Illinois bicentennial: A storied high school football rivalry continues

Decades ago, football games between Arcola and Tuscola traditionally were played on Thanksgiving Day. This cartoon appeared in a 1931 Tuscola yearbook.
Decades ago, football games between Arcola and Tuscola traditionally were played on Thanksgiving Day. This cartoon appeared in a 1931 Tuscola yearbook.

• Editor’s note: The Illinois bicentennial series is brought to you by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the bicentennial Dec. 3. Stories published up to this date can be found at

At the end of 2016-17 school year, there only were four schools in Illinois that had won more than 700 football games in their team’s history. And two of them are small-school rivals 8 miles apart.

Tuscola, with a population of 4,391, and Arcola, population 2,864, have been battling it out on the gridiron since the 1890s. At times, including present day, their conferences have kept them apart, but the “Cola Wars” are set to resume Aug. 31 during the state’s bicentennial.

They narrowly missed facing off in 2017, as both teams climbed the brackets in the Class 1A state playoffs. Arcola, which has four championships, was eliminated in the first round, while Tuscola was runner-up in the final.

The Arcola Purple Riders have title bragging rights with four championships – the most recent in 2015. They also won the state title in 1978, 1985 and 1988. The Tuscola Warriors won in 2006 and 2009.

Their rivalry extends beyond athletics. Retired Circuit Judge Mike Carroll, a 1964 graduate of Tuscola High School, said the rub between the two Douglas County farm communities is as old as the county itself, which was formed in 1859 from Coles County. Local history books confirm that the first election for a county seat saw 10 times as many ballots cast as there were residents. A second election resulted in Tuscola winning.

“Arcola was bitter over the county seat vote,” Carroll said. “They never got over it.”

Both towns’ high schools started playing football in the mid-1890s. The rivalry extended to football but wasn’t created by it.

Tuscola leads the cumulative wins title, but Arcola was ahead by one at the end of the 2015-16 season. Tuscola led by one at the end of the 2016-17 season. But a couple of game scores remain in question.

In 1961, Tuscola beat Arcola, 13-9, and “the jubilant Tuscola players ran into the locker room,” Carroll said. But a referee had thrown a flag on the last play for a roughing-the-passer penalty.

“The referees had to go into the dressing rooms and inform the teams about the penalty,” he said.

The teams came back onto the field and continued the game with few fans left to watch. Arcola scored on a passing play and was declared the winner.

In another game in the 1920s, both towns believe the other forfeited.

“Arcola thinks they won it, and Tuscola thinks it won,” said Randy Rothrock, a former Arcola coach, alumnus and football historian. “Each claimed the other walked off the field first.”

The 1961 game is etched in lore as a vengeful victory for Arcola. The story is told that before the game, Tuscola students fed laxatives to several chickens and then placed them inside the Arcola school. Other pranks over the years include graffiti written on the Tuscola press box and a large “T” burned into the Arcola field with weed killer.

The hijinks were nothing compared with the earlier years, Rothrock said. The early 1900s were “pretty rough,” he said. Headlines in the local papers would explain whether fisticuffs had broken out.

“Very little slugging,” an 1897 headline read. In 1910: “No fistic exhibitions.”

The rival match traditionally was played on Thanksgiving Day.

“St. Teresa (in Decatur) was a bigger rival for us,” said Duff Hoel, a banker and a 1983 graduate of Tuscola High School, adding that he still cringes at the color purple – Arcola’s school color.

Arcola and Tuscola had resumed playing each other in 1982 after a five-year hiatus. Arcola won that year, 43-6. Then, with Hoel as quarterback, Tuscola won, 33-0. Arcola would go on to win the next seven contests. Tuscola leads the series against Arcola, 54-44, with six ties. But Hoel and Carroll agreed that the achievement is greater for Arcola because the school population is considerably smaller.

Local legends

Both the Tuscola and Arcola teams have given rise to dozens of local legends. Many of the last names in the past
100 years are the same in each community. Each town has sent one player to the NFL. Terry Miller, Arcola Class of 1964, was the first. The former high school guard, quarterback and running back played for University of Illinois and was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1968. A knee injury ended his football career a few years later.

Fred Wakefield, a 1996 Tuscola graduate, also played for
U of I, one of five Tuscolians to earn a football scholarship there. He played for the Arizona Cardinals and the Oakland Raiders.

As good as Miller and Wakefield were, Carroll and Rothrock agreed that the greatest athlete to come out of Douglas County probably was Arcola’s Robert “Popeye” Pullen. In the four years that Pullen played football for the Purple Riders, the Warriors didn’t score a point. He was a four-year standout in a club that posted a 32-1-1 record from 1934 to 1937. Pullen scored 34 touchdowns and 20 extra points.

“I asked my mom who the best football player was in the history of Tuscola and Arcola, thinking she’d say me. She said ‘Popeye Pullen.’ She didn’t even hesitate,” Carroll said.

“She said, ‘When some people hit you, you get hurt. When Popeye hit you, you got brain damage.’ I said, ‘Didn’t Dad play against Popeye?’ She said, ‘Your father was a smart man. When he saw Popeye coming, he just laid down.’ ”

Pullen didn’t get the chance to play college or pro ball. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1940 and was aboard the USS Houston when it sunk in 1942. About 700 sailors were killed. Pullen was one of 368 who managed to swim to shore. He was sent to a prisoner of war camp in Burma, where he reportedly refused medication for a minor leg injury because he thought other prisoners needed it more. He died in the camp Aug. 31, 1943, of blood poisoning.

A hand in the NFL

Arcola lays claim to helping the NFL get started – through a game that never was played.

It was common in the early 1900s for communities to have adult football teams. In 1919, Arcola’s community team had been defeated by the Decatur Staleys, which was sponsored by A.E. Staley Manufacturing, now Staley Continental, which processes corn and soybeans.

The Arcola team plotted its revenge by hiring Dutch
Sternaman, a star quarterback for U of I, who recruited top college players throughout the Midwest.

Staley learned of the plan and bowed out of the game. He then asked Sternaman and his pal, George Halas, to recruit players for the Decatur team.

Halas bought the Staleys and moved the team to Chicago. A year later, he changed the name to the Chicago Bears, which was instrumental in the formation of the NFL.

Arcola and Tuscola are economic competitors, as well, with Tuscola advancing in the 1950s with large chemical plants to the west and in the 1990s with an outlet mall. Its main thoroughfares are marked by wide, paved streets and stop lights.

Arcola, by contrast, still has its original brick street downtown, where antique stores dominate the landscape and a hitching post for Amish buggies sits behind the newspaper office. It celebrates its broom corn history with an annual festival that draws thousands of visitors, and its larger industries stem from its broom-making past. Today, 40 percent of Arcola’s population is Latino – another result of its broom corn history. Its most famous resident is Raggedy Ann, whose creator, Johnny Gruelle, was born there.

They’re both farming communities located in the flattest county in Illinois. They’re tied together by Interstate 57 to the east and Route 45 to the west. A remnant of the Chicago-to-Cairo highway, the Egyptian Trail, connects them between the two highways.

And they remain tied by a once-fierce duel that helps maintain their independent identities.

“It’s a friendly rivalry now,” Carroll said. “It’s just fun.”

• David Porter, a 1983 graduate of Tuscola High School, is publisher of the Arcola Record-Herald and Tuscola Review.

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