35 Years Ago Today – The Stanfurd Axe “Theft”

[This is the same version that I posted in November, 2012, but with a couple minor edits. — Dan]

The Stanford Axe, symbol of the rivalry between Cal and Stanford, has gone to the Big Game victor since 1933. Since then, it’s also been stolen a few times by each university, with the last ‘real’ theft by Stanford at Ming’s Restaurant in Palo Alto in 1973. But in 1978, there was a different kind of “theft.” During halftime of a men’s basketball game between Cal and Stanford at Maples Pavilion, two Cal students ran across the court, holding the Axe, and showing it to both sides of the arena before running off the court, and disappearing.

I was one of those students.

It wasn’t a real theft. The Axe that we carried was actually a fake – but an unbelievably good one. The story started with Stanford’s convincing victory in the 1977 Big Game, by a score of 21-3. I was a freshman in the Cal Band, and the week before had been a full one: late nights spent guarding our practice field, playing at luncheons, riding a San Francisco Cable Car (and having to somehow position the rather large bell of my tuba out the rear window of the cable car, without falling out myself!), and managing to fit in a couple Calculus problem sets during the wee hours. It was wild, dizzying, and almost overwhelming. And then we marched up to my first Big Game Bonfire Rally in the Greek Theater. I loved every bit of it.

After the Rally, the Band split into four bands, boarded buses, and played at various alumni reunions throughout Berkeley, San Francisco, and Oakland. Old Blues clapped and cheered, and bought drinks for us. This I liked! The next morning came early, though, and we boarded buses once again to make the trek to Stanford. Just three hours of rehearsal at Palo Alto High School, followed by a short march to the old Stanford Stadium, an intense, lung-burning PreGame show, and then… the game.

What a letdown! I watched helplessly in the fourth quarter as Cal’s offense seemed unable to do anything. Guy Benjamin, the Stanford QB, had great success at throwing flare passes to freshman Darrin Nelson, and he was nearly impossible for the Bears to stop. At that moment, every bit of lost sleep from the week caught up with me. All that cheering, playing, guarding, singing, and dancing seemed a wasted effort, and a feeling of hopeless exhaustion came over me.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.

The story of how the Fake Axe plot was conceived, planned, and executed is already well documented by Jamie Rawson (’77). His account of the entire Fake Axe saga (which is in iGoBears, under the title “The 1978 Axe Caper: The Official Story”) is still the best reference available. Besides, for the hatching of the plot, and the building of the Fake Axe, I was completely out of the loop. Everything was on a “need to know” basis, and at that point, I didn’t need to know.

The plot revolved around fellow Bass player Jay Huxman, who had the idea to make a Fake Axe, and then made one; and Jamie, who expertly painted the the plaque to give the appearance of the brass plates that show the scores for all Big Games past.

I was only involved in the last 1% of the plan. But it was definitely the most exciting 1%!

I don’t remember when I first saw the Fake Axe, but I remember feeling amazed and astonished. I’d seen the Real Axe before, and honestly, I couldn’t tell that it was a fake until I got within about five feet of it. Jay and Jamie couldn’t have done a more thorough job. It was brilliant!

I remember meeting the Cal Band bus at Maples Pavilion before the game on January 28th, 1978. Jay and Kip Parent came up to talk with me, and they asked me if I would be interested in running the Fake Axe across the basketball court along with Jay. “Sure,” I said. I was pretty agreeable at the time, and I thought it might be cool. I was in with both feet. And I was definitely too young and naïve to have any thoughts of self-preservation.

We took a walk around the Pavilion, and saw the paved path that led to a gate; an ambulance was parked there, and it seemed natural that the gate (a 9-ft tall section of chain link fence) should be open. We went over the basic plan and the escape route, and everything seemed pretty straightforward. The getaway car, driven by John Gezelius, would be just outside the gate. We were all set.

We did our normal playing with the Cal Band at the basketball game. Then, with a few minutes to go in the first half, we removed our white dress shirts, straw hats, and vests – anything that would identify us as members of the Cal Band. We didn’t want to do anything that might reflect poorly on the Band. I put on the Cal sweatshirt that was brought for me, and during halftime, Jay and I crouched down at the edge of the floor, with the Fake Axe still inside a thin cardboard box, and watched the pee-wee basketball game that occupied the first part of halftime. It was during this time that Eric eased over and whispered to us, “the gate is locked.” Whoa.

We waited nervously for our signal; when the little ones cleared the court, and precisely ten seconds after the Stanford Band started playing its first song, we would make our run. Appropriately, the trumpets started the familiar William Tell Overture…. and we were off!

Holding one side of the Axe, and Jay holding the other, we ran from the end line to the top of the key, holding the Axe horizontal, with the blade side down. Then we held it up to show the Stanford Alumni section for a second – still running – and then turned it around toward the Stanford Band and Student Section.

By then, we were a few meters from the other end of the court. Jay tucked the Axe under his arm, we sprinted through a human tunnel of our “blockers,” who were willing to get in the way of, slow down, and for some, get run over by our pursuers. The human tunnel closed after us – and that probably saved my life.

We ran up the tunnel toward the exit – a glass and steel double-door. There weren’t many people at all, except for a Stanford policeman. He seemed surprised to see us, as we were to see him, but we sped past him and got out the door. He wasn’t going to outrun us, and in 1977, we were pretty sure he wouldn’t shoot us.

We were outside! I remember easing up to about half-speed, and I thought, “No one is going to be chasing us…” Jay was still running full speed, and he and the Axe were about 10 yards ahead of me. It was strangely quiet.

And then, I heard a sound. It was somewhat familiar… Yes! The sound of someone hitting the bar of a steel double-door, but really hard – and not just one person, but maybe… a lot!!

By now, the Stanford frat guys from the Student Section were in full chase, and I heard numerous threats to my physical well-being. I was now in a full sprint (and then some!). The run seemed like it was about a hundred yards, and it went pretty quickly. But I could hear footsteps… Jay, still ahead of me, slid the Axe under the locked gate to one of the guys on the other side. As Jay started to climb the gate, I hit the gate at a full sprint — Jump, Pull, Over. (To be honest, I’ve always been kind of a wimp about climbing fences & all that, but with adrenaline and threats of dismemberment, the climb seemed fast and easy!)

As I was going over the gate, facing Jay, I looked down – and the first Stanford guy had a hold of Jay’s ankle! Jay shook him off, got over the gate, and we dashed to the getaway car. We hadn’t practiced this part, though, and there was some hesitation ahead of me, and I’m not sure if I said it, or only thought it: “GET IN THE DAMN CAR!!”

As we started to drive through the parking lot, I could see literally hundreds of Cardinal-clad, hostile fanatics chasing us. We weren’t out of the woods yet. One guy pulled an 8-ft long traffic barricade right in front of us! John managed to squeeze past it (with only a minor smudge of white paint on the side of his car), and we were on our way through the parking lot.

I think we were doing about 80 mph down Palm Drive, and when we got into the first block of downtown Palo Alto, John made a hard right turn (with screeching wheels) onto High St. However, our speed had attracted the attention of another one of Stanford’s finest Campus Police, and she pulled us over on High St., with lights flashing.

She motioned for us to roll down the passenger window, and she asked John for his I.D.

Then I saw the reflection of many, many more red and blue flashing lights on the buildings that surrounded us.

No fewer than three Palo Alto Police cars pulled up behind the Stanford Campus Police car. A burly sergeant, 50-ish, lowered his head into the car window and snapped, “You guys know anything about an Axe?”

Nobody responded, until one of us replied, “Well… Should we tell him?”

I rolled my eyes, but I had to admit that I felt much safer in police custody than I would with the guys in red! Besides, I was still shaking uncontrollably, and this continued for nearly a full day afterward.

So we told the sergeant about the Fake Axe, and we got out of the car to show him, and he took a good, long, look at it. Then he reached on his belt for his radio, mumbled something into it, and while waiting for a reply, looked up at us and said, “If the real one’s gone, you guys are in deep sh-t.”

After a few beeps , squawks, and unintelligible bits of radio-speak, the sergeant got his radio confirmation that the Real Stanford Axe was, indeed, still locked in its highly-secure case in Tresidder Student Union. The sergeant immediately put the radio back on his belt, got in his car, and the three Palo Alto Police cars went away as quickly as they had arrived.

Our Stanford Campus officer, on the other hand, was intrigued, and she asked us what all this Axe stuff was about. So we told her the stories of 19th-century baseball games and ribbons and trans-Bay thefts, and she was fascinated by it all. And she said “Thanks, guys!”, and bid us a good night.

And I got back in the car, feeling very, very lucky to be not only alive, but intact! …and still shaking…

Comments are closed.