Much of the tradition surrounding Rhinelander grew out of a mythical beast encountered in the north woods late in the 19th century. Tales became legend in those parts, and the hodag became part of local culture.
The high school and its athletic teams have worn that badge of honor proudly, but there's nothing mythical about their storied rivalry against Antigo--it's all real.
Although records are only available since 1908, football games between the communities were held off and on from 1895 through 1921.
That's when the Hodags and Red Robins started hooking up regularly, and then in 1935 the series took on added significance as the combatants began playing for the Gene Shepard's Bell Trophy, as if they didn't have enough incentive already.
Named for the man who "discovered" the hideous creature and the bell he donated from his steamboat called the U.S.S. Hodag, the foes have played for the traveling prize ever since, with the initial contest ending in a 19-13 Rhinelander victory in front of 3,000 spectators.
They renew that annual grudge match tonight at Schofield Stadium in Antigo as the Red Robins try to increase their 44-27-2 advantage. That includes a 31-14 triumph last season as they gladly ruined the Hodags' homecoming festivities at Mike Webster Stadium, named for the late Pittsburgh Steelers great, NFL Hall of Famer and Rhinelander alumnus.
It was also the last one in which both schools represented the Wisconsin Valley Conference. That's because Antigo is a charter member of the Great Northern, but that won't diminish anything about the battle for the bell, something folks on both sides of the tussle emphasize.
"It's always been a great rivalry and a tremendous deal for the players, coaches, schools and communities," Bill Makris said. "We never talked about it with the kids because they knew all about the history and didn't need to be motivated."
Makris knows of what he speaks. His father, James, and uncle, George, suited up for Rhinelander in the late 1930s—the latter then lettered at the University of Wisconsin and was drafted by but didn't play for the Green Bay Packers. Makris donned the Kelly green and white in the late 1960s, while his sons became the third generation of Hodags. He served as an assistant coach for 10 years and was the head man from 1993-99.
"I have a lot of friends in Antigo, and Gordy's son, Greg, and I are great friends," Makris said. "We won four of the seven games while I was head coach, but it was a very tough series. I remember back when I was a freshman and we were on the bus leaving Antigo and they were throwing rocks, potatoes and everything else at us."
Just another example of the rivalry's intensity, something that the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer Schofield saw firsthand while patrolling the Antigo sidelines from 1962-87, winning three state championships after the WIAA playoff system was adopted in '76.
"Our competition for the (conference) championship was usually somebody else, especially D.C. Everest, so for a lot of years this rivalry meant more for Rhinelander to beat us to get the bell," Schofield said. "The cities are about the same size and they're not that far apart, and having the traveling trophy has added to the tradition. It's been a big rivalry, and generally the teams showed good sportsmanship."
For the most part, things haven't gotten out of hand, although Marcus Wiegert said the tomfoolery has included painting of "foreign" property, throwing golf balls at vehicles and tearing down snow fence.
"It's a fierce battle, not just for the players but for the fans," said Wiegert, who played in the series and graduated from AHS in 2004. "In the late '90s or early 2000s, Antigo was up at Rhinelander and the Antigo mascot trotted over to the Rhinelander student section to mock them. Rhinelander students jumped out of the crowd and ripped off his Red Robin face."
Such is life when it comes to the battle for the bell.