By Laura Kersey
We battle for freedom. We battle for honor. We battle for the Bluegrass. But 70 years ago, we fought for more than ranks of dignity and marks of territory. We waged war against Morehead State Eagles for a tangible piece of Kentucky history. We battled for the “Old Hawg Rifle.””It was very intense, always a hard-fought game,” remembers former Eastern head coach Roy Kidd. “It didn’t make any difference who won the year before or who won the most, it was always one of those knock-down-drag-out games.”
According to A Light to the Mountains by Donald Flatt, The Campus Club at Morehead State purchased a pre-Revolutionary War muzzleloader from a mountaineer who claimed it had been used in the Rowan County War in the mid-1880s. Morehead Campus Club president Fred Caudill took the rifle to Eastern where it was introduced in chapel exercises on the first game day.
Anticipation mounted in 1936 as Flatt noted that one of the most “spectacular sporting events” in Morehead and Eastern football was born. The “Battle for the Old Hawg Rifle” football contest was inaugurated under Presidents Harvey A. Babb of Morehead and Herman L. Donovan of Eastern.
“It meant a lot to the presidents,” Kidd said. “We had a dean of the college named Dean Moore and he came to practice the week we played Morehead. He may never come to practice all year but when we were getting ready to play Morehead he’d be at practice.”
Morehead history professor Earl K. Senff was called to write a “fight song” for the first rifle competition, according to Flatt. It has since remained a traditional fight song at Morehead for more than 60 years.
Both universities agreed to hold an award presentation at the end of each game, allowing the president of the losing school to present the rifle to the president of the victorious school. A photograph of the presentation would be taken. The winning institution would then keep the relic until the following season.
Eventually, rifle exercises were transferred from the Campus Club to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapters at each school, Randy Stacy, Morehead’s sports information director said.
“It was a huge part of the history of the fraternity chapters,” Stacy said. “[It’s] something each pledge class was taught and still is to my knowledge at MSU.”
The presentation of the rifle became the highlight finale of the competition. Kidd remembers hearing of one incident in which the photo shows neither president winning the rifle, but instead playing tug-of-war.
“[Eastern President Robert Martin] had to catch a train to Washington D.C. So, he had to leave before the game was over,” Kidd said. “They had to take the picture early, but they didn’t know which was going to get it.”
More than a rifle was up for grabs. The winning institution would receive the following Monday off to celebrate the victory and attend a presentation ceremony of the trophy. Kidd said he remembered Morehead allowing classes to be cancelled for beating Eastern in 1962.
Kidd competed as a player in the “Hawg Rifle” games at Eastern, but his only coaching experience in the game came during his one-year reign as assistant coach for the Eagles.
“I’ll never forget it,” Kidd said. “I remember we had a pep rally. [MSU President] Doran got up…trying to motivate everybody. When we came back, they met us with fire trucks at the city limits.”
The bus arrived at the student center where Morehead president and former head coach Guy Penny spoke to the crowd. The situation made Kidd nervous.
“I was sitting there thinking, “I hope he doesn’t call on me because that’s my alma mater. I’ve got to beat them. I’m getting my paycheck from [Morehead],” Kidd said, laughing. “I did everything to prepare our kids for [Eastern] but I had no idea how big it really was until that year I spent at Morehead.”
Despite the popularity of the competition among students and faculty, the “Hawg Rifle” tradition came to a screeching halt in 1962.
Kidd said Eastern President Robert Martin became angry when a doctored photo of him surfaced, portraying him with “corn teeth” and an unpleasant, hillbilly appearance.
“He said basically ‘to hell with it. They can have that Hawg Rifle. We aren’t playing them anymore,'” Kidd said. “And that’s how it ended.”
Kidd coached Morehead in the last game of the Hawg Rifle, which he remembers clearly to this day.
“I remember the one I coached very plain,” Kidd said. “We came over here and if Eastern won they won the championship outright and if we beat them then I think it was a four-way tie for the championship and we beat them.”
To this day, the Hawg Rifle remains in the hands of the Eagles. It is displayed among other trophies in the student center.
Eastern continued to play Morehead until 1995 when they transferred to the Pioneer Football League and became an I-AA nonscholarship team.
Whether the Hawg Rifle tradition will be revived is still undetermined.
But Kidd doesn’t expect it to happen.
“I don’t think Morehead would go for it or Eastern would either,” Kidd said. “If they got their scholarships back, they might. You want to play the best competition you can play. Eastern probably looks at it as if we don’t have anything to gain. It’s not going to help us win the conference; its not going to help us get in the playoffs.”
Morehead’s Stacy agreed the future of the Hawg Rifle’s return looks unlikely.
“There are no immediate plans to renew it,” Stacy said. “It would be difficult to play on a year-to-year basis with differences in the Ohio Valley Conference and PFL schedules.”
Although the outlook is grim, Kidd hopes both teams would renew the playing for the rifle because of its importance to Morehead and Eastern students and faculty.
“The thing about Morehead was it drew a lot of our students and a lot of their students. It didn’t matter where we played,” he said. “It was a big deal with a lot of people.