CORRESPONDENCE WITH DAVID HOUSEL, ATHLETIC DIRECTOR, AUBURN UNIVERSITY, AND COACH CHARLIE STUBBS, OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR, UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA
In the year 2000, David Housel was Athletic Director of Auburn University. Our paths crossed occasionally, mostly when he would come to the Wetumpka Rotary Club at the invitation of Ford dealer and Auburn enthusiast Jimmy Collier to talk about Auburn football. He was well aware of the only documented story for the coining of the famous “War Eagle” yell. In fact, David had put the documented story in his book about Auburn football. That gave David Housel and me something to talk about because Ehrman Thrasher (E.T.) Enslen, who was the first to yell “War Eagle” in the context of Auburn football, was my great uncle.
[We also had one other important thing to talk about—the issue of Auburn University’s plagiarizing of the tiger paw from my alma mater, Clemson University. But that is an entirely different story and I best not go there right now.]
Since I have mentioned the “War Eagle” yell, I need to take a not-so-short detour from the subject of the correspondence and set down in writing some foundational facts about the “War Eagle” yell. I find it necessary because there have developed over the years some powerful false stories about the origin of “War Eagle.” I think some people felt pressured to come up with a story that was more romantic, colorful, and captivating than the true story.
Those fictional versions include such things as Confederate soldiers, Saxon Warriors, and a fabricated 1892 flying eagle that did a Kamikaze death dive into the middle of the football field at the end of an Auburn football game immediately after Auburn scored the winning touchdown, which supposed miraculous event avoided any newspaper account, either in the public media or in the school newspaper. By the way, allegedly the flying eagle had been found by a never-named or identified Alabama soldier on a Civil War battlefield, the Battle of the Wilderness, in 1864, and turned into a pet. Thus, the eagle would have been at least about 30 years of age in 1892 when he dove to his death.
These myths will often start out with the words: “According to witnesses.” However, no such witnesses have ever been produced. Nor are there any written affidavits or documents of any kind to support those stories. The persons who fabricated the stories, if still living, ought to come forth and confess such.
In truth, the origination of “War Eagle” was inadvertent, but at least real people and real events can be identified. You might say the true story was freakishly accidental and totally unintentional. Here is what I know from my own personal knowledge and from facts which are easily documented.
My grandfather’s younger brother by about two years, Ehrman Thrasher Enslen, sometimes called E.T. (long before an “extra terrestrial” by the same name), was born in Wetumpka on December 16, 1894. He was fairly large of statue and played right tackle for the Wetumpka Fifth District agricultural school. His mother, Olive Thrasher Enslen, died on May 11, 1913, about the time E.T. graduated from high school.
That early fall of 1913, 18-year-old E.T. traveled about 55 miles east and entered the Alabama Polytechnic Institute as a freshman. Auburn was undefeated in football that fall and had a remaining game with Georgia for the conference championship. At the pep rally at Langdon Hall which preceded the game by a day, Gus Graydon, the head cheerleader, said something like, “Playing Georgia is war!” About that same time, E. T. was picking up a button-like military emblem from the floor. The emblem, which had fallen from his cap, contained an eagle on it. In response to a fellow student’s question: “What did you find?”, E. T. yelled “A War Eagle!” He probably had to speak loudly just to be heard above the noise.
Now let’s put the words “War Eagle” in a 1913 context. War Eagle was not a new phrase. It was a rather common phrase in society. You could find the phrase in a dictionary. Native Americans had referred to eagles as war eagles and used their feathers to make war bonnets and other items related to war. Furthermore, there had actually been a well documented, living war eagle during the Civil War. His name was Old Abe, named for Abraham Lincoln, and was the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry. This bald eagle was carried into 37 battles and skirmishes. After the war, he was a tourist attraction in the basement of the Wisconsin capitol until 1881 and then, in a taxidermied state, sat in the rotunda of the capitol for another 20 years.
According to Auburn professor David Coleman, who has studied the origin of “War Eagle” probably more than anyone else, “there is also credible evidence that students used ‘War Eagle’ privately, long before the pep rally incident, to pass word around campus that someone had snuck in some booze and a party was being organized. Supposedly, that’s why the saying caught on so fast as a battle cry among students once it was shouted out loud at the pep rally.”
So it is only in the context of a battle cry for a football team that the two-word phrase “War Eagle” can said to have been coined for the first time at the 1913 pep rally. (By the way, Auburn won the next day’s game 21-7 to finish the season undefeated.)
My future wife Dianne and I were Clemson cheerleaders on the field at Cliff Hare Stadium when Auburn, coached by Ralph “Shug” Jordan, hosted Clemson, coached by Frank Howard, on October 14, 1967. Dianne’s photo was taken standing next to a golden eagle, but the eagle did not fly around the field. No eagle ever flew over the Auburn stadium on game day prior to the Wyoming game on August 31, 2000, the same year that the Iron Bowl gets played in Tuscaloosa for the first time. We did hear the War Eagle song in 1967 because the War Eagle cry had been put to music in 1955. By far, the thing we heard that day that bothered us most was “Touchdown Auburn!” Auburn won 43-21.
Well, E.T., a real and not-fictitious person, never graduated from Auburn. He dropped out of school after his freshman year and returned to Wetumpka. On June 5, 1917, 22-year-old E.T. was living in Montgomery and working on a farm when he registered for the draft. On December 10, 1917, he enlisted in the United States Navy in Montgomery, and he served until July 25, 1919, when he was discharged in Atlanta. He had served as a quartermaster in naval aviation in Pensacola, Florida, and Chatham, Massachusetts.
On December 20, 1923, at age 29, he married Pauline Dragoo in Kalamazoo, Michigan. (Back in the 1920’s, our southern family was not real happy about one of our boys marrying a Yankee girl and living up north, but we eventually got over it.) E. T. and Pauline had one child, a son, named Richard Alan Enslen, born May 28, 1931. Richard served in the Korean War, served in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica, graduated from law school, became a nationally recognized constitutional law scholar/writer/attorney, and was appointed by President Jimmy Carter on November 30, 1979, to served as a United States District Judge in Michigan. He served on the federal bench for more than 25 years and presided over and ruled upon scores of important cases. He died on February 17, 2015. I had conversations with him. He was cognizant of his father’s role in the “War Eagle” battle cry. He confirmed to me that his father simply was not interested in being a celebrity of any type.
My Uncle E. T. was working as an engraver and printer when I visited with him in Kalamazoo in the late 1950’s. He was kind and loveable. We have a substantial volume of family correspondence with him over the decades. He was a humble man who faithfully fulfilled his duties as a husband, father, brother, soldier, employee, and American citizen.
E. T. was well aware of what he had accidentally helped to start at Alabama Polytechnic Institute in 1913, but he cared absolutely nothing about trying to get credit for it. The pep rally eyewitness accounts in possession of Auburn University which identify E.T. by name are written by other former students who were present, not by E. T. himself. Find the earliest written version of the myths, and the occasion for which each was written, and much will be revealed about the fabrications. I doubt any of the myths have a written version that predates 1960.
Returning to the correspondence with David, I need to present some background. I think I will start with Legion Field in Birmingham which hosted its first football game in 1927, a cross-town rivalry between Howard College (now Samford University) and Birmingham-Southern.
After not playing each other for 41 years, Alabama and Auburn renewed their intrastate football rivalry in 1948 at Legion Field which by then seated 42,000. Alabama and Auburn would play one another at Legion Field year after year, in which tickets were split 50-50, alternating the denomination as “home” team. Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant won his 315th game in the 1981 Iron Bowl to become at that time football’s all-time winningest coach.
But all of the Iron Bowl games at Legion Field felt more like Alabama “home” games because that is where Alabama played most of its other home games—especially the high-caliber games. Auburn’s opposition to playing at Legion Field in Birmingham grew over time, and in 1989, the rivalry game was played on the Auburn campus. Alabama did not at that time follow suit. Alabama kept playing its Iron Bowl “home” games in Birmingham until the year 2000, and Auburn actually had one regrettable relapse in 1991. [It is this 2000 Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa game that is the subject matter of my letters with David and Charlie.]
Dianne and I quit going to Legion Field for the Iron Bowl and other games sometime in the early 1980’s when we had to pay $20 “protection money” to street thugs for parking our car in a legal parking place.
Please bear with me for one more aside regarding Legion Field. I was a sophomore quarterback in high school in the fall of 1962. Daddy secured for us tickets to Alabama’s season opening game at Legion Field against the Georgia Bulldogs. The stadium would now seat 54,000-plus. The game would feature the debut of sophomore quarterback sensation Joe Namath, a Pennsylvania Yankee who Coach Bryant would rename Joe Willie Namath, a double name that would make him more compatible to those of southern culture. (Freshmen were not allowed to play varsity college football until 1972.)
Daddy and I felt a little like guinea pigs after taking our seats in the relatively new, hardly used, 9,000-seat upper deck that actually swayed sufficiently for us to feel it. (This upper deck would later be demolished for safety reasons in 2005.) In that September 22, 1962, opener, Alabama soundly defeated Georgia 35-0. Alabama’s captains were Lee Roy Jordan and little Jimmy Sharpe. I can recall Joe Willie’s accurate passing, his nimbleness preceding his subsequent knee injuries, a touchdown catch by Richard Williamson, and the zigzag running and touchdown pass catching by speedy Cotton Clark.
As it turned out, this was the very game that would make its way into the national spotlight after The Saturday Evening Post featured a story in March 1963 claiming that Coach Wally Butts of Georgia had basically thrown the game Alabama’s way. (“The Story of a College Football Fix” by Frank Graham) Mistrust of the media received a major boost from Alabama fans.
An insurance salesman, some say financially strapped insurance salesman, in Atlanta named George Burnett allegedly overheard, via a connection mix-up, a telephone conversation just days before the game wherein Butts, the Athletic Director at the University of Georgia, revealed to Bryant Georgia’s playbook and player assessment. Burnett sold his story to the Post for $5,000.00. It was not a good investment for the Post. Heavy libel verdicts in favor of Butts and Bryant, eventually upheld by the United States Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision, brought about the final demise of the large-in-size, iconic, colorful national magazine.
When I reported as a freshman football player at Clemson University in the fall of 1965, one of the other members of my team was a linebacker by the name of George Burnett, Jr. Yes, he was the son of the insurance salesman who overheard a conversation, but came away with the wrong interpretation of it—at least in the eyes of a jury. George, Jr., appeared to me to be quite self-conscious about his familial connection.
With that monumental amount of rambling behind me, here is the letter I wrote to David Housel, followed by the letter I wrote to Charlie Stubbs with whom I now share four wonderful grandchildren. I still need to ask Charlie if he ever found occasion to use the quote from Coach Jordan.