Except for a dramatic Hail Mary touchdown pass, nothing seems to get the Auburn faithful on their feet and cheering more than to see their beloved War Eagle soaring above Jordan-Hare Stadium prior to every home game.
To untether a wild animal and expect it to perform a specific routine is not an easy task. But Pia Kulakowski of Mobile is among the volunteers who help to make sure the performance is flawless.
Kulakowski is a zoology student at Auburn. The 21-year-old senior, who is majoring in Conservation and Biodiversity along with Spanish, has been helping with the Southeastern Raptor Center since her freshman year.
“As a volunteer, we help to take care of the birds and train them,” said the daughter of Joe and Rachel Kulakowski. “We practice every morning from June through the football season. We have to make sure the eagle knows what to do.”
The team actually works with two raptors. The lead character playing the role of War Eagle VII is a Golden Eagle named Nova. Completing the cast is a Bald Eagle named Spirit.
“We have two birds, because they can be just like people,” Kulakowski said. “We may get to the stadium, and if one of them is just having a bad day, we have a back-up ready.”To prepare the birds for thousands of screaming fans, Kulakowski and the other volunteers let them fly around the field during the practice sessions, before coming down for a food reward. The many hours of practice makes the exhibition seem effortless by kickoff.
The volunteers do not actually get to work on the field during the flight ceremony. Kulakowski said the staff members of the Southeastern Raptor Center take over the reins for game day. The center, a part of Auburn’s College of Veterinary Medicine, has been rehabilitating injured birds since the 1970s.
However, the volunteers are not totally left out of the action. Once the eagle ends its flight, they walk the raptor around the stadium during the first quarter. Kulakowski has had the honor twice this season, after doing it once in 2012.
Kulakowski, who attended McGill-Toolen Catholic High School, has also remained busy away from the football field. Last summer, she spent three months on an internship with the American Bald Eagle Foundation in Haines, Alaska.
“It’s a small place,” said Kulakowski, who is president of the Society for Conservation Biology at Auburn. “There were about 1,000 people, and probably a 1,000 dogs.” At the conclusion of her studies, she submitted a research paper titled “Seabirds of Alaska.”
Now back in the classroom, Kulakowski is preparing for the end of her undergraduate career. But she is in no hurry to leave the Loveliest Village On The Plains.
“If I could have my dream job, it would be the one Marianne Hudson has at our education center here,” Kulakowski said of the raptor specialist. “She has been my mentor. She has been working with the raptors for 20 years, and does an awesome job.”
But until that day, Kulakowski and her fellow volunteers have one more game for which to prepare their raptors – the Nov. 30 showdown with arch-rival Alabama. She said the campus has still not calmed down since the dramatic victory over Georgia, and she cannot imagine what will take place when the Crimson Tide arrives.
“It is really an amazing feeling to be on the sidelines, hanging out with the War Eagle at home games,” Kulakowski said. “You see the bird soaring on the Jumbotron, and hear 80,000 fans screaming ‘waaarrrr’ for the flight and then ‘eagle’ as it touches down on the field. It is a really special moment in college football.”
BIGGEST IRON BOWL EVER?
Since the SEC split into two divisions for football, Alabama and Auburn have rarely met in the regular season finale with a berth in the conference title game up for grabs.
The most memorable contest in the last few seasons took place in 2010, when Cam Newton led the Tigers to a dramatic 28-27 win in their undefeated season. But the Tide went into the game with two losses, and would not have qualified for the conference final even with a victory.
Fans actually have to look back to 1994 to find a game with a similar impact. Sixth-ranked Auburn entered Legion Field in Birmingham with a 21-game non-losing streak, but the third-ranked Crimson Tide came away with a 21-14 victory. Even that match lacked this impact, as Auburn was on NCAA probation and ineligible for the postseason.
Since this article went to press prior to Alabama’s game with UT-Chattanooga, it would be a safe assumption that the Tide is still undefeated and ranked No. 1. So it will be a winner-take-all showdown when the old rivals meet for the 78th time.
CRAZIEST FINISH EVER?
Thanksgiving weekend traditionally gives college football fans some of the most exciting games of the season. In-state rivalries add extra pressure, as many of the players have competed against each other since their peewee days.
These unique circumstances often lead to bizarre outcomes. The most unusual one I ever covered took place 30 years ago this week at the Egg Bowl between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. The game was played in Jackson, Miss., in those days.
The Rebels were trying to earn their first bowl invitation in years, but the Bulldogs had dominated the day. The final stats showed a 22-11 advantage in first downs and 416-163 edge in total yards for State. But a series of turnovers helped Ole Miss take a 24-23 lead late in the game.
John Bond, MSU’s four-year starter at quarterback who helped to stop Alabama’s 28-game winning streak as a freshman, then lead his Bulldogs on the last offensive possession of his college career. Ole Miss could not stop Bond and his powerful rushing attack, and the Bulldogs drove to the 10-yard line with 24 seconds to play. Artie Cosby, who had already hit three field goals, lined up for an apparent game-winning 27-yard attempt.
Standing at the goal-line with State’s fans ringing their cherished cowbells behind me, I could see dark clouds on the horizon toward the open end of the stadium. A storm was brewing, and not a second too soon for Ole Miss.
Cosby made sure to kick the ball high to avoid a potential block, but a sudden gust of wind – estimated by some at 40 mph – intercepted the ball in mid-flight, held it for a second and then slammed it back to the turf. Like turning a balance knob on a stereo, the home crowd went dead quiet while the visiting Rebel fans exploded across the field.
The “immaculate deflection” would go down in Egg Bowl history, as Ole Miss went on to play in the Independence Bowl. Can another wild finish be in the cards for this weekend? We’ll just have to put down the turkey leg, push back from the table and see what transpires.