Box Elder and Bear River high school football teams face off in the 100th Golden Spike Game on Friday, Sept. 4. This story is the fourth and final in a series looking back at historical people and events connected with the two teams.
In the history of high school football in Utah, only one rivalry has ever eclipsed the 100-game mark, that being the East-West rivalry that’s been played 112 times, according to prep football historian George Felt.
On Friday night, another rivalry hits the 100 mark when Bear River and Box Elder kick off for the 100th time in the Golden Spike Game, which is currently the longest-running active rivalry in the state.
“I would walk up to the stadium and watch ballgames, and I remember, probably it would be ’86 when Rod Wells was playing, and watching our guys just thump ‘em and remember thinking, I want to be a part of that,” said Bear River head coach Chris Wise, a BRHS alumnus.
“I think it’s impressive, just thinking about the whole idea of two schools, we’re in the same school district, and they just have kept playing,” Box Elder head coach Robbie Gunter said.
The Golden Spike Game isn’t 100 years old, but this is the 100th meeting of the two teams. They’ve met every year in the regular season since 1923 and met twice in the playoffs in 1960 and 1962, according to Felt.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic will mean less fans and less event celebration, the rivalry will hit a milestone in its long and storied history.
“We’re just excited we get it at Bear Field this year, for the big 100th game, senior year and everything,” Bear River senior running back Chance Udy said in the summer. “It’s cool because you’re part of history in the making and everyone’s going to remember the 100th game and who wins.”
Humble and dominant beginnings
For more than 100 years, agriculture-heavy Box Elder County has had just the two high schools. Box Elder started playing football in 1917, Bear River in 1922.
“That’s something that your grandpa’s grandpa would’ve been playing in. There’s a lot of families who have people that have played all the way through,” Gunter said.
Their first meeting was a 51-0 Bees win in 1923. In the early days of the series, it wasn’t much of a rivalry as much as an exercise in dominance for Box Elder.
The Bees won 24 of the first 27 games, including 16 straight from 1938-53 under the direction of legendary coach Earl Ferguson. The overall dominance from the bigger school has continued throughout the decades.
Box Elder leads the all-time series 71-26-2, but coaches, as well as former and current players, stress that each team’s record and prior history gets thrown out the door.
“It’s definitely something you want to win, and it’s not acceptable to lose that game. You can feel it from the Saturday of the week before after you’ve gone on to the next game, and now it’s Golden Spike Week and we gotta keep the spike,” said Cameron Greene, a 2008 Box elder alumnus and current BEHS assistant football coach.
Old school yearbooks referred to the game as a friendly rivalry between the county foe. In 1959, the Golden Spike Game actually got its moniker.
What’s in a name?
Growing up in Bear River City, Mike Ramsdell had a friend named Doug Watanabe, who ended up being student body president at Box Elder and later a renowned dentist in St. Louis.
By that time, many schools had traveling trophies for rivalry games. Ogden and Weber had the Little Brown Jug, for example. Ramsdell, who was senior class president at BRHS and wanted to do something similar, so he pitched the idea of a traveling trophy.
“(Doug) thought it was a great idea, and the administration talked about it and we put the thing together. Thank goodness, when you look at the trophy, the very first score we finally beat Box Elder and so that’s one of my great achievements in life is coming up with that and having that on the very first win,” Ramsdell said.
The actual Golden Spike trophy is a plaque with a golden railroad spike attached to it, with engravings of each year’s game and the final score.
Ramsdell was working at a jewelry store and would do engravings on the weekends there, so he helped make the original trophy. That trophy has been the catalyst for many classic games and wild celebrations.
“I remember going to that game, it was 1999, it was at Box Elder and Bear River won and I remember Bear River’s team jumped over the fence there by the cook shack, and they actually grabbed the golden spike and started and cheering and stuff,” said Jason Zundel, a BRHS alumnus who starred on the 2003 and 2004 state title teams. “I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen in my life.”
Zundel was at the game to watch his older brother play. Kids at both schools often grow up playing against each other in little league football, basketball, baseball and whatever else. By the time they hit high school, they’re well-acquainted and sometimes friends.
“To me, it was different because I was raised in Bear River City and you actually had the choice to go to Bear River or Box Elder because we were right in between,” said Joel Ramsdell, who’s uncle is Mike Ramsdell. “I had gone to (Brigham City schools) my seventh and eighth grade year and then I transferred to Bear River which to me was really — I knew those kids I was playing against and I stayed friends with all those guys so it was a real bitter rivalry for me.”
For the name itself, it’s no secret why the rivalry is called the Golden Spike game. The transcontinental railroad was connected with the ceremonial hammering of a golden railroad spike at Promontory Summit, Box Elder County, in 1869.
Sometimes, it’s a close game
This is always the game circled on the calendar no matter the expectations before the season.
“I’m excited. We’ve been playing these guys our whole life all through little league, we know them pretty well. They’re going to be a hard team to beat, pretty tough kids, but I feel like we’ll be alright,” Box Elder defensive end Gavin Hansen said.
In the previous 99 meetings, the Golden Spike Game has been decided by a single possession 32 times. The result of those 32 games: 15 wins for each side, with two ties.
Here’s a look at some of the close games over the decades.
1938: Box Elder 7, Bear River 6
“The season wound up at the cold muddy Box Elder gridiron,” reads the 1939 Bear River yearbook. “The Bees, by hard line drives, scored seven points in the first quarter. Our team received the kick-off, took the ball from the end zone to the twenty, played a clever reverse that completely outsmarted the Bees, and scored a touchdown. The following kick was amiss and left us on the bitter end of a 6-7 score.”
1978: Bear River 21, Box Elder 20
The Bees led 14-0 at halftime before Bear River quarterback Blake Sandall got the team rolling. He ran for a 53-yard touchdown and fired a 35-yard touchdown pass to Kirk Bourne to tie the game.
In a game marked by fumbles, Box Elder’s Brian Braithwaite recovered a fumble in the end zone but the extra point went wide, giving the Bees a 20-14 lead.
“I’d been throwing the button hook — curl pattern — to my tight end Kirk Bourne, and they had a safety, their main stud was a guy named Mike McCarron ... every time I’d throw that curl pattern I’d notice him kind of sneaking up a little bit further, a little bit further,” Sandall recalled.
In the huddle, Sandall told Bourne in the huddle to sell the curl pattern to bring McCarron closer to the line of scrimmage, and told receiver Mike Giles to run a post route deep.
“He came for the interception and I pulled the ball back and Giles was wide-open with the post pattern behind him,” Sandall said.
Sandall ran in a quarterback sneak a few plays later for the game-tying touchdown and Joel Ramsdell, the kicker, made the extra point for the eventual win.
2004: Bear River 20, Box Elder 15
Amid a 12-game winning streak, and having won the 3A state championship the year before, Bear River felt it could be very good again in 2004. The thing the Bears wanted, though, was the Golden Spike. Box Elder won 37-7 the year prior.
“I had appendicitis and missed my first two games and it was amazing I was still all-state with statistics,” said Dallas Miller, a receiver on BR’s 2003-04 teams. “I think my stitches were still ready to rip out, but I was never going to miss my senior year against Box Elder.”
This is the game remembered for one of its highest attendance figures. Some estimates suggesting there were 10,000 in attendance.
It would be the first leg of a quartet of accomplishments for Bear River that year: the Golden Spike, a region championship, a state championship and an undefeated season.
Zundel recalled a moment on the field.
“It was some time late in the fourth quarter, and I remember sitting in the huddle and I told most of my buddies: we got the spike back,” he said.
Miller was even more blunt.
“Beating Box Elder is a big thing because we never do it,” he said.
2006: Box Elder 41, Bear River 33
Box Elder jumped to a 35-20 halftime lead, then Bear River came back to within 35-33 at the start of the fourth quarter.
The Bears were driving late and looked certain to score, until the ball literally changed hands.
“They were between the 30 and the 25, they ran a sweep to the right, Jordan Curtis stripped the ball and ran to about the other 2-yard line. I actually got a touchdown out of the deal cause he got caught from behind. It worked out for me,” Greene said.
2009: Box Elder 17, Bear River 14
This was Gunter’s first year coaching the Bees.
“I just didn’t realize the depth of that game. My first year coaching in it, we had a tough season, we struggled a little bit, but in that game our kids played the lights out,” he said. “We got a lead and then late in the game, they got a little momentum, they scored then they stopped us in the fourth quarter, got the ball back and had all the momentum to go down and score.”
Bear River was huddling near the end zone, getting ready to start its drive when the sprinklers in the end zone turned on.
“So, we punted, someone took timeout and then the water comes on in that end zone right where that ball is. Took about five minutes to get the water shut off,” Gunter said.
Box Elder stopped BR and won the game. The Bees lost their final six games of that season.
“We used to have this granite beehive at the end of the stadium. Players met the students there, they got the golden spike and had a big party. I’m thinking this isn’t just another football game, it was bigger than that,” Gunter said.
“Then the next year we lost the game and I really realized how big a deal it was.”
2010: Bear River 20, Box Elder 19
Speaking of next year, the game was now at Bear River High and came down to the final possession.
“We drive down, we finally get it going, we drive it down and we throw an interception,” Gunter said. “There’s about 20 seconds left, we’re on like the 12-yard line, we roll out and throw an interception in the end zone. It was first down we didn’t even need — it was one of those. It bounced off our kid’s chest.”
What does the future hold?
Recently, Box Elder has started to run away in this game more often than in the 1980s and ’90s.
The Bees have won 16 of the 20 games since the turn of the millennium, their average margin of victory has soared and the enrollment gap between the two schools continues to grow.
The five times Box Elder won in the ’80s, it was by an average of 13.8 points with the two largest wins — 1988 and 1989 — coming after Dan Cox was no longer coaching at BRHS.
In the ’90s, BE won by an average of 18.8 points, which grew to 19.5 points in the 2000s and 23.4 points in the 2010s — the latter being somewhat close to the early, dominant days in the 1920s when the Bees’ average margin of victory was 43.3 points.
According to state data, Box Elder High had 1,545 students as of Oct. 1, 2019, while Bear River had 1,036. Between the 2013-14 and 2019-20 school years, BEHS had added 166 students and BRHS had added 123.
It doesn’t take away from any Box Elder wins, but it certainly makes the wins mean more for Bear River.
“I don’t know how best to describe it. It’s elation,” Wise said. “Back in the day, in my day, we were in the same region. Since I became the head coach, they’ve always been a classification higher than us and they’ve always had 500 more students than we do ... anytime we win, it’s a real marker for how good we are.”
Box Elder had the 10th-most students of any 5A school last school year, while Bear River was larger than only three of its 4A counterparts.
Box Elder’s enrollment has creeped toward some of the smaller 6A schools, but the two county teams still plan to play each year.
“It’s awesome, just the tradition that we’ve had and being able to play all these games in a row. And it means a lot to us and to Bear River. It’s fun to be a part of it now as a coach,” said Scott Walker, a BEHS alumnus who now coaches at the school.
The schools and the community always plan on the Golden Spike Game happening. The game itself is an institution.