IOWA CITY — Spencer Bieri puts on a real football jersey just once each year.
Bieri, a University of Iowa junior student manager, has practiced nearly every day for three months for one flag-football game. And that one game means more to Bieri than any of times he strapped it on as a four-year starter at Louisa-Muscatine High School.
“None of those games even compare to the excitement of playing in the Toolbox game,” said Bieri, a junior.
Iowa and Wisconsin’s football managers compete for the Rusty Toolbox traveling trophy around 10:30 p.m. Friday at the Bubble. It’s an 8-man, flag-football game with the winner earning an old toolbox painted in the teams’ colors.
If it sounds like a backyard pitch-and-catch session for good-natured bragging rights, think again. It’s open to the public, and the schools employ a officiating crew fresh from a Friday night prep game to call the game fairly. University security and police will attend the game to make sure there’s no fights or alcohol.
Winning the Rusty Toolbox means more than just a few high-fives at a rec league to the players. Just ask Dan Wolfe, a former Iowa manager and now administrative coordinator for the Bucknell football team.
After Iowa won the trophy five consecutive years, Wisconsin blew out the Hawkeyes 37-6 last year in Madison. Wolfe, who played in the five victories but interned with the San Francisco 49ers last year, made sure the current group of managers remembered the game by forcing them to walk past an empty display case empty inside their locker room.
“These guys hate it,” Wolfe said. “I made sure it was one of the last things that got done before I left. When the managers lost it, we have that case up there displayed with nothing in it. Now they understand what they’re after.
“I don’t think the guys understood the intensity of the game.”
Bieri, a center/nose guard, said he learned the value of the Rusty Toolbox from Wolfe. He has also felt the pain of losing it.
“The worst part is definitely the next day,” Bieri said. “All the coaches, all the players will come up to you and ask you if you won or not. It really sucks saying, ‘No, we lost.’”
The game began in 1991 when former Iowa manager John Chadima left the school for Wisconsin. Chadima, now Wisconsin’s associate athletics director for sports administration, worked for former Iowa operations director Bill Dervrich and thought it would be fun for the schools’ managers to play for a traveling trophy the night before the teams’ Saturday football game.
“Sometimes some of the these managers played a game before pregame warm-ups until the players came out the day of the game,” Chadima said. “We said, ‘Shoot, let’s start a little rivalry here.’
“It seemed like a neat thing to do. They guys were fired up to do it.”
The managers played in 1991, then took a few years off when the schools rotated off one another’s schedule. In 1995, it began in earnest.
It also has featured some contentious moments. In 2000, there was a brawl in Iowa City. In 2003, Wisconsin used former Northern Illinois running back — Thomas Hammock — in a Badgers’ victory.
“The next year we made a few new rules like no former players,” Wolfe said. “Now we go recruiting kids at high schools. They have to be able to play football in order to be a manager to keep it competitive.
In 2004, two Wisconsin managers tried to grab an Iowa player’s flag but instead collided heads and were taken to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Wolfe has suffered broken fingers and a concussion during his tenure.
Other schools have contacted Iowa and Wisconsin about playing a flag football game but nothing has materialized.
“It’s really unique to Iowa and Wisconsin right now,” Chadima said.
This year’s game carries a new intensity because the schools won’t play again until at least 2013. When the Big Ten goes to 12 teams next year, Wisconsin and Iowa will compete in different divisions. Right now they’re scheduled to play only four times over a 10-year period.
“When we heard about that, with that kind of gap time, the thing that scares me is the fact this could be the last Toolbox,” Bieri said. “One of the things I tell the guys is this could be your last game, so let’s try to win that Toolbox, and we could keep it forever.”