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Ringing Colors: A look at the Bell Game’s history in Pueblo

Central Centennial High School Pueblo Bell Game
KRDO

PUEBLO, Colo. (KRDO) -- The Centennial High School Bulldogs and the Central High School Wildcats will run onto the field at Dutch Clark Stadium on Friday night to the roars of crowds that have marked the occasion for decades in Pueblo.

And the football players competing in the 71st Bell Game have more than their win-loss record on the line.

Cars, houses, and even people are decorated in red and blue during Bell Week, either representing their school or simply showing support for the cross-town rivalry.

The match-up has been going on for more than a century in Pueblo, and it has a rich history.

The One Hundred Year War

The game, also known as the "One Hundred Year War," began in 1892, according to Pueblo School District 60. On Thanksgiving Day, the Wildcats and Bulldogs competed against each other for the first time at Minnequa Ball Park near Lake Minnequa.

The rivalry didn't officially become the Bell Game until 1950, when Lou Rhoads donated a bell from an old C&W Railway Engine to be used as a trophy.

For the past 71 years, the bell has been passed between the two schools, going through various iterations of blue and red paint. With it, generations upon generations of Wildcats and Bulldogs have attended the Bell Game and cheered. Many, finding themselves rooting for both teams at some point in their life.

Bell rings blue, Bell rings red

Dave Craddock can provide insight from both sides. He's the current principal at Centennial, and he's also the former head football coach at Central.

The youngest of four boys, Craddock explained how he's been a Bell Game fan long before he walked onto the field as a Wildcat.

"I got to watch my older brothers playing it," said Craddock, "That rivalry, you just felt it. Even as an elementary, middle school kid, you felt it and you just couldn't wait. that's what you wanted to do, can't wait until it's my turn."

Craddock's father played for Centennial in 1949, and his grandfather from his mother's side played for Central. When he reached high school, he took the field as a Wildcat. After graduating, he returned as an assistant coach, then he eventually became the head coach at Central.

Central and Centennial were the two original Pueblo schools. Centennial came first, established in 1876. Central soon following.

His family connection to the Bell Game isn't unique -- Craddock pointed out many Pueblo families have ties to Central, Centennial, or even both schools.

"Roots run deep," explained Craddock. Even though the Pueblo area now has seven schools, he said almost everyone has connections to the Bell Game.

"It's not only our two school's history, it's really Pueblo's history," Craddock said.

During his time as a player, Craddock found a community through the Bell Game. As a coach, he's had the privilege of seeing his players and students grow up to have families and kids of their own playing in the game.

"I have friends that I went to school with, good friends, whose kids are in my school right now," said Craddock. "Because of these traditions, there's a lot of interlinking between families and you get the pleasure of educating and exposing friends, children, colleagues, or cousins eight times removed to this wonderful tradition."

When asked about his favorite Bell Game memory as a coach at Central, Craddock said there wasn't just a singular moment, that every single ball game he ever played, coached, or attended was special. He did share a few of his favorite memories:

Dave Craddock shares Bell Game Highlights

While Pueblo is the size of a city, sometimes, it can feel like a small football town. During the Bell Game, alumni and current students fill Dutch Clark Stadium.

"We have Chili Fest, we have the state fair, we have all these cool things that are Pueblo events, and the Bell game is definitely one of them."

The Bell Game brawl and hiatus

In the early 1900s, an alleged "brawl" between the opposing teams broke out after a game. Craddock admitted he knew about the folklore surrounding the incident.

"There was tension, obviously, and I think some rock-throwing might have been a part of it," Craddock said.

According to D60, in 1907 the Bell Game ended in a tie. That led to a "riot," which caused a nearly 15-year hiatus.

After the rivalry picked backed up, the Bell Game remained a major event in Pueblo. Now, the game is considered the longest and largest high school football rivalry west of the Mississippi.

"That's the beauty of this rivalry, it's founded in tradition but it continues to evolve."

Craddock believes the game has survived because of what it means to the community, and that the game represents the best of both schools.

"This sums up all the best things. Centennial High School and Central High School, and I'm just super proud to be a part of it."

Bringing Back Bell Week after COVID-19

The Bell Game has managed to last 121 years, surviving wars, Centennial moving locations, and a pandemic. However, the 120th Bell Game was a challenge for both schools.

In 2020, the Bell Game was scaled back for safety concerns. The district was only able to allow 175 fans from each team into the stadium, a fraction of the number of fans who usually attend.

"We have two classes that really don't know what to do during the week," explained Craddock. Due to COVID restrictions, all Bell Game festivities were significantly scaled back. "We have half of our population that really doesn't know how to celebrate Bell Week."

This year, Craddock and educators at Centennial and Central worked to reengage students. They wanted to get students excited about not just school again, but extracurricular activities they weren't able to participate in last year.

While it's been a struggle, Craddock said the students have definitely leaned into the excitement of Bell Week.

"The kids were cheering during lunches yesterday, doing spirit yells."

Win or lose, Craddock hopes the community always remembers the importance of this game goes beyond winning. Also, while they might seem like men, the players are still just high school students doing their best in a high-pressure situation.

For the players, the Bell Game lasts weeks: a week of mentally preparing for the game, the week of the game, and a week spent coming down from a win or accepting a loss.

"As I look back about how much it means still to the kids, I try to put my kid hat on. I watch it every day. I watched the kids get excited for this thing that started 121 years ago. And they probably don't have the background other than it's important to Central and Centennial," Craddock said.

He explained how easy it can be to take these kinds of celebrations for granted. Craddock believes it's the adult's responsibility to continue sharing the history of the Bell Game to the younger generations, to keep this rivalry going for years to come.

"This is our history, and us as adults, I hope we never take it for granted."

The 71st Bell Game and 121st year of the rivalry happens at 7 p.m. Friday at Dutch Clark Stadium.

For online tickets for Central's side, click here.

For online tickets for Centennial's side, click here.

The game will also be available to stream on both school's Facebook pages and the District 60 Facebook page.

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Shelby Filangi

Shelby is a digital content producer for KRDO.com. You can learn more about Shelby here.

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