With advances in technology and security, it may never happen again. Of course, that just makes the 1973 heist even more remarkable.
The last Axe thieves were the self-styled “Infamous Three.” At the time, it seemed their theft would last forever in Big Game lore, an exciting addendum to the Immortal 21.
But for the better part of 40 years, their tale had lain dormant. There were the occasional conversations, reunions, and family gatherings where the stories would be re-told. But as time ticked on and lives evolved, the final heist of the Axe -- the prize awarded to the winner of the annual Stanford-Cal football rivalry known as the Big Game -- had largely been forgotten.
On April 4, 2012, in the northeastern California town of Susanville, at the confluence of the snow-dusted Cascade range and the rocky Modoc Plateau, the story was rekindled. In the chill of the morning, the life of Matthew ‘Maverick’ Conway – Cowboy poet, artist, construction worker, and brown-dirt bon vivant – was being celebrated by friends and family.
The sun glistened through the stained-glass windows of Sacred Heart Catholic church as David Suliteanu stepped forward.
How does one best describe a guy named Maverick, a rebel with a past that harkened to the Wild Wild West? Suliteanu had the perfect story, one full of the kind of ‘Wild West’ action that most in those wooden pews probably had never heard:
* * *
The idea was hatched in the summer of 1973, when Suliteanu and Stanford Theta Delta Chi fraternity brother Tim Conway sought to do “something” to crown their college careers.
Consider the era. “Something” could be anything. This was the era of expressing yourself: polyester plaid suits, big hair, tight shorts, and streaking was a veritable epidemic.
Suliteanu recalls first suggesting the idea (fortunately one that did not involve streaking) over a cold beer at the Conway cabin at Lake Almanor, just west of Susanville. Conway recalled the idea hatched while cruising down Highway 395 in his ’69 Chevy El Camino, perhaps over the tunes of Buffalo Springfield from his portable eight-track cassette player.
“What do you mean, ‘do something?’” Conway wondered.
“Maybe we should try to steal the Trojan horse,” Suliteanu said.
Stealing Traveler, the USC mascot, definitely would qualify as “something.” But, realistically …
What about the Axe? Stanford lost it to Cal in 1972. The Big Game would be held at Stanford Stadium in 1973.
Now, this was “something.”
The Stanford Axe was unveiled on April 13, 1899, at a Stanford rally when yell leaders used it to decapitate a straw man dressed in Cal’s colors of blue and gold. Two days later, at a baseball game between the schools in San Francisco, it was again used for the same purpose, angering Cal fans in attendance.
In a moment of unguarded opportunity, Cal students grabbed it. The theft led to a wild chase through the city, with the Axe passed from hand to hand. At some point, the handle was chopped off, presumably to make it easier to conceal. The blade ended up in the overcoat pocket of Cal student Clint Miller.
Despite a police search at the Ferry Building of males bound for Berkeley, Miller avoided detection by chancing upon a former girlfriend. They nonchalantly walked together past security to a boat bound for Oakland.
The Axe remained in Cal’s possession until 1930. Heavily guarded – including once by a Cal football player brandishing an Army sword at would-be Stanford thieves -- it was kept in a bank vault and removed for display only twice a year. But a group of Stanford students, now known as the Immortal 21, plotted to steal it after a Big Game rally at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. Posing as photographers, they blinded the Axe Custodian with flash powder, and then wrestled it away, escaping with the help of smoke bombs, decoy cars and a fake search party.
Its return to Stanford was greeted with utter triumph. Classes were canceled for the next two days and every member of the Immortal 21 was bestowed an honorary Block ‘S.’
After three years of negotiation, the schools agreed that the Axe would go to the Big Game winner. The blade was mounted in a heavy frame, with each score recorded on the plaque.
Stealing the Axe? “It just seemed like a cool idea,” Suliteanu said.
* * *
Hatching a plan
The question was, how? They were no closer to a solution after a reconnaissance mission to Berkeley. The Axe was displayed in the university’s Student Union and seemingly protected with such armory as to survive a nuclear attack (this was the Cold War, after all). The theft, they realized, must involve deception.
Still, the particulars eluded them until two weeks before the Big Game. It came to Conway while running a pass pattern during an intramural flag football game: Each week during the season, Bay Area sportswriters hosted press luncheons in which coaches were invited to talk about upcoming games.
Indeed, with a couple of phone calls, they discovered that the Big Game luncheon would be held at Ming’s, a Chinese restaurant in Palo Alto, and Cal coach Mike White and Stanford coach Jack Christensen would be there. Perfect!
They came up with a plan: The manager of the Student Union, Mr. Friedrich, would receive a call at 10:30 a.m.
“This is coach Mike White,” an imposter would say. “The sportswriters have requested the Axe for a photo shoot with the coaches at the Big Game luncheon. I’m going to be there in 45 minutes with two football players to pick it up. Please have it ready.”
Later, the manager would receive another call from ‘White.’
“I’m tied up in a meeting,” he would say. “The players are going to pick up the Axe. Please give it to them. I don’t have time to get there because I’ve got to get to Palo Alto for the luncheon.”
The ‘players’ would then be handed the Axe.
“End of story,” Tim figured.
* * *
Tim Conway played football in high school and spent about a week with the Stanford freshman team before giving up the sport, and Suliteanu was in good shape. Before the era of massive strength training, they could pass for football players and, in the pre-Internet age, their identities would be difficult to check.
Conway secured Cal letterman’s jackets by convincing a high school friend who played baseball for the Bears that they were needed for a costume party. The next task was finding a Mike White.
Enter Maverick. Before his ‘Wild West’ days, Matt Conway was a San Francisco law school student who finished second in a Northern California Lions Club speech contest. There were only four days until the luncheon. Dave and Tim went to Matt’s apartment to persuade him in person.
“You’re doing what?” Matt said. “You guys are crazy.”
"You wouldn’t get in any trouble," they reasoned. “You’re just talking on the phone. We’re the ones who will get in trouble.”
Dave and Tim provided a script and made Matt practice, over and over.
“If he couldn’t be Mike White, we were going to jail,” Tim said.
* * *
It was gloomy and drizzling that morning, when all three left Matt’s San Francisco apartment for Berkeley. They took two cars – better to have a decoy if needed -- and stopped for coffee and final instructions at the Original Belgium Waffle House on Telegraph Avenue. Their nerves had nothing to do with the coffee.
Matt returned to the table.
“The manager of the Student Union wasn’t there,” he said. “I talked to his secretary.”
It was a slight snag, but one that seemed inconsequential when they arrived at the Student Union and the Axe was gone. That must mean the Axe was waiting for them in the office.
Dave and Tim walked in. Friedrich's secretary said she spoke to White. After a few minutes, in came Friedrich.
“I’ve got some bad news for you,” Friedrich said. “The Axe isn’t even here. And, if it was, it would take 48 hours to get it out of the time-lock case. It’s been gone for a week, in a vault at the Berkeley police station.”
This was more than a snag.
The phone rang. “Mr. Friedrich, coach Mike White is on the phone for you,” the secretary said.
Normally, this would have been a good sign, but Dave and Tim assumed that Matt’s second call already had been made. Maybe this was the real Mike White, and just maybe the con was discovered.
The call was put on speakerphone. The voice was strong and confident. It was Matt.
“Are the players there yet?”
“They’re sitting right here,” Friedrich said. “And I’ve got some bad news for you. The Axe isn’t here. It’s at the police station. My apologies, Coach.”
“Really,” ‘White’ wondered. “It’s not there?
“Well, Mr. Friedrich, I don’t care where it is. You need to do whatever you can to make sure those football players get a hold of that Axe and get it down to this luncheon as soon as possible. I don’t know what it’s going to take, but I’m expecting you to do it!”
Friedrich, turning red, backed his chair to the wall.
“Yes sir, Coach,” he said. “I’ll do what I can. I’ll get right on it.”
“I’m going to call back in 10 minutes and see how you’re doing,” ‘White’ said. “And another thing … I don’t want you boys to be late!”
“Get some numbers,” a frantic Friedrich yelled to his secretary, “And start calling!”
* * *
Rallying the Rally Committee
Phone calls went to the police station, the chief of police, and the Cal Rally Committee. Meanwhile, time was wasting and Dave and Tim, in Friedrich’s office, could not discuss an alternate plan while sitting in the open. However, the machinations were working. The rally committee indeed removed the Axe from the vault."Where do you want to meet them?” asked Friedrich, handing the phone to Dave.
“We haven’t got much time,” Dave told the rally committee. “Can you get this thing over here? Coach is going to be upset.”
There was a pause.
“We can’t just give it to you.”
The two sides agreed to meet at Dave’s car. Dave and Tim would drive to the luncheon, with the Cal car following close behind with the Axe. But as Dave and Tim reached their car, they realized a Stanford sticker was spread across the back window.
Fortunately, Matt was waiting. His car had a sticker from UC Davis, his alma mater. Close enough. The brothers switched cars and Matt was told to get out of there fast, but only after receiving one final command: “We’re going to need some help. Call our fraternity.”
Chances are that phoning a fraternity house with a payphone in a hallway during a school day has little chance of being answered. In this pre-cellphone age, that was their only chance, and Matt was down to his last dime.
The Cal car, a blue Chevy, crept around the corner. There were four people. The Axe was in the back seat.
“They were suspicious,” Dave said.
They followed Dave and Tim down University Avenue and across the Bay Bridge. The plan had gone awry and there was no telling what would happen at Ming’s. Had Matt reached anyone at the fraternity? Even if he had, would anyone come to help?
“We’ve come this far,” Dave said. “Everything’s messed up, but there’s no turning back. If it comes down to four against two, we’ll take those odds.”
* * *
There it is
The blue Chevy never wavered from their rearview mirror, even as Dave and Tim pulled into Ming’s. At the far end of the lot, Tim spotted two of his fraternity brothers throwing a football.
“I thought they just blew it for us,” Tim recalled. “But, all of a sudden, they were gone.”
Tim and Dave didn’t want to park too close to the restaurant. The Cal car parked even farther away.
“They’re sitting there waiting for us to make a move,” Dave recalled. “I got to their car and said, ‘Let’s go, it’s time.’”
Not so fast. They wanted White to come outside and get the Axe himself, and sent one of their crew toward the restaurant to get him.
Tim whispered to Dave, “Go with him.”
As they walked nervously toward the restaurant together, someone removed the Axe from the car.
There it was, the Holy Grail, just a few feet away and within sight. It also, crucially, was left exposed to the wet weather.
Tim brought a plastic suit cover that he planned to use to conceal the Axe when carrying it out of the Student Union. He saw the Axe and saw an opportunity, and walked to the blue Chevy.
“Don’t let it get wet,” he said. “Put this on it.”
Tim and two others fumbled with the cover, trying awkwardly to get it around the wide frame. And it wasn’t working.
“Give it to me,” Tim said. “Let’s step out here where there’s more room.”
In recalling the scene 40 years later, Conway looked as shocked in telling the story as he must have been in real life.
“The guy actually handed it to me,” he said in disbelief. “As soon as I got in front of the car, they kind of backed out of my way. I knew this was it. It was now or never.”
“I GOT IT!” he screamed, and began to run.
* * *
Dave grabbed his Cal companion and locked him in a bear hug. Tim made a break for the car, more than 50 yards away.
The Axe was heavy and unwieldy, but Tim somehow did his best to stagger toward freedom, which seemed so close.
“I figured if I got around this one car … “ Tim recalled.
It was a pink Cadillac. Tim will never forget it. As he circled around the front, Tim was tackled from behind and smashed against the hood as the Axe flew from his grasp.
All eyes followed as the Axe, as if in slow motion, slid up the wet windshield and settled precariously on top of the car, spinning like a top.
With Tim pinned to the hood and Dave grappling across the way, one of the Cal boys had a clear path to the Axe. But just as he reached it, he turned to face a wall of Theta Delta Chi fraternity brothers, who seemingly had emerged from thin air, like a cavalry coming to the rescue.
“It’s over,” one of them said.
Gently, and without protest, the Axe was removed from Cal’s hands.
White was enjoying his lunch when he got up to take a phone call. When he returned, he seemed stunned.
“I’ll be damned,” he said to the reporters. “That was some Stanford student on the phone. He said he and a couple of his buddies had stolen the Axe outside in the parking lot. I don’t know whether he was kidding me or not, but nothing would surprise me during Big Game week.”
Fraternity brother Steve Shupe, a 6-foot-7 center on the basketball team, paraded the Axe in front of the restaurant windows, holding it high for all to see. However, because he was so identifiable, it made the authority’s path to the culprits an easy one.
But in those minutes of exultation, and after the Axe was plundered and the Cal boys skulked away, Dave and Tim were left in a now-quiet parking lot.
“This is unbelievable," Dave said. “We did it. We pulled it off.”
They embraced, still in Cal letterman’s jackets.
* * *
Tim and Dave returned to a Theta Delta Chi house draped in pandemonium. The Axe was passed around like the Stanley Cup in an NHL championship locker room. Word had traveled fast, and all 50 fraternity brothers arrived, screaming, hollering, and pumping fists in celebration.
They posed for group photos, with Dave and Tim kneeling in front of the Axe like conquering heroes. Those moments were the most sublime.
Matt Conway had no money left for bridge toll when he left Berkeley, and drove clear around the bay to get to Stanford. He had no idea what had happened until he witnessed the celebration.
Meanwhile, The Daily Californian, Berkeley’s student newspaper, expressed the embarrassment of the university: “What really makes this sting the hide of all true Bears is the shocking ineptitude of our own rally committee, which coughed up the Axe with no resistance and has yet to ensure its safety or its return.”
They had no idea that the Axe was stashed under the bed of Dave’s Hungarian grandmother, in her Palo Alto apartment.
“Nanny, we’ve got this thing we need to put away for a while,” Dave said sweetly. “Do you mind if we leave it here?”
“Sure! Come on in! Do you need something to eat?”
The press wanted a story, but there were so many rumors going about that the trio decided to write their own account to ensure the record was set straight. They would give an exclusive to whichever newspaper decided to publish it, which was the San Francisco Examiner. Under the byline, “The Infamous Three,” Matt and Dave wrote the prose while Tim went to a Who concert.
* * *
Slowly, the high of the initial heist was replaced by reality. The Palo Alto police chief was conducting an inquiry, and lawyers from both Cal and Stanford were not happy.
Unable to concentrate during an economics class on Marxism, Dave drew up a list of 10 “demands” for the return of the Axe. The list was whimsical and silly and Dave never expected them to be fulfilled, but why not try?
It included $6,000 in cash, admission to graduate school, Thanksgiving dinner with Stanford president Richard Lyman’s family, a fake ID, and their story written by Norman Mailer, among others.
Stoically, Dave read these to the police chief.
“I was just cringing,” Tim said.
Not surprisingly, none of the demands were met, though they did successfully negotiate for Big Game field passes.
“It makes me embarrassed to look at it now,” Suliteanu said. “But we were just having fun.”
With the Big Game looming, the whereabouts of the Axe remained a mystery and the authorities were frustrated. However, Bob Murphy, Stanford’s sports information director, reassured them that all would be well and provided the type of no-pressure counsel the trio was seeking.
“I had to be careful,” Murphy recalled. “I could counsel them and suggest a few ideas, but I had to be very careful that I didn’t direct them into a situation that would really cause them some trouble or me some trouble.
“I also admired those kids. I had the responsibility of keeping them within some kind of normal limits. Be clever but don’t be destructive. You have a remarkable responsibility on your hands. Have a little sense of humor and have fun with it, but all the reflection should be on the Big Game, and the history of California and Stanford.”
Murphy came up with the idea that the Axe be carried on to the field by the Stanford captains and returned to Cal during the coin toss. It was brilliant. The trio kept its honor and remained out of jail. And Stanford could parade the Axe in public before returning it to its rightful owners.
On game day, they picked up the Axe from Nanny’s and drove into Stanford Stadium, stopping in front of the locker room. They were met by Murphy and the police chief, and the Axe was removed and placed kept in a shed under watch. At the proper moment, Stanford captains Randy Poltl and Mike Boryla led the team to the field, hoisting the Axe as the crowd roared.
“It was a very special moment,” Dave said, especially considering all that had happened.
“We were very lucky,” Tim said. “If we had any inkling when we walked into the Student Union that things would go so wrong, we would’ve turned around and walked out.”
Instead, they soaked in a 26-17 victory, were interviewed on the public-address system at halftime, and felt like heroes as Stanford reclaimed the Axe, legitimately this time.
* * *
Spring in Susanville
Dave, now a successful businessman, didn’t go into detail during his eulogy to Maverick that spring morning at Sacred Heart church. But he didn’t have to.
It was a story that simmered under the surface for so long. Matt’s death and 40 years of neglect were evidence that the story needed to be told again.
“Of all that happens in life, you try to pick the things that are the most memorable, the most special,” Suliteanu said. “This ranks as one of the greatest, most incredible experiences we ever had.”
Maverick Conway, may he rest in peace, would surely agree.
Mark Soltau contributed to this story.