David Hermecz tries to set the record straight whenever he can.
Hermecz, Alpha Phi Omega’s War Eagle trainer on duty in Gainesville that October Saturday in 1976, had a better view of Tiger’s sideline brush with Gator superstar wide receiver Wes Chandler than anyone.
After ducking and dodging pretty much the entire Auburn secondary for a 64-yard touchdown catch to put the Gators permanently ahead 24-19, Chandler barreled through the side of the end zone, barely missing Hermecz and Tiger who was perched just a few yards out of bounds.
In a YouTube video showing coach’s film of the play, “Tiger anticipates the collision and starts to fly,” Hermecz says. “She lightly grazed his shoulder pads with her talons and, fortunately for all of us, she didn’t hold on.”
Hermecz blamed the incident on the field’s “dangerously narrow” sidelines.
“There were just a few yards between the brick or concrete wall at the Swamp and the field of play. There was nowhere else (for Hermecz and Tiger) to go.”
However, when a photograph of the encounter ran in wire stories across the country, Tiger was portrayed not as the victim but the assailant—and, thanks in part to the refs never explaining it, the reason Auburn was assessed a 15-yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff.
That the SEC was at the time on a crusade to keep mascots from encroaching on the field didn’t help matters, nor did the fact that a visiting team’s mascot attacking the home team’s hero after he scored the game’s winning touchdown in front of a record crowd made for a great lede.
“Eleven human War Eagles couldn’t stop Florida Saturday so a real one chimed in—and all he got was a 15-yard penalty,” Clyde Bolton wrote in The Birmingham News.
The angle was fed reporters in the press box by Florida Sports Information Director Norm Carlson, a Florida grad who incidentally was Auburn’s sports publicist in the late 50s and early 60s.
“On TV that night in Jacksonville, Florida SID Norm Carlson in a post game interview talked about the bird attack and made a big deal of it,” says Robert Hamill, a 1970 Auburn grad who was at the game and remembers the play vividly, including the real reason for the penalty: Chandler being shoved well after crossing the goal line by the last Auburn defender with a chance to stop him.
“I personally confirmed this with Cecil ‘Hootie’ Ingram, head of SEC officials, later that week after reading ridiculous reports throughout the media that the penalty was called on War Eagle IV for leaving his perch for a peck at Chandler,” Hamill says.
Hermecz didn’t need confirmation. He saw it happen right in front of him.
“He (Chandler) was pushed after he crossed the goal line, that’s what the penalty was,” according to Hermecz, according to the Associate Commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, according to the facts.
Just not according to Florida football lore.
“Nobody from Auburn could stop Chandler. Even the bird tried and failed,” John Humenik, Carlson’s assistant, said… 16 years later.
Humenik’s quote is from the 1990 book The Football Hall of Shame 2, a lighthearted look at “the most outrageous goof-ups in gridiron history,” in which Chandler ludicrously exaggerates the incident with details that don’t show up on the game film.
“The last Auburn defender who had a shot at me dove and missed. When I looked back, he was face down on the ground, pounding his fists on the turf in frustration. Just about that time, I heard a loud squawk and the bird bit me. Scared the hell out of me, because I didn’t know what it was. It started going peck-peck-peck all over me. It probably would have hurt if I didn’t have the pads on. Here were all those Auburn defenders who never touched me and the mascot was their last chance. It was like it was saying, ‘OK. If you guys can’t get him, then I will!’”
In 1991, Sports Illustrated furthered the falsehood at the very beginning of a huge feature story the history of mascots.
“Auburn’s war eagle wouldn’t take defeat flying down. When Florida wide receiver Wes Chandler scored a touchdown against the Auburn Tigers in 1976, the bird took things into its own talons. It took off from its perch and blindsided Chandler in the end zone, thus becoming the only mascot to draw a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary pecking.”
The magazine never issued a correction, nor, it seems, did the AP. To their credit, Hamill says that Bolton and the Birmingham News did, at least after he contacted them and the confirmed with Ingram that the talons after touchdown penalty was indeed a canard.
That didn’t stop Auburn coach Barfield from advising Tiger to sue for defamation.
When a reporter reminded Barfield of the SEC’s crackdown on mascot interference, Barfield reminded him of Auburn’s game against Tennessee.
“Tennessee’s dog bit somebody during our game with them this year, but no one paid him any mind.”
So who actually did the shoving that hurt Auburn’s last minute chance for a comeback?
“We never found out who did it in the game,” Barfield said, “and then I read in the papers that the eagle had done it.”
“He should sue.”
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