There is tug-of-war, and there is tug-of-war. Then there is the
epic struggle that takes place at Hope College in Holland, Mich.
Each autumn for the past 98 years, a team of freshmen and a team
of sophomores have attempted to outtug each other in an event
known simply as the Pull. The contest is so elaborate that it
elevates the pastime of tug-of-war to the realm of art--or
lowers it to the theater of the absurd. The Pull is contested
across the cold, murky Black River, which is 150 feet wide.
Freshmen line up on one shore, sophomores on the other. The
object of the competition is no different from that of ordinary
tug-of-war: The team gaining the most rope wins. That aside,
referring to the Pull as a tug-of-war is like calling Buckingham
Palace a nice house. The rope used in the Pull is three-strand
Manila hemp two inches thick, 600 feet long and 648 pounds in
weight. The tuggers must adhere to an official code of
governance called the Constitution of the Hope College
Freshmen-Sophomore Pull, which contains a stirring preamble,
five detailed articles and 27 intricate bylaws.
Preparations for the Pull start three weeks before the event,
which this year will take place on Sept. 21. Members of Hope's
junior class coach the freshmen tuggers; seniors manage the
sophomores. And we're not talking about just a few coaches. Each
team has an NFL-sized phalanx of advisers, specialists and
motivators. For last year's Pull the sophomores required a staff
of nine--four general coaches, one anchor coach, two team
representatives and two "moraler" coaches. (Moralers are the
Pull's version of cheerleaders.) The freshmen employed a staff
Any Hope freshman or sophomore can try out for the Pull.
Practices are draconian: Prospective pullers are forced to tug
at trees, pickup trucks and burly Pull alumni. The pool of
applicants is quickly whittled down to 18 pullers and two
alternates. The pullers tend to be average-sized males built
more like middleweight wrestlers than football linemen. (Though
the event is technically coed, only two women have ever
attempted to become pullers. Last year, freshman Keri Law would
have been part of the freshman squad's top 18 had she not
suffered a knee injury in practice. This year she will try out
for the sophomores.)
Once the teams are chosen, everyone is given a Pull nickname,
usually of the type favored on American Gladiators. The names of
last year's freshmen included Assassin, Poison, Animal, Snake
and Tarzan. The sophomores fielded, among others, Earthquake,
Hammer, Gator and Bones.
Teammates are then taught the art of digging a Pull pit. During
the Pull each puller occupies his own bathtub-sized hole. These
pits are spaced about 18 inches apart, one directly behind the
other, and each is reinforced with plywood at the end closer to
the river. "We dig our own graves," said Zach (Lunatic) Johnson,
a coach of last year's freshmen. A team that's losing badly
often has to double up pullers--two in one pit.
Pullers don't grasp the rope--they try to become one with it. To
achieve a proper Pull rope hold, the puller lies on his side in
his hole, feet braced against the plywood, rope between his legs
with both hands gripping it. To protect his ribs, each puller
wears a bulky vest improvised from whatever cushioning materials
he chooses: Rolls of toilet paper, remnants of shag carpet,
towels, phone books and old sports magazines are popular.
There's also no tugging going on in this tug-of-war. Instead,
each team member must learn a battery of moves such as heaves,
strains, counter-rocks and lock-downs. The team needs to perform
every move in perfect sync, the way a rowing crew does. The head
Pull coach, playing the part of coxswain, stands on a table in
front of the first pit and signals which move to use.
Moralers--one for each pit--relay the signals to the pullers,
some of whom can't see above their pit walls.
Although records are complete only as far back as 1934,
historians generally agree that the year of the first Pull was
1898. In the mid-1930s synchronized pulling was introduced. In
the '40s contestants began digging pits. There are other
traditions at Hope College, which was founded in 1851 and has a
student body of 2,900, but over the years the Pull has become
the school's biggest event, drawing hundreds of alumni and fans
to the banks of the Black River.
The 1977 event went on for three hours and 51 minutes before it
was called a draw out of concern for the pullers' safety. (The
shortest Pull, in 1956, lasted two minutes and 40 seconds.)
Before 1977 the Pull lasted until one team was dunked in the
river. Now, if a team has not been defeated after three hours,
time is called, and the judges, who are staff and faculty of the
college, declare a winner by measuring rope gain.
Last year's Pull, on Sept. 23, began with the traditional
entrance of the teams. The sophomores, who had lost the previous
year as freshmen, crawled into their pits somberly. The pressure
was on them, and it showed. The freshmen entered chanting,
"Sophomores--all wet!" They exuded the restless energy of a team
of sled dogs before a long haul. They had shaved their heads and
painted their faces black and gray.
Both teams pulled on the rope for five minutes to stretch it
out. Then the judges marked the rope with fluorescent orange
spray paint in front of each team's first pit. Finally a whistle
was blown to signal the start.
Lunatic, the signal-caller for the freshmen, stood on the
coaches' table and went through a wild series of
break-dance-style moves. The moralers leaned into their
designated pits, chanting the signals in unison: "Inch and up.
Inch and up. Look and look. Heave! Heeeeeeeeave! Lock and in.
Lock and in. Strain! Straaaaaaaain!"
The freshman pullers, heads thrown back, mouths agape, hauled on
the rope until their veins bulged. "They ain't getting none!"
screamed the freshman in pit 16, Adam (Animal) Hudson, with each
heave. From the front pit, J.D. (Bear) Kensinger glared at the
orange mark as it moved gradually back and forth. The freshman
anchor, Jon (B.A.) VanderVelde, repeatedly threw himself
backward against the rope, eyes pinched shut, back arched like a
bow, grunting like a boar. Within 15 minutes the rope was dotted
with blood; blisters and calluses on the pullers' hands, formed
during practice sessions, had been rubbed raw.
On the sophomore side signal-caller Tom (Zeus) Poole waved his
arms so frantically that he seemed to be trying to fly. The
sophomores were unveiling their secret tactic: airborne heaves.
In this move team members rose slightly from their pits, lifting
the rope into the air, and, in unison, fell back into their
holes. The airbornes were effective: The rope was moving in the
sophomores' direction. With each inch gained, the crowd on the
sophomores' side of the river became more crazed. After an hour
of pulling, the sophomores were winning by three feet.
Gradually the momentum shifted back and dissipated, and by the
end of the second hour the Pull was so close that nobody knew
who was winning. The pullers' vests were shredded; their hands
were shredded. Paint dripped down the freshmen's faces. It
seemed inevitable that the allotted three hours would expire
before either team delivered a knockout.
But 20 minutes before the end, the freshman team tried a series
of desperate heaves. The sophomores countered with multiple
airbornes. The pullers moaned in agony; the coaches shouted
Then, suddenly, a whistle blew and the Pull was declared over.
Time was up. The crowd hushed, the judges took measurements, and
the announcement was made. By a total of two feet, 10 inches,
the sophomores had won. It was the Pull's narrowest recorded
margin of victory. The sophomores leaped into the river for a
celebratory bath; the freshmen sat dejectedly in their pits.
There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
Michael Finkel lives in Bozeman, Mont., and is a frequent
contributor to Sports Illustrated.
COLOR PHOTO: ANNE SHERWOOD In 1995, "moraler" Jeanette Petkus shouted orders while sophomore puller Ryan Maher dug down deep.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: ANNE SHERWOOD Face paint (on '95 freshman Christina Birkhead) fades, but the Pull rope is nearly indestructible. [Christina Birkhead wearing face paint; hands holding rope]