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Harding reverts back to its roots tonight

October 19, 2012
By MIKE McLAIN - Tribune Chronicle (mmclain@tribtoday.com) , Underthelights

Everything old will be new again tonight when the Warren G. Harding Raiders host the Bedford Bearcats.

For one game the Raiders will be known as the Panthers, Harding's nickname prior to its consolidation with Western Reserve High School in 1990. The team will wear replica uniforms from the early 1970s, which will include black jerseys. The marching band will play the "Across the Field" Ohio State fight song instead of the current Michigan State fight song.

The throwback idea will rekindle memories in athletes from years ago that still miss the Panthers' tradition from the fight song to the drum major throwing his baton high into the air before the game to the growling Panther insignia on the helmets.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't (miss the tradition)," said Tom Sporich, who played on Harding's 1974 state championship team. "It's sad that a lot of those traditions are gone. Some of those things still run deep."

The consolidation of the two high schools created a problem that might have been solved by ending all traditions and starting with a new nickname and colors. Instead, the decision was made to close Western Reserve and house all the students in the old Harding building. West Side fans were pleased to find out that the athletic teams would be called the Raiders and gold and white - not red and white - would be the team colors.

The Panthers were suddenly extinct. Gone was all that made autumn Friday nights prior to 1990 special to fans on the East Side.

Some ex-players and fans struggled to deal with the change, with some still not on board. While the idea of the Harding Raiders seems natural today, that wasn't the case 22 years ago. As one ex-Harding player said, "It was like combining Cleveland and Pittsburgh and calling them the Cleveland Steelers."

For them, tonight's game offers an opportunity to relive some fond memories.

"It's a little different being black and gold and the Raider on everything," said former defensive back Dave Arnold, a 1985 Harding graduate and the younger brother of current football coach Steve Arnold. "I'm getting used to it because of the fact it's one school and a combination of both sides of town. Of late they're doing good things. Now it seems like one big community getting together."

The throwback night will undoubtedly strike a nostalgic chord in many fans and ex-players in attendance. Joe Carroll, a 1968 Harding graduate that went on to play at the University of Pittsburgh and briefly with the Oakland Raiders, plans to attend the game. A resident of Pittsburgh, Carroll hasn't been at many games since he graduated 44 years ago.

"It was always a privilege being the first one to break the paper hoop when running through the band," Carroll said. "It was an honor to do that.

"When I got to Pitt I remember talking to some people and telling them that when we played Massillon it was always a sellout and the radio broadcast was delayed. They said, 'You had radio for your game?' " It didn't dawn on me the kind of level that we were playing at. In certain games we had 15,000 fans and 20,000 at Massillon and more than that at the Rubber Bowl."

Sporich also talked about the privilege of wearing the Panther uniform and being treated like royalty in the community.

"People held you in high esteem if you played football," Sporich said. "When we drove to the El Rio (restaurant) on Friday night (for the pre-game meal), there would be kids playing football in the leaves yelling and waving at us. As a young kid of 17 you didn't realize how important it was until you got older. We went on a charter bus to Niles. You could walk to Niles."

The highlight of the season for the Panthers during a 22-year span from 1968-1989 was the Harding-Reserve game. The game was played on the fifth weekend of the season in the early years but later switched to the 10th week.

Whatever the week, the game grabbed the attention of the city like none other.

"I still have my old jersey," said Dan Ross, who quarterbacked the 1971 Panthers to the mythical state championship. "We still talk about it. The Raider (mascot) running across the field; that wasn't a good sight. It was a good rivalry for sure."

Plenty of memories will be made tonight. Carroll recently purchased a red throwback T-shirt with a black panther on it to remember the occasion.

"It think it's great," Dave Arnold said of the throwback idea. "It will be good to see the red and white back in the stadium and the Panther mascot and the fight song."

It's been said you can't go home again, but tonight for a few hours it will seem like 1974.

mmclain@tribtoday.com