Growing up around and watching very quintessentially British games of football, rugby, tennis and cricket, I assumed we held the rights to all things traditional in sport. At least once every two years, and since 1882, the England and Australia cricket teams compete for a small terracotta urn reputed to contain the ashes of a burnt cricket bail, named after Australia won the 1882 series and The Sporting Times reported the death of English cricket, it’s “body cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”. England traveling to reclaim The Ashes became one of sport’s great traditions.
On reflection though, we’re a bit dull when it comes to trophies. Football and rugby have very grand looking prizes, the FIFA World Cup and William Webb Ellis for the world champions of their sports are made of gold and gilded silver respectively. But it’s not an axe.
I’m discovering that college football has a fascinating blend of history and tradition and some of my more intriguing finds are the rivalries and their quirky customs that have sprung up on my journey. Trophies here are far more exciting – teams competing for The Golden Egg (Mississippi vs Mississippi State), The Little Brown Jug, (Minnesota vs Michigan), Keg of Nails (Louisville vs Cincinnati) and Paul Bunyan’s Axe amongst many more I’ll bring to light in weeks to come as part of a Traditions series on Saturdays Feed My Soul.
The longest continually running rivalry in college football started when the universities of Wisconsin and Minnesota first squared off in 1890, Badgers vs Golden Gophers who may have the least intimidating nickname in sport, bar the Robins of Swindon Town. Bar a brief break in 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt suspended college football owing to too many injuries and fatalities (!), the rivalry resumed with a 17-17 tie in 1907 and the two rivals have competed every year since.
Paul Bunyan’s Axe is the prize for the winner of this great rivalry, a six-foot long axe, the handle of which records the winner of each contest. Paul Bunyan was apparently a mythical lumberjack, 7 feet tall who, legend has it, created the Grand Canyon by dragging his axe behind him as he walked. I’m currently working my way through the Marvel films and can’t help thinking he’d be a great subject, but it’s tough to argue against Thor as the best user of an axe as superpower.
It actually replaced an even more bizarre trophy, The Slab of Bacon, which had been introduced in 1930. This was a wooden slab with M or W in the middle and hung up according to who had won the game and who would accordingly, “bring home the bacon”. The Slab went missing in 1948, and so the National W Club came up with Paul Bunyan’s Axe, won for the first time that year by Minnesota, 16-0.
The winning team grabs the axe from the sideline (or their opponents’ if it’s been reclaimed) and run the length of the field and pretend to chop down the goalposts of their opponents. It’s a marvellous tradition and I’m not entirely surprised it hasn’t caught on here – it would have been a disaster in the riotous days of English football in the 1970s and 80s. Visiting Scottish football fans successfully took down the goalposts with their hands after a famous win in England in 1977. I dread to think what might have happened if they had an axe!
Wisconsin are the current holders and marginally lead the rivalry, 61 victories to 60, with 8 ties. Some great players have passed through these two great schools, the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson throwing 4 touchdowns for Wisconsin in a 2011 win, the Watt brothers JJ and TJ have also worn the red jersey of the Badgers, and the Indianapolis Colts-bound Jonathan Taylor rushed for 3 TDs to win the most recent contest last November in a blizzard.
Minnesota boasts less famous players, Marion Barber of the Dallas Cowboys might be the most recognised currently, but look out for them this season. 2019 saw them finish #10 in the nation and win 11 games for just the third time ever. They are bringing back plenty of talent, including rising star Tanner Morgan, a 6’2”, 215 lb quarterback who is gaining increasing attention from NFL scouts ahead of the 2021 Draft.
With Wisconsin finishing #11 last year, their competition to win the Big Ten conference and Paul Bunyan’s Axe is set to be one to watch.