Spirit of Auburn soccer nearing ‘bittersweet’ final flight

Handler Amanda Sweeney picks up Auburn’s golden eagle, Aurea, during the War Eagle flight observe

Handler Amanda Sweeney picks up Auburn's golden eagle, Aurea, during the War Eagle flight practice at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2021. (Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)

Handler Amanda Sweeney picks up Auburn’s golden eagle, Aurea, during the War Eagle flight observe at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2021. (Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser by using AP)


The chicken drools over Auburn’s dazzling custom as a lot the people do.

On the past Wednesday morning of August, Spirit is woke up in her Southeastern Raptor Middle enclosure at 8 a.m. by Amanda Sweeney. The bald eagle flies to satisfy her handler at the doorway, initiating the day’s schooling session. If she does not want to get up, there’s nothing Sweeney can do to drive her. But Spirit has never ever once declined. She has her day-to-day excess weight taken, like a wrestler making ready for competitors, then is placed in her crate for the common journey to Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Spirit has been following a model of this schedule each individual weekday from July as a result of November for the final 19 a long time — at the very least 2,200 follow flights above Jordan-Hare Stadium — but she however commences drooling just about every time she sees the industry.

On this early morning, the yard quantities are unpainted as clean grass grows. The 2021 season is 10 days absent. After Spirit is eliminated from her crate, saliva drips from the completely-ruined beak that made her non-releasable when she was uncovered in Florida in 1995. The industry usually means flexibility and meals.

“She’s excited,” says Andrew Hopkins, a single of Spirit’s trainers since 2013. “They’re trained that the only place they’re having their meals is below. So she commences obtaining talkative.”

Spirit agrees with a hearty squawk.

When Auburn soccer kicked off its 2021 season Saturday vs. Akron, the pregame flight over the stands in Jordan-Hare was one particular of the most expected returning customs. The birds are again — but this year also brings a poignant farewell for a person of them. Spirit, approaching her 25th birthday, would make her remaining flight Nov. 13 prior to Auburn performs Mississippi Condition.

“It’ll just be distinctive,” Hopkins reported. “I’ll be energized for her to delight in her retirement, but sad that it is her past flight in front of the supporters. It’s form of bittersweet.”


In a ritual typically reserved for golden eagles, Spirit was the 1st bald eagle to choose part. She has flown at 45 Auburn video games because 2002. “War Eagle” has been a rallying cry for Auburn fans for far more than a century, but the pregame flight ceremony started out in 2000. Spirit has outlived the median lifespan of bald eagles in captivity by 9 many years. She has the longest flying career in university history.

But arthritis has nagged at her not too long ago. It’s prevalent for an previous hen. Flying allows it is superior workout for the joints in her wings. Which is portion of the pleasure of her everyday observe. But stretching them can also trigger agony, building her hesitant to fly. Retirement beckons.

She has experienced to hold out a minimal excess. Eagles can’t be contaminated with coronavirus, but with pregame flights canceled and much less educational occasions all through the pandemic, Auburn’s war eagles had been additional or less quarantined like the relaxation of the entire world, remaining cared for at the University of Veterinary Medicine’s raptor middle. They had been blissfully unaware of the year they missed.

“They had been possibly just like, ‘Gosh, it seems like a extensive offseason. It is getting lengthier for the soccer season to get listed here,’” Hopkins suggests as Spirit is taken off from her provider in the discipline-stage tunnel. “For all we know, it’s possible she enjoys sitting down in her enclosure all day very long, acquiring extra fat and sassy.”

Spirit screeches yet again: most likely in objection, perhaps in affirmation. Human-chicken translation requires do the job. More drool trickles from her beak. Auburn’s eagles are conditioned to be expecting food when they land on focus on — the drool is a biological manifestation of anticipation.

“She’s definitely the one particular that does it the most, although,” Sweeney states. The pre-flight pleasure has always been component of Spirit’s persona. “It’s a lot more gratifying to imagine she just enjoys soccer that much.”

‘IT’S A Lovely DANCE’

Marianne Hudson was continue to rather new to training Spirit when they went to a navy party to welcome troops returning house from abroad. Spirit was booked to fly overhead as the troops arrived. An computerized potent moment.

“When you’re expecting specified behaviors from a wild animal, there’s no assure,” claimed Hudson, the eagle’s handler from 2004-17. “There’s always that element of worry that you are gonna let persons down if the chook doesn’t perform as envisioned.”

The 3 birds that will make pregame flights in 2021 — Spirit, a younger bald eagle named Independence and the correct golden war eagle named Aurea — will all be introduced to each match. Handlers choose a bird’s focus and temperament to recognize which is healthy to fly properly. Sport-time conclusions are common.

The worst nightmare: an eagle flying away or landing between the spectators.

“We all know we’re pretty significantly a person accident, a person slip-up from getting shut down,” Hopkins reported. “Everyone is tense, simply because you by no means know what they’re likely to do. Till they land and they are on our gloves, we’re pressured.”

The weather conditions is the other important element. It was a windy day as Hudson well prepared to fly Spirit for the troops. That does not bode properly for bald eagles, which are more prone than golden eagles to currently being pushed off training course by a gust. On windy days at Jordan-Hare, trainers have called an audible right before and switched flyers. That wasn’t an possibility below.

Hudson was ready with Spirit’s lure, the leather-based pouch that Auburn’s eagles are educated to land on. As Spirit was produced and started out traveling towards Hudson, a sudden cross-breeze carried her above the closest tree line and out of sight.

Hudson utilized a tracking device to locate Spirit, who experienced landed in a industry and was ready to be discovered, not sure what to do. When Hudson spotted the bird, they locked eyes throughout the industry. Hudson referred to as for Spirit to appear to her.

“She did so wholeheartedly,” Hudson claimed. “The communication with the fowl, in particular on video game working day when it is loud or throughout very long distances, is visible. My eyes on her eyes. It is not a conversation of passion as substantially as it is of rely on: ‘You come to me, and you are going to be presented with a reward.’ It’s a attractive dance.”

That was the instant Hudson realized to experience more at simplicity with Spirit’s gameday flights. Their mutual have confidence in had been tested. In 2012, wind briefly pushed the eagle outdoors the stadium in the course of her flight just before a sport versus Texas A&M. Hudson knew Spirit would uncover her way back. For her, the pressure was usually component of the pleasure.

In 45 game titles, Spirit has in no way had a disastrous flight. Hopkins phone calls it “a perfect record.” She’s a single away from finishing a great career.

“Flying Spirit was a thrill each and every time,” Hudson claimed.

When she returned to the armed service reception with the hen on her arm, people from the group approached her looking confused. They didn’t comprehend it was a instruction flight absent awry — they believed it experienced been a permanent launch into the wild.

“They cheered just as thoroughly as if she experienced landed on the goal,” Hudson stated. “It did not matter that it was a slip-up, due to the fact seeing Spirit fly was certainly spectacular for anyone.”


The fast Spirit’s carrier door swings open up, her eyes are on the discipline. Her brain is on foods. The only trouble: She cannot obtain the entice down there. So initially, a lap close to the stadium.

It is in essence a activity of cover-and-seek. The trainers get the eagles to soar by hiding driving a brick wall at the reverse corner of the field. If they stood out in the open, most birds would fly straight to the target, and where’s the grandeur in that?

Is traveling in front of 87,000 lovers far more complicated than these apply operates?

“It’s basically a lot easier with a lot more admirers,” Hopkins says. “It keeps her hunting all around and soaring lengthier. Currently we have nobody to hide powering in an vacant stadium.”

The trainers are hoping for a packed house Nov. 13, to assist Spirit set on 1 last entirely majestic spectacle. The custom is for lovers to hold on to a extended “Waaaaaaaar” when the chook is in the air, then release with a collective “Eagle!” as it lands.

“Spirit has usually been exciting to fly in the stadium simply because she’s the natural way more eager to soar,” Hopkins claims. “That’s constantly fun that you can make people today seriously do the job. Exhaust all the air in their lungs.”

Ultimately, a scholar volunteer handler runs into the finish zone, swirling the entice like a lasso. Spirit efficiently lands. Independence and Aurea every single consider a observe flight as well. “Indy” flew at her first Auburn recreation Saturday evening, in the opener vs. Akron. As Spirit’s successor, she became the 2nd bald eagle ever to make the war eagle flight.

Spirit has won over the Auburn local community in her two-ten years profession. The workforce has won 80% of her 45 game titles. She was a image of the college through its 2010 national championship operate. Gameday pageantry was hollow with out her existence in 2020. The flight has develop into 1 of college or university football’s defining, quintessential traditions.

Even for the regimented, transactional marriage among human and hen, the close is bittersweet. Watching Spirit fly always invoked an psychological response from Hudson, “but my most emotional memory of her is nonetheless pending,” she stated. “That’ll be this time.”

The birds are not permitted with each other in an enclosure — “otherwise, you’re gonna end up with a single eagle,” Hopkins states — but they generally squawk back again and forth from their neighboring spaces.

Potentially it is Spirit coaching the next technology of war eagles.