The majority of rivalries are based on geography. It’s so much easier to be someone’s rival that is living right next to you than to be the rival of someone 1,000 miles away. Some rivalries end up being quite the distance apart, but most are close together. And that’s part of what makes a good rivalry: hearing about each other fairly often. And if you’re in bordering states, you’re going to hear news about the other guys no matter what. I’ve lived in the Midwest (Wisconsin specifically) all of my life and know about rivals among surrounding states all too well.
While Wisconsin/Illinois is the bigger border state rivalry up here these days, Wisconsin/Minnesota packs just as much of a punch when things are heated. With sports rivalries between states, it goes all levels and all sports. If you’re a Wisconsin sports team and you’re playing a Minnesota sports team, even if you don’t have a particular rivalry with that team, it’s a big game nonetheless.
And with any Midwest state, football is king in Wisconsin and Minnesota. And football games between teams from Wisconsin and teams from Minnesota are very heated, especially if there is players from one playing for the other. On the pro level in football, this was taken to its extreme a few years ago when Brett Favre, who made his future hall-of-fame pro football career in Green Bay, Wisconsin for the Packers, was playing for the Minnesota Vikings.
But of all the rivalries or games attributed to the Wisconsin/Minnesota border state rivalry, the football rivalry between the Wisconsin Badgers and Minnesota Golden Gophers rises above them all. And the reason for that is not only the history of this rivalry, but also because of the Paul Bunyan’s Axe Trophy that goes to the winner each year.
The rivalry’s history spans over 120 years and is one of the few rivalries in college football history to have been played in three different centuries with the first game between the Badgers and Golden Gophers taking place in 1890. It is one of the oldest rivalries in college football history and, as previously mentioned, they have the axe.
Paul Bunyan’s Axe has been used as a trophy for this rivalry since 1948 and like any other trophy in a college football rivalry, it has its own traditions attached to it. With the Axe, the team that wins gets to keep the trophy until next year’s game and if the winning team lost the year before, they get to run over the their opponent’s sideline and “steal” back the axe.
What it comes down to is that, for the Midwest, this is “our” rivalry and “our” trophy. It’s a Midwest thing. But it isn’t that different from the territorial feelings football fans get. For the Midwest, this is the big college football rivalry and a big part of why it’s so big is that axe. Most sports at any level don’t have anything to go with their rivalries other than their history and the knowledge that you’re supposed to hate the other guy and here’s why. But with the Badgers & Golden Gophers, there’s a trophy to go with it too. And it’s that trophy, that symbol for a rivalry, that creates anticipation for these games where there might not have otherwise been anticipation.
Even if the games are only important for one team’s post-season aspirations, the game is important for both because of the pursuit of the axe. Even if either team doesn’t qualify for post-season play or have a year that’s even worse than that, it won’t matter as much if that year includes a win in this game and the honor of holding the axe on their sideline next year.