|Union celebrates with the Dutchman Shoes after a 2018 win at RPI.
Union athletics photo
By Joe Sager
New York’s oldest college football rivalry resumes on Saturday when Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute visits Union.
That series began in 1886. Since 1950, however, it’s involved one of the most unique trophies in the country – the Dutchman Shoes. Conceived in a nod to the heritage of the Union Dutchmen and the RPI Engineers, it consists of two wooden clogs mounted on a pedestal. The right clog is labeled with an “R” for Rensselaer, the left clog with a “U” for Union.
A little more even
While the schools can't agree on all of the early results, everyone can agree that Union dominated the early years of the rivalry. However, RPI won five in a row from 2013 to 2017 and has won 13 of the past 22.
Sound crazy? To those involved, the trophy is a thing of beauty.
“This game is huge to me. I’ve learned, in my four years of being on the team, there is such a rich history behind the Shoes game. It’s undoubtedly the biggest game of the regular season,” Union senior linebacker Evan Gilland said. “Everything we have worked for in the offseason has led to this week. We’ve put in so much blood, sweat and tears, but you feel energized competing for those Shoes again. In practice, you constantly hear people screaming, ‘Shoes!’ The energy is just taken to an entirely different level.”
“It’s super-exciting. Even in my recruiting trips, all people talked about was this game,” RPI senior linebacker John Sadak said. “It’s the one game that all of the alumni and pretty much everybody who has gone to the games in the past will come back for. It’s such a special game and there are a lot of emotions. Having that trophy on the line is awesome. It’s funny – when we get the alumni to come in and they talk about their experiences, it’s all the same thing. Everyone wants to beat Union.”
The meeting is the 117th between the two teams and the rivalry is so intense that both sides can’t even agree on an overall record. Union lists its record as 82-30-4 against the Engineers, but RPI claims a 31-81-4 all-time record against the Dutchmen. Union indicates a 4-0 win in 1886, while RPI has it listed as an 11-4 decision in its favor. In addition, RPI shows a 5-4 win in 1888, while Union has no record of that game. The Dutchmen claim to have won two games in 1901, but the Engineers’ records show just one game `— an 18-0 Union win.
“It ranks up there with being one of the great rivalries in college sports,” Union coach Jeff Behrman said. “To be able to play in such a storied game is one of the honors and privileges of playing at a place like Union and RPI.”
Also, the game brings about apparent supernatural powers.
“Guys who are banged up or injured, they magically heal so they can play in that big game,” Isernia said.
Overall, the rivalry isn’t limited to just the people on the field.
“Our alums, who may not have a chance to come back to a number of games or, if they live a good distance away, they are looking at come back for Homecoming or the Shoes game. They’ll often go with the Shoes game,” RPI coach Ralph Isernia said. “It’s just one of those special games for both schools. It’s a game you remember for your entire life.”
What heightens the stakes is that, often, RPI and Union are playing for much more than pride. Just look at last year, when the Engineers had their perfect regular season blemished with a 34-10 setback to the Dutchmen. They still captured the Liberty League title and advanced to the national tournament. They fell to Johns Hopkins in the NCAA semifinals.
The script is flipped this year. Union enters the game unbeaten (9-0) with the Liberty League title and a playoff spot secured.
“Records are just a set of numbers. They don’t matter; it’s the Shoes game,” Gilland said. “We really want to bring the energy and make sure we are able to hold onto the Shoes. All eyes are on those Shoes and nothing else.”
Meanwhile, RPI (6-3) is playing for more than pride. A win could vault the team into a bowl game.
“They played spoiler to our undefeated regular season and we’re trying to do the same thing this year,” Sadak said. “Ever since we lost to St. Lawrence (on Oct. 26) and we knew we were out of playoff contention, the goal was to go undefeated the rest of the season, win the Shoes and play some bonus ball. It’s really important for the seniors to get the win. We want to play another game of football after this week.”
The Engineers are brimming with confidence after blasting Ithaca, 38-12, last week, too.
|RPI enjoyed a celebration on Union's field in 2013, and got to hold the Shoes for four more years after that as well.
RPI athletics file photo
“You want to be playing well at the end of the season, whether you’re playing for a trophy, a bowl game or playoffs – you want to be finishing on a high note,” Isernia said. “Last week’s game, I thought we played well in all three phases and put some things together. Our guys are coming into this one on a high note.”
Both teams sport two of the Liberty League’s better rushing offenses. Containing the Dutchmen will be a challenge for RPI.
“They have a really talented running back and wide receiver and a quarterback who makes good decisions and a solid offensive line,” Sadak said. “We have a lot to work through. Our main focus has to be on stopping the run and making them throw the ball against us.”
Likewise, Union know it must step up to contain the Engineers.
“This team is a really good team,” Gilland said. “They run the ball a lot, but we know RPI is creative and has a solid group of athletes, so we have to watch out for some things and do everything we can to combat them. Where we are right now is good, but we still have much more to achieve as a team. We’re still hungry.”
And, don’t think the Dutchmen would consider resting anyone for next week’s playoff game.
“We’re not holding anyone back. We want to win this game. It’s too important to the college and to our alumni,” Behrman said. “We can’t look past Saturday. We have to focus on this game.”