Troy Drayton was sitting in his office, talking on the phone and reminiscing about the good ol’ days, when he was a tight end at Penn State, when one of his co-workers began to distract him.
Drayton works for the Miami Dolphins as the manager of youth programs. His alma mater is traveling across the state to play Pitt for the first time in 16 years this weekend, and the scene in the Dolphins’ community affairs office was a pretty strong advertisement for why the return of this rivalry game means so much to many people.
Lousaka Polite, who was a three-year captain and running back at Pitt, was waving a blue-and-gold pompom in Drayton’s direction while he tried to discuss his favorite memories of the rivalry. Polite works in Drayton’s department as a youth program coordinator.
“It has been an interesting week around here,” Drayton said.
Polite isn’t alone in his sparring with Drayton. Cassy Congemi also works with Drayton and Polite. She played volleyball at Pitt, and is the daughter of former Panthers quarterback John Congemi.
“They’ve been ganging up on me, but it’s all right,” Drayton said. “We have a little side bet between the three of us. I’m sure there will be lots of text messages on Saturday.
“There are going to be a lot of Penn State fans there. I hope we ‘white out’ the stadium.”
Pitt and Penn State have not played since 2000, and not regularly since 1992, when Penn State’s decision to join the Big Ten ended one of college football’s great rivalries.
The two schools have played 96 times, but the period between the mid-1970s through the end of the 1980s was when the rivalry was at its peak.
“That game was entirely different than even a typical big game,” former Penn State guard John Gerak, now a lawyer in Cleveland, said. “I played in a lot of (big games) at the college level and the NFL level, but that type of emotion was special. It combined the best of high school football and the best of college football, and it is rare to see that.”
For about a decade, Pitt and Penn State were two of the top programs in the nation. From 1968-82, one of the teams was ranked in the top 10 when they met in late November, at times on Thanksgiving Day. At first, it was only Penn State, but the arrival of Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino and others helped Pitt join the Nittany Lions as a national powerhouse.
From 1976-82, one of the two schools was ranked No. 1 three times when they met. In two other games, both were ranked in the top 5. Pitt won a national title in 1976. Penn State won in 1982 and 1986. Both narrowly missed adding more championships.
“Growing up in the Northeast, this was the game,” former Penn State linebacker Andre Collins, who now works for the NFLPA, said. “My freshman year (in 1986), the older players told us, ‘Look, there is going to be some stuff in this game. They’re going to do some things. We’re going to do some things.’ We won comfortably, but it was still a scary game. They had ‘Ironhead’ Craig Heyward over there. There was so much emotion. It was intense.”
The games were often highlighted by extracurricular activity. That contest in 1986 featured five fights and three ejections. Pitt’s program began to decline in the late 1980s, but often played Penn State to a close game despite being the underdogs.
Penn State beat Pitt, 16-13, at Pitt Stadium in Collins’ senior year. After Penn State won the national title in 1986, the Nittany Lions lost to Pitt in 1987 and 1988.
“They were really trying feed the ball to Curvin Richards that day, and our defense just played great. They were really frustrated,” Collins said. “I think (Sherrod Rainge) intercepted a ball along their sideline and tried to rub it in their face a little. Next thing you know, guys were coming off the bench and guys were getting tackled. I loved it.”
Gerak grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and said Pitt-Penn State in November was among the best rivalries in the country back then, mentioning in the same sentence as Ohio State-Michigan. When the two teams met in Pittsburgh, the coaching staff gave the players a couple of days off afterward so Gerak took some players home to Youngstown for a belated Thanksgiving dinner.
He has a law degree from Pitt, but his loyalties when it comes to football are clear: He will cheer for the team dressed in white on Saturday. He’s planning to watch the game with his oldest son, Sam, who is one of the top centers in the nation in the class of 2017 and committed to Northwestern.
“We’ll certainly talk about my memories from the rivalry, and I’m pretty excited about that,” Gerak said.
Congemi was also born in Youngstown, and knew what the rivalry meant to people in Western Pennsylvania and Southeastern Ohio before he became the second-leading passer in school history after following Marino in the mid-1980s.
His first start against Penn State came in 1983, when the Nittany Lions were the defending national champs. It was a wild finish, with Pitt players and fans thinking they had won, 24-21, but a malfunction with the scoreboard clock led to massive confusion.
There was actually 6 seconds left in the game, not zero as the scoreboard read.
“We thought we had won,” Congemi, a college football analyst for ESPN, said. “We all went on the field, but then we all got pushed back onto the sidelines so Penn State could kick a field goal with no time on the clock. That was certainly interesting. It was the exuberance of winning a game, but then we felt like we had lost it even though it ended up being a tie.”
Congemi will be in Durham, N.C., this weekend, covering Wake Forest at Duke. That game starts at 3:30 ET, which was a huge development for him.
There will be some time during his pregame preparations to check on the score at Heinz Field, because Pitt-Penn State is slated for a noon kickoff.
“I’ve known Troy Drayton, and I’ve worked with (former Penn State wide receiver) O.J. McDuffie for several years,” Congemi said. “We’ve been waiting for this game for a long time. This week, there has been no contact. We have not talked to each other. I’m sure there will be a text message during the game, maybe some back-and-forth after it’s over.”
It will probably be an interesting Monday inside the Dolphins’ offices where Congemi’s daughter works, and at workplaces across Pennsylvania where loyalties between the two major college football programs are split, as well.