Rain, Cold Doesn’t Stop Fans For Meyers-GAR Rivalry Game

October 28, 2018 GMT

WILKES-BARRE — On a cold and rainy day, generations of Grenadiers and Mohawks united as one on a muddy field in Miner Park for a tailgate party prior to the final rivalry game between GAR and Meyers high schools.

Later, the final crop of football players to don the schools’ uniforms took to the turf of Wilkes-Barre Memorial Stadium for the latest and last installment of the historic “Backyard Brawl.”

It was one last game for a lifetime of bragging rights before the schools’ sports teams merge next year with Coughlin. And both sides put on a good show in a game that came down to the wire.

Despite non-stop rain and chilly temperatures — and the mud — the pre-game party attracted hundreds. The bleachers at the stadium were packed with enthusiastic fans, most of whom stayed until the final whistle despite the drenching.

“All the people braving the elements is a testament to the rivalry of both schools,” said Greg Skrepenak, a 1987 GAR graduate who went on to star at the University of Michigan and played six seasons in the NFL.

Skrepenak, who served as an honorary GAR captain for the game, helped organize the tailgate.

Rich Weidler, 48, a 1988 graduate of Meyers, attended the party wearing his No. 77 jersey.

“To be honest. It’s a bittersweet feeling. Our schools were such a tight-knit community. We had such camaraderie growing up in different sections of the city,” Weidler said. “This is what the world needs to see. You could battle on the field and then you leave it on the field and become friends.”

Weidler played offensive and defensive tackle. That meant he helped block for fellow 1988 graduate Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, the legendary speedster who went on to star at Notre Dame and then played in the NFL.

A few minutes later, Ismail showed up at the tailgate with his brother, Qadry, a 1989 Meyers graduate who later starred at Syracuse University before going to the NFL, where he won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens.

Both Ismails were honorary captains for Meyers for the game.

Rocket Ismail said he was happy to return to see his alma mater’s last game.

“This is kind of the best medicine for the soul, seeing all the people I graduated with,” Rocket Ismail said. “It makes my heart feel good. I feel eternally grateful to have this opportunity and I’ll never forget it.”

Shakir Soto, a 2013 GAR graduate still trying to break into the NFL, was another honorary captain for the game. But he also served as chief cheerleader, motivating GAR players on the sideline and cheering them on.

During a brief radio interview in the press box, Soto said he got the chills running out of the tunnel with the team.

“I wasn’t a player, but it was amazing. I can’t imagine how they felt,” Soto said.

Alison Hightower wore a “Final Brawl” T-shirt paying tribute to the rivalry. The 1993 graduate felt she had to be a little neutral.

“I’m a Grenadier at heart, but my kids go to Meyers so I’m in the middle,” Hightower said.

The Grenadiers, Mohawks and the Crusaders of Coughlin next year will join forces for sports to become the Wilkes-Barre Area Wolfpack.

At the conclusion of the game, the Ismail brothers, Skrepenak and others donned the team’s new jerseys to present the “Backyard Brawl” trophy to the Meyers team.

Prior to the presentation, Qadry Ismail made a video he later posted on Facebook.

“So this is the trophy presentation part of it,” Qadry Ismail said. “Notice we got our Wolfpack jerseys on. Out with the old. In with the new. New beginnings.”

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570-821-2055, @cvbobkal