Rutherford for Real, Greg Tucker, 2011
The eagle mysteriously disappeared in late October, 1967. It returned to its roost fifteen years later in exchange for a brown envelope.
No Tennessee college football rivalry was ever more intense than the regional/conference competition between the MTSU Blue Raiders (Murfreesboro, TN) and the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles (Cookeville, TN). A gridiron rivalry dating from 1917, these two teams annually squared off on Thanksgiving Day in a season finale grudge match that often determined the final Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) standings. A Thanksgiving win could certainly salvage a lackluster season and many of the games became part of MTSU football lore.
The season finale on Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 1967, was no exception. As the season opened, Coach
Charles M. ‘Bubber’ Murphy boasted ‘one of the finest teams ever assembled at MTSU.’ Team stars included senior quarterback Billy Walker from Bedford County (Tennessee) who set school passing records while earning all OVC honors. Other standouts included Gene Carney, Larry ‘Bull’ Mathews, Herbert Owenby, Mike Matheny, Charlie Daniel, Jimmy Dunn and Phil Watts.
After an opening win, however, the Raiders lost four straight. The Blue Raider season record before the match-up with Tennessee Tech was four wins and five losses. Coached by Rutherford County native Wilburn Tucker, the Eagles were also ‘OVC backrunners’ in 1967.
“The Golden Eagles may be set to clobber the Raiders to help Coach Tucker put down rumors he may be replaced after this season” speculated Daily News Journal sports writer Lee Sadler.
But the Blue Raiders seniors, playing for a home crowd of 10,000, were determined not to end their collegiate play with a losing season. Senior Owenby caught three touchdown passes (two from Walker and one from Carney). The play of the day was when Bull Mathews ran over fifty yards for a one-year touchdown carry.
A sustained fourth quarter drive put the ball on the one-yard line. The Bull already had a second quarter touchdown to his credit but wanted more. From the fullback position, Bull hit the line and bounced back. After a second try forward, he took to the outside running 35 yards across the field. Again, finding no opening to the goal, he reversed field and ran to his left to opposite corner and into the end zone for a one-yard scoring play. Bull ran with the ball for over fifty yards but was credited with only a one-yard touchdown carry.
After Bull’s run, the only excitement was a late game brawl that erupted in the southwest corner of Jones Field involving both players and fans. The free-for-all was brought under control without penalties. (It was all part of the Raiders Golden Eagles tradition). Final score was a 33-20 victory for MTSU, the sixth consecutive victory over the Cookeville rival. The 5-5 season was good enough for a third place conference finish.
Despite the loss, a few of the Tennessee Tech fans apparently did not go home empty handed. During the Thanksgiving weekend it was discovered that a historic Rutherford County landmark had disappeared from the Stones River National Cemetery. The eagle from atop the U.S. Regulars monument was gone without a trace.
The monument was erected in 1882 by survivors of the Regular Brigade, Army of the Cumberland, in memory of those were killed or died of wounds in the epic Stones River Battle. Atop the 14-foot cylindrical monument shaft, the bronze eagle was landing on a three-quarter sphere. With a 57-inch wingspan and a weight of 270 pounds, the missing eagle and sphere measured three feet in height.
The heist was completed without a crane or scaffolding. Bob Simerly, retired Battlefield maintenance chief, remembers that the sphere and eagle were set down over metal pegs and speculated that enough manpower was boosted up the shaft could have lifted it off. “It was apparently done without damage to the shaft and only limited damage to the stolen parts” notes Simerly. The matter was investigated by the FBI without success.
The shart stood bare-topped for 15 years. The estimated replacement cost was $10,000. In 1982, anticipating the 100th anniversary of the monument, Battlefield Superintendent Don Magee launched a campaign to recover the missing eagle. “I went to Tech and asked permission to do a walk-through of the fraternity house,” remembers Magee. “The Tech president flatly refused.”
Another approach was attempted without consulting Tech officials. “We printed posters with a picture and written description of the eagle and offered a $500 reward for its return – no questions asked,” explained Simerly. “We put the posters all over the Tech and MTSU campuses and in several Nashville locations.” The Tech administration did not appreciate the effort and complained to the Park Service, according to Magee.
Two or three weeks passed with no response. “Finally, a caller, speaking in the third person, said he had a friend who knew someone who had what might be what we may be looking for,” recalls Simerly. Eventually a Polaroid picture was sent to the Battlefield personnel. (Ransom pro forma: “He is alive and well now, but is you ever want to see your love one again…”). According to Simerly, the ‘picture was definitely our bird, sitting on asphalt pavement and leaning on a post in what looked like someone’s carport. We agreed to their terms.”
Some in the Park Service objected to ‘paying for stolen goods.’ But Magee prevailed: “It made a lot more sense than paying $10,000 for a replica.”
A few days later, March 13, 1982, in a pouring rain, Simerly drove the pickup truck to Nashville for a 10AM rendezvous in the old Home Depot parking lot at Hickory Hollow. Magee rode shotgun carrying a brown envelope with $500 in unmarked bills. “I never did know where all that cash came from,” recalls Simerly. Robert Ragland, a ‘friend of the Park’ accompanied the two Battlefield employees.
At the appointed hour a clean, late model pickup turned into the lot and pulled alongside.
“We could see the eagle sitting on an old tire in the truck bed.” the brown envelope was passed through the windows. After a quick count of the cash, the loaded truck pulled around tailgate-to-tailgate, and the tire and eagle were transferred. “They were a couple of big, brawny, mid-thirtyish fellows.”
The individual accepting the reward/ransom, repeated his claim that he had no knowledge of the theft and was making the return for a friend. He had with him one of the Tech reward posters. “Magee took down the license plate number but decided not to pursue it. We had promised – no questions asked.” The truck was registered in Mt. Juliet (Tennessee).
The body of the eagle had been painted brown and the head and neck were covered with gold paint. Hinge pins were broken in both wings. After being cleaned and repaired, the bird was remounted and rededicated on Memorial Day, 1982. “I added brackets to the top of the shaft so the spherical base of the eagle could be permanently attached,” explains Simerly.