By Jason Eisenberg
In October 1950, just as the polio epidemic was beginning to spread across America, three members of the Horace Mann varsity football team contracted the deadly disease.
While two of the players gradually recovered, the third, a student-athlete by the name of Robert Buzzell, succumbed to the illness a few weeks later.
Shortly after his death, a group of students worked together to organize a basketball game between Horace Mann and local rival Riverdale Country School, to honor the memory of their classmate.
The first ever “Buzzell Games,” played on Feb. 21, 1951, featured a contest pitting the Lions against the Falcons, as well as an exhibition game between faculty members from the two schools. Admission cost 50 cents and more than 600 people attended, making the inaugural event an overwhelming success. All proceeds raised from ticket sales and donations were sent to the March of Dimes foundation, which at that time helped fund polio research, but now focuses on fighting birth defects.
Since then, the Buzzell Games have been entrenched as an annual school tradition and continues to thrive right up to the present day. Over time, there have been a few minor changes, including an increase in ticket price, the elimination of the faculty exhibition and adding a varsity girls game. But the purpose of the event has always remained the same: to honor Robert Buzzell and aid an important charity.
Not surprisingly, the event always creates a lot of excitement among the students of both participating schools, and attendance regularly ranges from 700 to more than 1,000 spectators.
“There is always quite a buzz on our campus in the days leading up to the Buzzell Games, so it is basically the closest thing to a winter homecoming,” said Robert Annunziata, Horace Mann’s athletic director. “There used to be wild pep rallies and parties, but that has kind of calmed down a bit in recent years. We still set up tables to sell shirts for the kids to wear to the games and the players definitely consider it the biggest game of the season.”
Last weekend, exactly 58 years to the day since the event was founded, the Buzzell trophies were again on the line, as a big and boisterous crowd of Horace Mann and Riverdale students, parents and faculty filled the stands at Manhattan College’s Draddy Gymnasium.
The evening began with a match-up between the Horace Mann and Riverdale girls varsity teams. Both squads have performed well above expectations throughout the season, but on this night, the Lions were in control for just about the entire game.
Horace Mann abided by the ritual of starting all seniors, and scored the first nine points and would never trail in the game. Senior Catie Barile scored 10 points in her fourth and final appearance in the Buzzell Game, while freshman Madison Gordon continued her sensational rookie season with several three-pointers and scored a game-high of 15 points.
“We had won the first three years I played in this game, so I really wanted to go out on a winning note,” said Catie Barile. “Overall, this season has been a lot better than I thought it would be, mostly because the younger girls, like Maddy [Gordon], have really stepped up. Now, we just have to take it one step at a time and focus on getting that first win in the playoffs.”
On the other hand, this was Gordon’s first chance to experience the atmosphere of the Buzzell Games. “It was really exciting to play in front of a big crowd,” Gordon said. “But once the game starts, it felt like any other regular season game and it was just nice to get the win.”
Although they were never really in the game, Riverdale did fight back in the fourth quarter. Down by 19 points, the Lady Falcons outscored the Lady Lions 10-2 in the final eight minutes, making the final score, 41-32, appear more respectable. As usual, the Riverdale offense was led by the duo of Morgan Brock-Smith and Chelsea Baez, who scored 12 and 10 points, respectively.
So, while the Horace Mann girls celebrated with the Buzzell Trophy, the roles were reversed in the second game of the doubleheader.
Despite leading for the entire opening quarter and impressively holding Riverdale’s star guards, Kyle Somersall and James Herring, to a combined 11 points in the game, Horace Mann could not keep up with the talented and deep Falcons squad over the long-term and fell by the final score of 40-26.
With Somersall and Herring having subpar games, it was 6-foot-4 junior guard Brian Lebowitz who stepped up to lead Riverdale in scoring, with 14 points.
Freshman guard Ryan Frankel led the Lions with nine points in the game.
In the end, both schools had a Buzzell trophy and the audience had a great time.
“It is just an amazing experience and there is a lot of excitement both on the court and in the stands,” said Lady Lions coach Matt Russo, referring to the lions versus falcon mascot battles and the backand- forth chanting between the students from both schools. “All of the crowd really gets into it, as you can see by the kids from every division of Horace Mann running around. When you put two hilltop rivals against each other, it is always a big event, but the most important thing is that everyone enjoys it, we raise money for a good cause, and it is a great way to honor the memory of Robert Buzzell.”