Battle for the Axe: the Minnesota-Wisconsin Rivalry

The Gophers last took possession of the axe in 2003. Photo courtesy of bealcherreport.com.

It happened in 1943. Minnesota met Wisconsin in yet another anticipated game of enmity—further deepening the rivalry, which ranks longest in the history of division 1-A football. Since 1890, the Badgers and the Gophers have battled for reputation, fame and glory, all in the hopes of becoming the rightful victor of a hard fought border battle. But in 1943, the tangible pride that came with an honest win vanished, leaving the winning team with nothing to bring home and show for it.

Prior to the 1943 incident, the winning team of a Badger-Gopher blowout earned what was called the “Slab of Bacon.” Carved out of black walnut wood, the trophy was decorated with a small football and had an “M” or “W” on each end that depicted the winner of the most recent game depending on the angle it was held. But after a disappointing 25-13 Minnesota victory, what was once the pride and joy of an honest win soon became the center of a mysterious trophy investigation that lasted over five decades.

Immediately after Minnesota trumped Wisconsin that 1943 afternoon, heated emotions emerged on Wisconsin turf, causing a riotous affair on the field. Commotion shook the stadium before the Gophers were presented their hard earned “Slab of Bacon,” keeping it in the shifty hands of the previous victors—the Wisconsin Badgers. The uproar caused such a scene that the “Slab of Bacon” never made it to the field and after a rigorous and unsuccessful search it was finally declared “lost”—leaving Minnesota empty-handed and fans across the board puzzled.

Gradually, history turned to legend, and legend of the Slab became myth until a curious act of spring-cleaning revealed the Bacon’s enigmatic secret. In 1994, the slab was uncovered in the deep, dark depths of a Camp Randall Stadium storage room. While the Slab of Bacon was sworn to be missing for 51 years, the scores of every game from 1930 to 1970 had been carved on the back, leaving fans to wonder who the bacon bandit truly was. A dedicated fan? A custodian? A ghost? Nobody knows.

Needless to say, the heated Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry has the power to drive fans to do crazy things. Whether it’s swiping the much-revered “Slab of Bacon” from Gopher claws or shouting crude cheers until vocal cords run dry, the Gopher-Badger battle is one of the most celebrated and anticipated games played in the college football season. The two teams have gone head-to-head over 120 times. And while Minnesota holds the most wins at 59-46-8, Wisconsin holds the longest winning streak with seven wins since 2004. The schools have met every year since their 17-17 tie in 1907 and will continue to face off in many seasons to come.

But after the Slab of Bacon dissolved into the twilight zone in 1943, athletic officials had a conundrum on their hands. What were they to make of the next Badger-Gopher trophy? While the prize may have “disappeared,” the rivalry continued to boil. So in 1948, the Wisconsin Letterwinners’ organization created what is known as the Paul Bunyan Axe—which is the token tool of the fabled Midwestern lumberjack Paul Bunyan.

The giant axe wears a handle that is six feet long and holds 56 years worth of Wisconsin v. Minnesota game scores. After each game, if the winning team is not currently in possession of the trophy they are permitted to sprint across the field with a lion-like rage and steal the trophy from the current holder. The losers, unfortunately, are left with hurt pride and a next rough set of two-a-days. Today, the two teams continue to play for this ornamental trophy, although the original has been sitting in the College Football Hall of Fame since 2003.

Every year, the Wisconsin Badgers meet their neighborly nemesis, the Minnesota Gophers, on the football field; and every year, both teams painstakingly prepare for a well-deserved triumph. Each season, the practices before the rivalry game are always premised with a marvel at the axe (if they are in possession of it) and a rub for, not only good luck, but also for motivation.

For both teams, the border battle match-up means millions to their prospective football programs and immeasurable dignity for their fans. While a sweet win is at the forefront of every Badger and Gopher mind, it is worth mentioning that quality sportsmanship continues to live on. As current Wisconsin Quarterback Russell Wilson said in a press conference, “You’re playing a great team in Minnesota. They’ve been playing really well in the past couple games, so we have to make sure that we’re prepared for that.”

In the end, playing for the Paul Bunyan Axe is somewhat a symbol for playing for your school and your fellow peers. It’s a chance to bring a strong sense of enthusiasm and pride to one’s alma mater—one that will forever live, not only on the Paul Bunyan Axe handle, but in the history of the game.