RING WITH PRIDE: A deep dive into the history of the Cowbell game
By BRANDON HURLEY
The world’s greatest rivalries often lay claim to equally as riveting backstories.
In Greene County’s case, victory never sounds sweeter than with the ear-piercing ring of an old cowbell.
This Friday marks the 91st meeting of high school football teams from Perry and Jefferson. For the last 92 years, the two schools have competed for the original Cowbell trophy, one of Iowa’s oldest traveling trophies.
It’s as unique as it is historic, a source of pride for the two central Iowa communities. Though, the rivalry hasn’t been much of one over the last several decades, as Greene County holds a 59-29-3 series lead, having won five of the last six matchups. Greene County has only allowed 20 Perry points in the last five years, outscoring the Bluejays 165-20 during that span.
The Perry and Jefferson football series dates back to the late 1800s, evolving into one of longest-running annual clashes in the state. The two squads first began meeting in 1898, though the traveling Cowbell trophy would not exist for another 30 years.
The backstory is rather simple, yet perplexing. The Rotary clubs from both Jefferson and Perry wanted to spice their annual rivalry up a tad, and came together with a solution in 1928. Determining the victor on the field for the last three decades hadn’t tickled their competitive spirits quite enough, how about they give the student-athletes something to really play for?
As easy as that, the Cowbell trophy was born in all its glory, standing roughly a foot or so tall and a foot wide. There are no indications as to why the service clubs settled on a cowbell, per say, likely a nod to the farming communities, but it quickly caught on, as if beating the snot out of your peers didn’t provide enough satisfaction.
Today’s winners typically sprint across the field after the game clock reaches zero to snag the coveted cowbell, ringing it with joy for a parade of cheers from students and fans alike. Greene County has basked in the spotlight of rivalry glory more often than not, having won two straight in the series, outscoring the Bluejays 70-6 in the previous two meetings.
The two town schools used to square off annually on Armistice Day (now known as Veteran’s Day each Nov. 11), more out of tradition than anything. The Rotary clubs established a long-standing tradition years prior to 1928. The two groups gathered for a banquet each fall, which usually transformed into heavy football discussion. The celebration later included the presentation of the cowbell, which stayed in possession of the winning town’s service clubs in the early years. The banquets often featured guest speakers from either the current coaching staff or former players who partook in the rivalry. The Cowbell game did not budge from Armistice Day for a number of years, even hosting the first trophy game oddly enough, on a Monday because of where the holiday landed.
The Cowbell Trophy evolved into one of the more unique artifacts in the state. Following each game, the score was initially hand-written on the traveling cowbell. The bell itself features game scores from as far back as 1938, ten years after the trophy was introduced.
Remnants of the early recordings can still be seen on the cowbell today. By the time 1955 rolled around, some 27 years into the renewed rivalry, the bell no longer had any room for the hand-written scores. It was time to modernize. For the rivalry to continue, both sides agreed, there’d need to be a new way to keep track. Two gold plates were eventually bolted to a wooden stand that holds the bell, which still remains today.
By all indications, the original Cowbell is currently in Greene County’s position, and is still transferred between schools, making the artifact almost 100 years young, clocking in at a robust 92 years old. And boy, is it certainly one, massive hunk of brass. The bell itself weighs roughly five to 10 pounds and elicits quite the noise when rung, or heck, even when it’s moved slightly from one spot to another.
Perry captured triumphant victory with relative ease in the first ever meeting between the schools in 1898, stunning Jefferson by a score of 34-5 in the Ramblers first season of football competition. The matchup was described as an unfair mismatch. The 29-point spread was met with quite a bit of vitriol. In a scathing report following the game, The Jefferson Bee claimed, thanks to various accounts from unnamed sources, Perry unfairly called upon the services of football players who were not high school students, giving them a significant leg up on their much younger counterparts. The contentious game of 1898 later urged writers to refer to the Bluejays as the Perry YMCA. Jefferson believed they employed athletes from Drake University, which immediately gave PHS the upper hand. Of course, there is no way to prove that fact, but even a member of that 1898 Jefferson squad relayed a similar story to both Rotary clubs more than 30 years later. Talk about an unfair advantage, pitting college athletes against rookie footballers seems like borderline torture.
Jefferson captured the much sought-after sweet revenge in the most important showdown, securing victory in the initial trophy game in 1928 before following it up with back-to-back victories by capturing a win in 1929. The first-ever Cowbell victory was pivotal in many ways, as it kept Jefferson’s perfect season intact, providing a key moment during the greatest season in Jefferson football history. The Ramblers easily possessed the state’s best defense that fall, tallying a perfect 9-0 record, shutting out each and everyone of their opponents along the way. Jefferson outscored their nine regular season foes by a remarkable tally of 269-0, aided by the reassuring 24-0 wallop over Perry in the first-ever Cowbell trophy game. The Jefferson Bee headline read “Gives Perry Beating” on Nov. 14, withholding no punches following the odd Monday afternoon game on Nov. 11.
The revamped rivalry was quite the anticipated event. More than 1,500 fans attended the game that year, ready for an intense battle. What they witnessed instead was a masterclass in defensive superiority.
Jefferson’s vaunted, ballhawking unit wasted little time exerting their superiority during Perry’s opening drive, emphatically introducing the Bluejays to the new-age rivalry. They quickly set a tone Perry never could avoid.
The Ramblers exploded through the PHS offensive line for three consecutive tackles for loss before blocking the Bluejays punt on fourth down, which Jefferson promptly recovered the loose ball on Perry’s five yard. Jefferson’s methodical offense got in on the action rather quickly as well, requiring just two plays to score, with Rohovit punching it in from a yard and a half out. Perry once again failed to gain even a single yard in three plays, before shanking their punt and giving Jefferson great field position yet again. Fred Morain scored with relative ease a few plays later, and the blowout was on.
By halftime, Jefferson had built a three touchdown lead, cementing the victory with one final scoring jaunt in the fourth quarter. The margin of victory should’ve been even wider if it weren’t for four missed extra points and a failed fourth down try on Perry’s goal line late in the fourth quarter. The Jefferson Bee suggested the large November crowd included football fans from all over the region, including residents from Boone, Carroll and Rockwell City. The Jefferson triumph was followed by a special Armistice Day dance, held at the local American Legion Armory.
Jefferson would carry the momentum from the first trophy victory to go on and share a piece of the unofficial state championship. The Ramblers finished the regular season 9-0, setting up a showdown with fellow undefeated Centerville, who they matched wits with to scoreless stalemate in the only postseason contest that fall. The gridlocked finale meant Jefferson had steamrolled its way through an entire 10-game schedule without once allowing a single point. To this day, the 1928 co-championship team remains Jefferson’s greatest football accomplishment.
Perry ended their agonizing Cowbell drought in 1930, gaining possession of the trophy following a 13-0 shutout victory. Jefferson used their first loss in the trophy series as fuel the following fall, producing one of the most compelling contests in the rivalry’s growing history.
Jefferson’s third victory in the first four years of the trophy’s existence was quite the doozy, and perhaps the most significant matchup to that point. The Ramblers dismantled Perry’s hopes for an undefeated season in 1931, securing a 12-0 victory for the Bluejays first loss of the year.
The final score certainly did not tell the whole story. Perry’s field was a mess following a string of thunderstorms. The papers described it as a danger to the players, with various mud holes scattered throughout. Though it was difficult for anyone to gain any proper footing, Jefferson proved their superiority, securing one of the most shocking upsets in series history.
The Jefferson Bee headline following the game read “Jefferson football players leave path of gloom across Perry field.” The Perry Chief writers even acknowledged the damning showcase, describing Jefferson’s relative dominance with a swift pen:
“They were outguessed and outfought by a wide margin by a team that trotted onto the Bluejay stadium as the underdog,” The Perry Chief said. “They walked off with the victor’s laurels and possession of the Rotary cowbell, emblem of gridiron supremacy between the two schools.”
The cowbell series witnessed its first tie the following year, as the two schools battled to a scoreless stalemate. The pair tied again in 1934, matching each other at seven apiece. The game was scoreless for the opening half before Jefferson took a 7-0 lead midway through the third. Perry’s last gasp effort in the fourth was rewarded, scoring a 65-yard touchdown to tie the contest. The other series tie occurred in 1971, which was once again a low-scoring after, with the final score knotted at 6.
The Rotary clubs eventually handed the cowbell over to the deserving football teams, though newspaper reports do not indicate when that change was made. Even then, the trophy at first was not exchanged on the gridiron, but at a school assembly the following Monday. Student council members from both Perry and Jefferson would descend on the winner’s campus and either present the trophy to the victorious school or retain it. Members from the winning team would then wrap up the celebratory assembly with brief speeches for the anxious crowd. It was a fun, friendly showcase meant to promote the football rivalry. Since those assembly days, the school principals decided it took too much time, and allowed the winning team to snatch the trophy on the field after the game, as they do today.
The overall series was fairly tight for the first 56 years, as Jefferson held a slim, 31-24 lead. A riveting 20 span of dominance ensued, helping the Rams separate themselves from their rivals. Greene County has maintained a 28-5 edge since 1984 (A footnote is a must: These series numbers are as exact as possible, but may not be entirely accurate. They were compiled off accounts from the Jefferson Bee and Herald and the Perry Chief).
Jefferson won 13 straight rivalry games from 1983 through 1997, capturing triumph each time the two teams squared off. Perry finally snatched the Cowbell from Jefferson-Scranton/Paton-Churdan’s stranglehold in 1998 following a convincing 22-6 victory. It was perhaps one of Perry’s most inspiring performances to date, scoring 22 unanswered after falling behind by six in the 100th anniversary game. Jefferson recovered quickly that next fall, kick-starting another streak with back-to-back-to-back wins, before Perry won again in 2003. Over a 20 year stretch from 1983-2003, the Rams tallied a rivalry record of 16-2.
Individual marvels have highlighted many of the contests through the decades.
Former Jefferson-Scranton/Paton-Churdan running back Jeremy Roper produced one of the greatest performances in rivalry history, returning the 2000 opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. He was only warming up, as the then junior rushed for a staggering 230 yards and a touchdown on just 16 carries, bumping his all purpose total to 361 yards, propelling the Rams to a 36-13 victory. The Rams were once again motivated to start a new streak after surrendering the trophy in 2003, winning six straight in the series before succumbing to the Bluejays in 2010. PHS trailed 14-7 before scoring 19 unanswered and prevailing, 26-14.
Two memorable Cowbell games come to mind during my almost five years here in Jefferson. The first was an overtime thriller back in 2017. The Rams trailed for much of the second half before tying the game on the last play of the fourth quarter, a touchdown reception in the corner of the end zone, a result of a mad scramble on a desperation play. Unfortunately, Perry pulled out the victory with a somewhat anti-climatic field goal in the first overtime for a 17-14 triumph. The second game that sticks out was the following year in 2018, for far less glamorous reasons. Greene County prevailed in a 14-6 slugfest, a matchup plagued by the most penalties I’d ever witnessed in a high school game. Good times.
The passion of this rivalry is real, no matter how lopsided it remains. I’ve witnessed my fair share of Greene County students sprint across the field to grab the Cowbell, only to ring it for what feels like hours upon hours back on their own sideline. There’s nothing quite like the rush produced by a rivalry victory.