for alumni who return home for the game or follow it at their homes on social media.
They have also played 10 times in the Maryland state playoffs and three times twice in the same season due to travel restrictions during World War II, for a grand total of 98 Most Important Games of All-Time, with Fort Hill winning 62 of them, including the past 15.
They have played in front of as many as 14,000 fans, with the attendance on Homecoming routinely reaching 8,500, roughly 2,400 over the seating capacity of Greenway Avenue Stadium. Many more in the overflow crowd that have lined the ring and the hills of the bowl have sat there by choice for most games.
They have played in nearly a foot of snow, the field having been cleared that morning by the community. They have played on grass, on mud, on dirt, on sand and on artificial turf.
The game is covered in depth by the local newspaper, radio and television. It has been covered by metropolitan newspapers and television, and in 2007 was the subject of a documentary by NFL Films.
The setting provides a patriotic sea of brilliant scarlet (Fort Hill) and royal blue (Allegany) as the Sentinels enter the stadium by coming down the 52 steps that descend from Fort Hill High School. It is a tradition as old as Fort Hill itself, and it is a tradition most opposing teams choose to ignore by turning their attention the other way.
The Campers, however, are unfazed, as watching Fort Hill come down the steps has become as old hat, and annoying, as watching your brother walk into the room. Allegany makes its own entrance by leaving its field house behind the opposite end zone and running through the enormous blue steel “A” at the lip of the field, with both teams exploding to their sidelines through tunnels formed by their respective schools’ marching bands.
In Cumberland, a “mixed marriage” has nothing to do with race. It is when a graduate of Allegany High marries a graduate of Fort Hill High.
The game has produced over a dozen NFL players, as well as USFL players, Arena League players and Canadian League players.
Countless Allegany and Fort Hill players have starred at major colleges, including quarterbacks in the Rose, Cotton, Orange and Sugar bowls. Fort Hill’s Greg Hare was the starting quarterback in the 1973 Rose Bowl for Ohio State University, and three years later, former Sentinel quarterback Mark Manges was featured on the Oct. 4, 1976 cover of Sports Illustrated as the quarterback for the undefeated University of Maryland Cotton Bowl team.
Eight players from Fort Hill played on Maryland’s 1953 national championship team and there were plenty more on Coach Jim Tatum’s national power Terps teams through the early and mid-1950s.
Former Allegany running back Earle (Lefty) Bruce succeeded Woody Hayes as the head football coach at Ohio State University and led the Buckeyes for nine seasons. Former Fort Hill running back Ty Johnson, after a record-setting four-year career at Maryland, is playing for the New York Jets in his third NFL season.
Depending on which side of town you live on there is only one mantra or code to live by, beginning Monday:
Beat Fort Hill!
It is a central topic of conversation and concern in Cumberland for 365 days of the year. And when it’s not being talked about, it’s being thought about and prepared for. Always.
It is a holiday; it is our holiday.
Happy Homecoming, everybody!
Mike Burke writes about sports and a lot of other stuff for Allegany Radio and Pikewood Digital. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT