BISBEE — Whether you ask a resident of Bisbee or Douglas, they all agree that the sheer volume of people that the ‘Pick Game’ attracts demonstrates its importance.
“When you’re on the field, you can’t necessarily hear the fans and the crowd, you just feel them. You just know they are there,” said Trey Rose, Douglas High School’s starting quarterback. “It’s indescribable. I wish it was something every athlete can experience.”
Three things are on the line when Bisbee and Douglas high schools meet on the football field: bragging rights, the copper pick and the pride that comes with it.
“It’s just a badge of honor between two blue-collar communities,” said Bisbee head football coach Brian Vertrees. “And I think that means a lot in blue-collar communities … because in blue-collar communities (pride is) what they have the most of.”
The two football programs met for the first time in 1906 and have played at least once a year since, with the exception of only six years. Bisbee High School Athletic Director Mike Frasco said it made sense for the two schools to square off, because they are 25 miles apart and there weren’t many high school football programs in the state at that time. Since the schools have sometimes faced each other twice in the same season, Friday marks the 150th meeting between the two teams.
Friday is also the 75th anniversary of ‘The Pick’ being awarded to the winning team in this heated rivalry.
The copper pick trophy was awarded for the first time in the fall of 1944, when the first ‘Pick Game’ was held on Nov. 11, 1944, at Warren Ballpark. The trophy is a representation of the two towns, a pick made from copper that was mined in Bisbee and smelted in Douglas. The pick is a tribute to the history of the area and the two towns when the Phelps Dodge Corp. ran Bisbee and Douglas.
Chris Dabovich Sr., now 93, was the starting left tackle in that first game under coach Waldo Dicus.
“I remember Bill Penn scoring the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter — we won that game 20-19,” Dabovich said. “I lost a few teeth ... I got hit in the mouth in a melee under the pile. I just spit ‘em out and kept playing ... we had a ballgame to win. It didn’t hurt at the time, but it sure did after we showered up.
“It was electric. There were a lot of fans — on both sides, the place was jam-packed. There were a lot of fights in the stands between the fans ... they were fighting underneath the bleachers during the game. The police were busy all afternoon.”
Because of the passion and longstanding traditions within the rivalry, the schools developed a habit of tormenting each other, whether it was through fighting or burning “B’s” (for Bisbee) and “D’s” (for Douglas) into the opposing team’s field.
“What I remember about the very first game, not being from the area or familiar with the area, I remember going down to Douglas and the head coach reminding everyone to put their helmets on when we left the field (to protect themselves from objects thrown by opposing students and fans) and when we got on the bus to leave the field, I was like, ‘Oh, so it’s like that kind of rivalry,’ ” said Bisbee Principal Darin Giltner.
The Bisbee versus Douglas matchup is the longest-running rivalry in the state, and when asked why it has lasted so long, fans of both towns say it’s because generation after generation has had a connection to it.
“Nowadays tradition is gone,” Frasco said. “This is tradition. It’s part of us. Every kid that plays in a Bisbee-Douglas game, it’s important to them.”
Most of the players participating in the game have fathers, uncles, and/or grandfathers who played in a ‘Pick’ game. Current Bisbee Puma players Dano Lopez, CJ Sherman and RJ Wright agree that while stories their families have shared impact their perspective on the game, they’ve already gotten a taste of the rivalry through Pop Warner matchups against the same players they will battle on the gridiron Friday.
“It’s our history,” said Wright, who has yet to play a high school football game against Douglas but fully understands the importance of the ‘Pick Game.’ “It’s Bisbee’s history.”
Douglas seniors Christian Estrella, John Ballesteros and Rose, the quarterback, agree with their rivals.
“When my brother — he’s older than me — when he played football, he’s the one that taught me the importance of the ‘Pick Game’ and what it meant to the Douglas people,” Ballesteros said. “I just think it’s just the tradition to keep it going, that way the kids now know what people in the past experienced and to just keep that feeling going.”
Even Vertrees and Douglas’ new head coach, Hunter Long, played and had family members play for the coveted trophy. Long was the first in his family to play football for the Douglas Bulldogs, after his dad and uncles played for Bisbee. Meanwhile, Vertrees’ was a third-generation Puma when he played for Bisbee from 2003 to 2007.
Vertrees’ grandfather played quarterback for Bisbee in 1958 and 1959 and played with Frasco, the current AD, who was then his fullback. Vertrees’ father was the Pumas’ head coach before Brian took over three years ago.
“I always heard stories and I idolized it since I was a little kid,” Vertrees said. “I can remember seeing pictures as a kid, old newspaper clippings and black-and-white photos of my grandfather. There’s one in particular he gave me (that) we have blown up really big in our coaches’ office. It was of him scoring in the south end zone on Thanksgiving Day. It was a wide shot — you can see the stands packed, him getting ready to cross the goal line — it was a great action shot and I can remember that picture I always had hanging up as a kid in my room.
“So it goes back a long time.”
And it did for Long, too.
“As a small kid, I was watching my cousins and my uncles playing for Bisbee at the time, so it’s kind of interesting,” Long said. “I was cheering for Bisbee as a small kid because all my family (went there) and so that was my earliest memory going to the Bisbee game, seeing thousands and thousands and thousands of people in the stands and just knowing the importance of it (based on) the amount of people that were present.”
But the Bulldogs’ coach said his family’s history in Bisbee didn’t give him pause when he put on his Douglas uniform.
“For me, it was completely normal for me to play for Douglas,” Long said. “I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
Despite the bitter inter-town rivalry, Ivan and Betty Huish weren’t afraid to cross city lines despite their families being from competing towns. Betty attended Bisbee High School when she met Ivan, who was a Douglas student, in 1951. The two met while Betty was with the Bisbee band at the Douglas swimming pool. Ivan told the lifeguard, who was a friend of his, that he wanted to talk to a girl who was there — that girl was Betty, of course. More than 50 years later, the couple is still happily married.
“If looks could kill, we’d be in trouble,” Ivan Huish said. “Girls would give her dirty looks when I took her to dances at Douglas, and the boys would give me dirty looks.”
But the obvious staring didn’t stop them.
“She was the most beautiful girl I saw,” Ivan said. “I told my mom, ‘I met the girl I’m going to marry.’ ”
Over the years, the off-the-field clashes have simmered down, but the dislike between the squads still lingers.
“In very simple terms, they don’t like us and we don’t like them,” Rose said. “You can only understand it if you’ve been through it.”
Competition amongst the two schools has evened out since 2010, which Long and Vertrees say makes this game even more special.
“The intensity, the passion, and it’s the kind of game that anything can happen,” Long said. “(It doesn’t) matter if we’re 4A and they are 2A, because of that rivalry; everybody comes to play that game.”
Bisbee currently holds “The Pick” after scandal surrounded the Douglas program last year and Bisbee was awarded the trophy after Douglas was forced to forfeit the game, which they had won on the field.
That outcome has put a chip on both teams’ shoulders. Douglas wants to take back what they feel is theirs and, since they’re barred from competing in the playoffs this year, Estrella says Friday’s game in Bisbee is their “Super Bowl.” Meanwhile, Bisbee’s players want to truly earn “The Pick.”
“As a competitor, we have a lot to prove this year, because last year I don’t count and I’m sure our players don’t count it,” Vertrees said. “We have it, but we have to earn it. I think that’s the mindset this year.”