50 years ago, the Axe is stolen one last time
David Suliteanu wasn’t even thinking of the Axe. It was the summer of 1973, he was in the Sierras with his Theta Delta Chi fraternity brother Tim Conway, and something — perhaps the mix of mountain air, cold beer, and Conway’s approaching senior year, says Suliteanu, ’75 — inspired him to lay down a dare. They should put an exclamation point on their Stanford careers by doing something big. Steal-the-USC-mascot big.
In a glory era for Stanford football, it was the rivalry with USC that really riled up fans with Rose Bowl dreams. What greater tribute to the Cardinal than to abscond with Traveler, USC’s beloved horse? Conway, ’74, loved the idea. But even in the giddiness of the moment, they couldn’t ignore the challenges inherent in kidnapping a giant white steed. Talk turned to a more traditional target.
By 1973, the history of pilfering the Stanford Axe was long, storied, and, to some, played out. The lumberman’s blade had debuted at a campus rally in April 1899, where it was used to decapitate an effigy in blue and gold. Two days later, a group of Cal undergrads seized it after a baseball game in San Francisco, sawing off the handle and spiriting it across the Bay under the noses of searching police. In response, scores of Stanford students descended on Berkeley in a midnight raid of the fraternity behind the crime. Doors were smashed and furniture upturned, but the Axe remained hidden.
Three decades later, Stanford got its revenge thanks to the “Immortal 21,” who used magnesium flash powder, tear gas, and decoy cars to intercept the Axe after a Cal rally. A less chaotic way of settling ownership was established in 1933: The hatchet would henceforth reside with each year’s Big Game winner. Sporadic heists continued, though not always with the riotousness of the earlier snatchings. In May 1967 — the most recent theft as Suliteanu and Conway mulled the idea — the Axe vanished from Stanford’s student union so discreetly that people hardly noticed — or cared. “Good Riddance,” the Stanford Daily entitled its editorial response. “The time has come (or perhaps is long past) for Stanford to put aside the games of its infancy.” Conway and Suliteanu saw things differently.
Three weeks before Big Game, they made a scouting trip to the Cal student union. The Axe was behind plexiglass and protected by alarms — they could hardly just grab it. Inspiration came to Conway in the middle of an intramural flag football game. In the week before Big Game, the coaches planned to hold a joint press luncheon. What if Conway and Suliteanu used the event to flush the Axe out of its protective shell?
The two recruited Conway’s older brother, Matt, a student at San Francisco Law School with a noted gift of gab. On the morning of the press luncheon, the elder Conway would call the Cal student union claiming to be Cal head coach Mike White and saying he needed the Axe for a photo shoot with reporters. Then Suliteanu and Tim Conway — clad in borrowed Cal letter jackets (inconveniently, one was a baseball player’s)—would arrive to retrieve the trophy in their coach’s stead and simply walk out of the building with it.
The plan went sideways from the start. The three convened in a Berkeley coffee shop on that drizzly Tuesday morning and sent Matt Conway to a nearby pay phone. He was soon back. The manager of the student union was not in his office. Matt-as-football-coach had only been able to leave a request for the Axe with his secretary. With the clock ticking, Suliteanu and Tim Conway headed to the student union. Things looked promising: The Axe case was already empty. But as they reached the manager’s office, the good feelings receded. A police officer stood by the door.
When the manager arrived, he could only offer regrets. The Axe had been moved to a local police station for safekeeping. “All we could do was just look at each other to say, ‘Now what?’” Suliteanu says. Then the phone rang. It was Coach White. Conway froze, thinking the real coach had been tipped off, but it was his brother again. Matt Conway’s first call had been carefully scripted, but now he launched into an ad lib audible to all. He didn’t care what needed doing, he told the manager, he needed the Axe in Palo Alto, and he needed it there soon. “And listen, I don’t want you boys to be late,” he snapped before hanging up. The harangue put the manager in high gear. The would-be thieves suggested he call the Cal rally committee for help.
Though too cagey to simply hand over the Axe, the committee wasn’t ready to refuse to help, either. Four Cal students agreed to meet at Suliteanu’s car on Telegraph Avenue. They would follow the pair to Palo Alto with the Axe. It was only as Suliteanu and Conway got back to the vehicle that they remembered the Stanford sticker in the rear window. They had just enough time to grab Matt Conway’s nearby car instead, leaving the elder Conway behind with a plea to call the Stanford Theta Delta Chi house for backup.
The whole plan was only feasible because of the limits on communication in 1973. They could impersonate the coach, confident that the real Mike White was incommunicado en route to Palo Alto. But as Matt Conway used his last dime to call for help, this limit became a liability. Conway and Suliteanu had told no one at Stanford what they were up to. Most of their fraternity brothers would be in class on a Tuesday morning, and no one ever answered the house’s lone pay phone anyway. As Conway kept the Cal car in his rearview mirror, the pair had no idea what the end game was.
In the parking lot of Ming’s Restaurant in Palo Alto, the site of the press luncheon, Suliteanu played for time. One of the Cal students wanted the coach outside before the handoff. Another got out of the car clutching the Axe. It was still drizzling, so Conway told him not to let the icon get wet, passing him a plastic case he’d been carrying. The Cal students struggled to get the cover over the Axe, so Conway offered to hold it while they pulled on the cover. “They literally handed it to me,” he says. He took two steps and bolted. “I’ve got it!” Conway screamed.
A high school sprinter, Conway might have gotten away if he weren’t carrying a 40-pound Axe display. He was quickly tackled into the hood of a pink Cadillac, the Axe flying up the windshield and onto the roof, where it spun in place. Another Cal student reached it first, but just then, a bevy of Conway’s fraternity brothers wrested it from his hands. Matt Conway’s call had gone through. The Axe was soon in a car headed to the Theta Delta Chi house, where pandemonium was breaking out.
For all the planning they’d done to commit the heist, they’d given no thought to what came next. The fraternity was too obvious a hiding place. They relocated the Axe under Suliteanu’s grandmother’s bed in her Palo Alto apartment. Suliteanu wrote up a version of events that would run the next day in the San Francisco Examiner under the byline “the Infamous Three.”
In econ class the next day, Suliteanu scrawled 10 mostly ludicrous demands to the chief of police for the return of the trophy (“No. 1: $6,000 cash” and “No. 5: a fake ID for the one member of the Infamous 3 who is not yet 21”). Eventually, Bob Murphy, ’53, Stanford’s longtime sports information director, suggested a solution. The Infamous Three would drive into Stanford Stadium before the game to hand over the Axe for the Stanford football captains to pass it to the Cal captains at the coin toss. The crowd, Suliteanu remembers, went crazy.
A karmic rebalancing was still to come. The following spring, Conway was taking a water life-saving class when a crew of recent Stanford fraternity rushees pulled him out of the pool, drove him to Cal, and chained him in his swimming trunks to the Axe display with a sign saying, “Axe Thief.” Conway had to plead his case to the same manager he’d duped months before. “That’s what happens when you do stuff like this,” Conway says.
In the years since, the men have told the story hundreds of times. Once, in a job interview for an executive position at Home Depot, Suliteanu was asked to share his life story. He made a passing reference to the Axe theft. The interviewer’s ears pricked. He was from Cal, and he now had many questions. Suliteanu walked out with the job.
It was only in 2012 — as Suliteanu and Tim Conway gathered for Matt Conway’s funeral —that the two started thinking of the Axe escapade as more than just a great story. The following year, they reached out to Stanford, its athletic department, and their fraternity with their tale, which culminated in a week of 40th-anniversary celebrations and reunions, including Suliteanu and Conway holding the Axe once more, at the Big Game rally. Stanford’s last great Axe thieves, “Infamous” then, celebrated now.
Editor’s note: The 126th Big Game takes place on Saturday, November 18 at 3:30 pm at Stanford Stadium with Stanford hosting California. The Game is sold out.
Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford
Top photo was the lead photo in the Stanford Daily on November 21, 1973. Three days later, the paper reran the photo with Suliteanu and Conway unmasked, and four days after that, published an interview with the pair. Photo courtesy Ed Riddell/Stanford Daily; second photo courtesy Matt Conway; third photo courtesy David Suliteanu