Wednesday morning, two La Quinta High School maintenance workers stood in a vacant gymnasium, staring up at one of the most revered symbols on campus. One stood below, while the other rose toward the ceiling to unclip a flag and take it down, preparing it for battle.
For 362 days, the Victory Flag had hung in the gym, property once again of the Blackhawks, particularly the football team that dismantled the 2014 Palm Desert squad 49-14 on Aztec soil to retain the flag for at least one more year.
The teams have now played 20 times, but it’s been nine years since the flag has been taken across city lines and found a home in the Palm Desert gym — in fact, it’s been so long that the gym it once resided in no longer exists.
But still, a rivalry continues to thrive and define the culture around two cities, two schools, two football programs and two coaches who have been there since its inception in 1995.
Today marks the 21st time Aztecs and Blackhawks have filed into bleachers on opposite sides of the field, eyeing a flag they hope will be theirs after 48 minutes of some of the hardest-hitting football in southern California.
Tonight, the flag will go home with one team. Who? It’ll just be another patch woven onto the flag and slowly forgotten in years to come. But why? That will never change.
“When I first got here, everyone told me ‘No matter what happens, you’ve got to beat Indio. You’ve GOT to beat Indio,” said Palm Desert head football coach Pat Blackburn, who’s stood on the Aztec sideline since 1994.
Back then, La Quinta’s varsity football program didn’t exist, but the Aztecs still needed a game to look forward to.
But they were playing second fiddle. The Rajahs and the Coachella Valley Arabs had already played more than 30 years in what came to be known as the Battle for the Bell, the longest-standing athletic rivalry in the valley. The game between Indio and Palm Desert meant a lot, Blackburn said, because those were the only two schools in that section of the valley for students to attend. Friendships were created or broken because of the school that middle school buddies chose.
Soon, La Quinta High School popped up, and Blackburn told his freshmen and sophomore players they could go there if they desired to do so.
It was only about a half-dozen sophomores that left, but that was enough.
Desertion has been enough to start international wars. A football rivalry was only natural.
It only helped, of course, that the two teams still to this day are coached by two of the most successful, intelligent football minds this valley has ever seen.
Over the years, these two teams have stood the test of time, creating dynasties that are very rare in games played by teenagers. Since his first season, La Quinta coach Dan Armstrong has only seen his team go .500 or worse in Desert Valley League play once — his first season, the only time his Blackhawks didn’t make the playoffs.
Since the rivalry began, Blackburn’s squads only missed the playoffs during a stretch from 1999-2001, with just one other season below .500 in league play. The teams have combined to win outright or hold a share of 11 out of 20 DVL titles since 1995. They’ve seen a total of four CIF Southern Section championship games, with the Blackhawks winning twice.
But even in a down year, both coaches know the rivalry game is always up for grabs.
“You look at all the rivalry games across the country, and I don’t know of any that are more exciting than this,” Armstrong said. “And it doesn’t matter if we’re 10-0 or 0-10. We’ve played them before when we were undefeated, and they’ve only won one or two games, and it’s been really close. You put the record out the window.”
“At a rivalry game, you never know what’s going to happen in high school sports,” said Rebecca Cook, who is the current principal at La Quinta and previously was an athletic director at Palm Desert High. “It doesn’t matter what your record is. Different kids show up to rivalry games, whether they show up or they don’t show up…I want to say ‘This isn’t the most important game of your season’ but for some, it is. They say ‘This game, we have to win. I don’t care what happens the rest of the season.’ ”
Up until last year, the two teams always played on the last week of the regular season, and beyond bragging rights, the game often meant much more. With the two teams almost always in the hunt for a playoff berth, the contest has almost always had an impact on the final DVL standings.
In 2006 and 2007, both teams entered undefeated in the DVL, and the game would determine the champ. Three times, in 2005, 2009 and 2013, one team entered needing a win to prevent the other from sharing a DVL title with them.
But playing the game on the last Friday night of the regular season had its downsides, too. The victors had to temper their emotions to prepare for a playoff run, while the losing team had to pick themselves up and look beyond the loss.
Even with the excitement of the playoffs, the promise of a new season, Blackburn said at times that can be tough.
“It’s like pulling teeth to get kids motivated, especially in 2013 when we lost at the end,” he said.
Because playoff runs and championship rings are few and far between. Sure, each season begins with the opportunity to make it to the finals, but only a very select few make it.
But every year, no matter what, the Aztecs and Blackhawks always have a shot at each other.
It’s about pride, something that will exist long after rings lose their luster and banners are stored away.
As Blackburn remembers it, one year, a Palm Desert student running back and forth down the sidelines made his way over to the Blackhawk faithful, waving the red and gold right in front of them.
Next year, coincidentally, a La Quinta flag made its way in front of the Aztec Army. But before long, members of both sides thought, “Why don’t we make one together and put it up for grabs?”
And so the tradition of the Victory Flag was born. Ever since, it’s been the focus of four years of hard work on the football field and in the gym for countless football players from both schools.
“Each season, the flag is the most important thing I want to win,” said Palm Desert senior linebacker Tommy Jacobsson. “I want to win the flag this year even more than a CIF ring.”
Since its creation, Blackburn said the flag has been a symbol of success and pride, not only on the football field but around the school and the city.
As rivalry wrestling meets, basketball games or volleyball matches take place in the flag’s home, the cheering back and forth eventually invokes who owns the flag.
To that, the losers can never have a comeback. The argument is over.
Rather than winning a football game, it’s about taking home the flag. Walking into a gym and seeing it flutter means you’re on top. One without it is a painful reminder of a lost battle months ago.
“It’s practically the heart to our school. It’s huge that we keep this flag,” senior La Quinta lineman Robbie Polimeni said. “I look up at that thing every day, and it brings back a lot of memories.”
Every year, this game brings out the most surprising, most heroic and most daring moments in both teams.
During the 2004 meeting, Armstrong tried a fake field goal to win, rather than kick for the tie and overtime, which failed and gave the Aztecs the win. In 2005, the Aztecs won with the help of a late Hail Mary throw to James Dockery, and their winning score came on the next play.
A year later, Blackburn’s team nearly made it all the way back from a 28-3 halftime deficit, only for the go-ahead touchdown to be erased on a holding call.
And in 2013 — a play both coaches still dispute till this day — the Blackhawks completed a late comeback with the help of an offsides penalty on the Aztecs during an onside kick.
Throwback jerseys that haven’t been worn in years somehow appear on the field for this game. Now, the visiting team even warms up at their own field, bussed over just moments before kickoff, as they’re greeted with a procession normally reserved for games on a college campus.
“We do that to keep them out of the atmosphere until the last minute, when the stands are completely packed and the kids are hyped.”
But once they arrive — and even in the week leading up to the game — the hype is hard to avoid.
“You can always tell when the La Quinta game is around,” senior Palm Desert lineman Will Emmett said. “There’s this weird vibration going around. Everyone knows it’s a big game. Everyone shows up, and the city basically shuts down for this game.”
For most of the players, the flag game is like a holiday, something they’ve looked forward to, even as kids. They knew long ago that some friendships they forged in middle school wouldn’t matter one Friday night of the year when a friend put on navy while they tug on a red jersey over their shoulder pads.
But the game means nearly as much to those who will watch the game from the stands Friday night.
Most Fridays, classmates come up to football players and bother them with a barrage of questions, but the excitement has been circulating around school for days. The two schools even compete with their spirit days.
“Now, I’ll walk into a classroom and see a huge group of people huddled around, and they’re talking about the game. ‘What are we going to wear? What signs are we going to make?’ It’s a totally different experience from other weeks,” Jacobsson said. “I try to get myself hyped up every week, but even if I wanted to keep it mello this week, it’s unavoidable. There’s no way you could avoid the hype this week.”
“I can’t even focus in class right now,” Emmett said. “It’s just all about football.”
And both coaches recognize that. Neither tries to push the over-used coaching mantra that “it’s just another game,” because they both realize it’s not. For them, it’s not either.
“It would be nice to get a monkey off my back,” Blackburn said with a chuckle.
“I know how bad Pat wants it, and I know how badly I want to keep it,” Armstrong said. “I know we’re both coming in with losing records, but it’s going to be a hard-fought, physical, tough football game.”
For the seniors who have played in this atmosphere two or three times, they know what to expect, but for the sophomores and juniors, players from both teams said Friday will be a moment they won’t soon forget.
“You don’t understand what it’s like until you’re on the field, and you see thousands of people in the stands,” Polimeni said. “You have your Birdcage and your Aztec Army. You have these big blobs of red or white.”
Both coaches and Cook said the treatment of both sides on and off the field has cleaned up significantly since the early days, but even still, things can get a little chippy.
“Half the names the other team is calling you are just so disgusting, you can’t even listen to it,” Emmett said. “Some of the stuff that’s said down there in that game tops anything I’ve heard outside of football.”
But all of it stems from the emotion of hoping that when the final whistle blows, you’re waving the flag.
Each year that passes, the Aztecs want more and more to take it back. For the Blackhawks, that’s just more pressure not to lose it.
“Last time we lost, they came across the field and got that thing, and people were worried it was going to be a problem,” Armstrong said. “But I just said ‘If they wanna come over and grab it if they won, let them. If our guys don’t like it, then don’t lose.”
For Jacobsson, that’s exactly how he’s dreamt of this night.
“I want to do it at their place,” he said. “I want to take the flag from their place and walk onto my bus and meet my fans back here. That’s the perfect thing for me.”