Since 1948 Bemidji State University and Minnesota State University Moorhead have been playing for more than just a W. Sixty-four times the teams have met on the gridiron to stake claim to a traveling trophy called The Battle Axe – an ancient weapon from New Guinea. Currently the second-longest traveling trophy in Division II history, the Beavers and Dragons have played every season for the coveted bragging right with BSU trailing in the all-time Axe series 27-34-3, but have won 11 of the last 12 games and have retained the Axe for the trophy case in the last three meetings.
The 1948 Bemidji State College football homecoming committee decided that something symbolic was needed to add color to the festivities. Publicity stunts that year included dropping leaflets, which included game admissions among them, from an airplane.
Homecoming committee chairman Ron Smith and others decided that an Axe, then in possession of Smith, would serve as a suitable trophy to mark the hotly-contested annual Beaver-Dragon gridiron clash. The axe would be awarded to the university president representing the victor of the contest.
Smith’s axe originated in the native village of Mount Hagon, New Guinea. The axe is hand made and was polished underwater by its maker. Two types of axe are produced by natives in the Mount Hagon area, one with a blade of black stone for work and one of gray stone for ceremonies. Smith procured the gray trophy axe through a series of shrewd trades with the natives.
In 1948 the teams fought to the bitter end for possession of the weapon in the inaugural Battle for the Axe, with Moorhead State winning 13-6. Despite a loss in the first battle, Bemidji State dominated the early history of the trophy series posting a 10-3-1 record in its first 14 games. BSU won five consecutive meetings in the series from 1957-’61 and was unbeaten in seven consecutive meetings from 1955-’61.
The tide turned in 1962, with the Dragons taking control of the series for the next few decades. In 21 games played from 1962 to 1982, the Beavers brought home the Battle Axe just twice - after a 28-12 win in Bemidji in 1969 and a 24-22 win in Moorhead in 1976. The Beavers broke through with two wins in four games from 1983-’86, but would then win just once - a 28-27 win in Bemidji in 1992 - in 11 games from 1987-’97.
But the tide has once again turned in BSU’s favor, as the Beavers have captured 11 of the last 12 battles for the axe - which included a series-long streak of eight consecutive wins from 2000-2007. In Bemidji, the Beavers hold a 16-15-2 record in Axe games.
Jeff Tesch, Bemidji State head coach and Moorhead State alumni, on battling for the axe as a player and then as a coach.
“Anytime you’re a player and there’s a traveling trophy it just adds kind of a unique and fun atmosphere to the game. You want the traveling trophy, you want it in your trophy case, taking your picture with it and the bragging rights. Those are all the things you look forward to. (As a coach) you don’t want to be the staff that loses it. You know the players don’t want to be the group that loses it. It’s that extra little carrot you dangle out there.”
Kyle Christianson, class of 1998, on breaking a five-game losing streak against the Dragons and winning the Axe game on Homecoming (photo at the bottom of story).
“Winning the Axe in 1998 and breaking the losing streak was an amazing and gratifying experience. As a senior that year, I didn’t even know what the “Axe” looked like. I didn’t want to know what it looked like - without earning it. Hoisting the Axe on homecoming, in the lake following the game was an emotional high. Holding that Axe really meant more than a win. It signified and validated the hard work, dedication, and commitment of the team after some really challenging losing seasons. Being able to celebrate a team achievement with all my teammates that stuck it out during all the tough times was very satisfying.”
Brad Hemling, senior running back, on what the traveling trophy means to the team and the feelings after winning it.
“Well it’s always been really important to our team to have it. It’s always been something we bring up during the week and something that motivates us for the game on Saturday. It’s a proud feeling (winning it). It definitely feels good to know that we’ve done everything in our power to keep it in our hands and we plan on doing it this year too.”
Rich Jahner, associate head coach/co-defensive coordinator, on the tradition and what it means to him and the student-athletes.
“When I first got here I vividly recall looking at the years that are printed on the axe. If it is printed in red it was years MSU Moorhead won the axe and the years in green were obviously years Bemidji State had won. When we first got here there was a whole lot of red, since then we have flipped the page and now there is a whole lot of green, so there is a sense of pride. Personally I take a lot of satisfaction in winning that ball game. A little tradition I’ve started myself is I get the seniors together and we take a picture holding the Battle Axe. That goes into my memories and I’ll have that to cherish for the rest of my life.”
Charles Hrdlicka, senior defensive back, on potentially hoisting the trophy with his fellow seniors after a win.
“Yeah I’ll be excited to hoist it because I know it’s fun watching the seniors put it up every year and get their pictures taken with it, so it’ll be cool to do that. It definitely will (be special) because the history behind it is cool, so it will be a good memory after I’m gone, hoisting the Axe with all the seniors. It’ll be a great picture and I’ll get to hold onto that.”
Chris Meyer, class of 1999, running back, on his reactions and emotions, now and then, of the Axe.
“I remember when the coaches first talked about the Axe. I started picturing the Axe that Minnesota and Wisconsin use for their traveling trophy. At the time I thought that it would be great to be a part of the team to beat Moorhead and return the trophy here. When we won it was exciting and intense. Not only did we get the Axe, but I found it extra special to do it on homecoming so we could jump in the lake. It is a special memory that is fun to talk about when I run into fellow teammates. The Battle Axe tradition will always represent a sense of accomplishment and pride. At the time I felt as if the team was turning the program around and beginning a new era for BSU football.”
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Nestled in Northern Minnesota’s wooded region and located on the shore of Lake Bemidji, Bemidji State University sponsors 15 varsity athletic programs with NCAA Division I men’s and women’s hockey membership in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, while its 13 NCAA Division II programs hold membership in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC).