Eagle practice at Jordan-Hare Stadium: Auburn icons 'confident, bold and brave'

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By Jack Smith

It's a spectacular blue-sky summer morning, about 30 minutes after sunrise.

Jordan-Hare Stadium is still and silent, empty and lifeless. Then the eagle arrives.

Spirit breaks the silence with a shrill cry, staring intensely into the distance as Roy Crow and Marianne Murphy Hudson affix a transmitter to his tail.

"He's not happy," Crowe says. "He's hungry and he's eager to work."

Moments later, after a golf cart ride up the ramp on the northeast side of the stadium, the cage's door flings open, and out pops Spirit.

A volunteer, wearing a glove over one hand while clutching a leash with Spirit's breakfast attached to it in the other, waits patiently on the sidelines. As Spirit soars past the suites lining the eastern side of the stadium and glides over the student section, the volunteer dashes to the 50-yard line, with the bait bouncing close behind on the turf of Pat Dye Field. Spirit sticks the landing and gets his reward.

This same scene will play out differently in one sense approximately 17 minutes prior to the kickoff of Auburn and Clemson Saturday night. The flight will hopefully be the same. The only difference is there will be 87,000 fans yelling a slow, rolling Warrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr Eagle, Hey!

Those 90 seconds, when all eyes are on Spirit, the beautiful Bald Eagle, or Nova, the majestic Golden, are not nearly as fun for Crowe or Hudson as they are for the Auburn faithful.

"That 90 seconds is horrible," Crowe said. "We got 87,000 people expecting a wild eagle to land on the 50-yard line. There's nothing holding that bird back except its trust in its training."

Those precious few seconds that mean so much to so many Auburn fans are made possible by countless mornings like this one at "eagle practice."

The eagle has been associated with Auburn football for more than a century, but pre-game, open-air flights in Jordan-Hare Stadium did not begin until Tiger, a retired Golden Eagle, flew before kickoff at the Wyoming game in 2000. That first flight was more limited.

"I trained him to jump up on the goal post, and then he just flew to midfield," Crowe said. "I think he did that two games. The Athletic Director at the time (David Housel) had some reservations about turning the bird lose over the crowd, but they had a pep rally or something here with a bunch of students in the stands, so we said let us try it over that."

Housel agreed to the test run. He was standing on the field as Tiger was released from Section 23. Tiger flew majestically around the stadium and landed on the field, almost at Housel's feet.

"He grinned and said, 'Fly it.' It was too good to not to do it," Crowe recalls. "Tiger had flown free in the stadium before, but that was the very first time he had flown free in the stadium in front of a crowd."

One of college football's greatest gameday traditions was born. Tiger even flew in front of the world at the Olympics in 2002, carrying the Southeastern Raptor Rehabilitation Center's message of conservation to hundreds of millions of people across the globe.

A decade later, the tradition continues, and the Southeastern Raptor Rehabilitation Center's conservation education efforts continue to grow. The three eagles in their care, Tiger, Nova and Spirit, have made hundreds of appearances at schools throughout the Southeast. They carry with them the message of conservation in a powerful way. Countless children have also witnessed the 250-300 raptor releases that the Raptor Center has in a given year.

"We try to make it an educational experience," says Dr. Jamie Bellah, director of the Raptor Center at the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine. "We are permitted to have the eagles by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. We have to have that as a priority, and that's a good priority to have."

While the pre-game flights might seem almost routine to fans at the game, Crowe and Hudson don't take the expected result for granted. Crowe recalls one game when Nova, a Golden Eagle, flew outside the bowl of the stadium before turning back toward the bait. In the fall of 2003, Spirit left the stadium during a practiceŚ and landed near Plainsman Park. Crowe scrambled to get the telemetry gear out and track the prized eagle's location.

"We went down there and there were people already there saying 'your eagle is out there,'" Crowe said. "We didn't have any problem finding her."

Hundreds of hours of training are done to avoid such an outcome on gameday. While it is hard and monotonous work that is far less glamorous in an empty stadium early in the morning, Hudson says it's worth it when the eagle lands and the crowd roars.

"Roy and I are the only people who don't enjoy it the same as everyone else," Hudson says. "It is our responsibility to make sure the bird lands on the field. It is the culmination of our hard work and our practice."

So what is it about the eagle's flight that makes it so special?

"I think that eagles really have a presence," Hudson says. "They have a dominating air about them. They are confident, they are bold, they are brave. They are beautiful and majestic and I think seeing such a beautiful creature move the way it was designed to move, soaring through the air, is a lot different than just seeing a bird sitting in a cage. In addition to the fact that it inspires people with the War Eagle cry, it is just really moving for a lot of people."

Click to learn more about the Southeastern Raptor Rehabilitation Center.

More "About Our Eagles"

The Auburn Experience is a new feature that will highlight a different element of the Auburn Gameday Experience and what makes it special each week.

Auburn Experience Archive:
Sept. 8, 2010 -- Tiger Walk: Often imitated, never duplicated
Sept. 2, 2010 -- Lovelace Hall of Honor