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 of 10.
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.