IOWA CITY — Spencer Bieri puts on a real football jersey just once a year.
A University of Iowa junior student manager, Bieri practices nearly every day for three months for one flag-football game, a game that means more to him than any 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,” Bieri said.
Iowa and Wisconsin football managers compete for the Rusty Toolbox traveling trophy about 10:30 tonight at the Bubble, Iowa’s indoor practice facility. It’s an eight-man flag-football game, and the winner earns an old toolbox painted in the team’s 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 an officiating crew fresh from a high school game to call the game fairly. University security and police will attend to make sure there are no fights or alcohol.
Winning the Rusty Toolbox means more than a few high-fives in a rec league. Just ask Dan Wolfe, a former Iowa manager and now administrative coordinator for the Bucknell football team.
After Iowa won the trophy five straight years, Wisconsin blew out the Hawkeyes, 37-6, last year in Madison. Wolfe, who played in the five victories but missed last year while interning with the San Francisco 49ers, made the current group of managers walk past an empty display case in the 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 who said he learned the value of the Rusty Toolbox from Wolfe, has 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 for Wisconsin. Chadima, Wisconsin’s associate athletics director for sports administration, worked for former Iowa operations director Bill Dervrich and figured it would be fun if managers played for a traveling trophy the night before the 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 didn’t play each other. In 1995, it began in earnest.
It 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 broken fingers and suffered a concussion.
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 added 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 and are scheduled to play 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.”