Rising to their feet in University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., more than 67,000 spectators cover their hearts with their palms as the West Point Military Academy Glee Club begins to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Young members of the Southwest Iowa Honor Marching Band, clad in blue jeans and white T-shirts, scurry across the football field, quickly unfurling a giant American flag until it gently waves like a red, white and blue ocean above the turf.
As the singers belt out “and the rockets’ red glare,” a cheer erupts from the Fiesta Bowl crowd, and another national symbol captures the attention of fans gathered to watch the Connecticut Huskies and Oklahoma Sooners clash in the New Year’s Day game.
Spectators gasp. Cameras flash. Fingers point overhead. “There he is!” some onlookers exclaim. Others shout, “That’s so cool!”
High above the rippling flag, a bald eagle glides effortlessly, soaring beneath the rafters as it circles the stadium.
Moments later, with the singers intoning the final words of the national anthem, the eagle spirals downward toward a yellow platform in the corner of the end zone, and lands firmly on the outstretched gloved hand of trainer Al Cecere. Thunderous applause fills the stadium amid chants of “USA! USA! USA!”
“I saw American pride as the eagle flew over us,” says Steve Black, 51, a Phoenix marketing specialist describing the opening ceremonies of the 40th annual Fiesta Bowl. “I felt overwhelming emotion with being an American.”
Black’s reaction is typical among Americans who see Challenger in flight. For the last 15 years, the eagle has wowed millions of people attending football games, NASCAR races and other high-profile events while promoting patriotism and wildlife conservation.
Challenger was only about 4 weeks old when, in May 1989, a storm blew the featherless eaglet from his nest in southern Louisiana. Discovered by a fisherman, the baby bird was passed from one well-meaning rescuer to another until late summer, when U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorities handed him over to Cecere, president of the American Eagle Foundation, based in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. (pop. 5,083).
Cecere established the foundation in 1985 to raise money to protect endangered birds of prey. Welcoming the eaglet into their rehabilitation and educational facility, Cecere and his colleagues named the bird Challenger in honor of the space shuttle crew that died in a tragic explosion in 1986.
Like most birds of prey with no permanent injuries, Challenger was slated for release once he was strong enough. One problem arose, however: Challenger had become too dependent on his human caretakers, meaning he no longer could hunt and survive on his own.
“It was very rare to get an eagle out of the wild that was physically perfect,” Cecere recalls. “Most are permanently disabled where they don’t really fly very well. One day I got this vision that Challenger should be trained to free-fly in the stadiums during the national anthem.”
Initially, Cecere coaxed Challenger to perch on his leather glove and then, using falconry gear such as anklets and tethering, trained him to fly in fields next to his permanent home near Dollywood theme park. The next step was getting the eagle familiar with large crowds, first at Dollywood theater shows and later crouched on a brass rail at Harley-Davidson rallies. Challenger gradually learned to ignore distractions and grew accustomed to the wind blowing an American flag through his shelter in Pigeon Forge.
Challenger earned his wings in 1996, when for the first time, he flew at an outdoor stadium before 80,000 spectators during the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games in Atlanta, Ga. The practice session went well, with the eagle successfully soaring from the Olympic torch, over the parking lot and into the stadium. During the actual event, however, Challenger did something unexpected. He circled the American flag, not once but several times, and the crowd went wild.
“It was pretty dynamic, and everybody just absolutely loved it,” Cecere says. “We started getting all kinds of appearances after that.”
The first bald eagle trained to fly in sports stadiums during the national anthem, Challenger, now 22, has performed since at hundreds of special events, including NFL Pro-Bowls, World Series baseball games and the presidential inaugurations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He also has appeared on TV shows, including Good Morning America, Dateline and Larry King Live.
“For me, the best part about the flyover was seeing Challenger high above the crowd, flying freely and proudly representing his country,” says Josh Bruce, 34, a graphic designer in Scottsdale, Ariz., who attended the Fiesta Bowl. “The noise, people and camera flashes didn’t seem to faze Challenger. He knew he had a job to do . . . and he completed his mission without fail.”
To hone his skills and maintain his ideal weight of 7 pounds or less, Challenger regularly practices at the American Eagle Foundation facility and at Neyland Stadium in nearby Knoxville, Tenn. He generally travels by airplane in a secure metal carrier and rehearses with his handlers about 10 times before each event so he knows exactly where to land.
During a performance, a handler releases Challenger from a high seating section, and the bird automatically flies toward Cecere. Upon landing, the eagle earns a treat—usually a piece of trout, beef liver or his favorite food, salmon.
In exchange for a flyover, the American Eagle Foundation receives travel expenses and a “donation” to help care for all the birds. Demonstrations at local schools, civic clubs and Scout meetings are provided free of charge.
Just as important as Challenger’s “wow” factor is his ability to increase awareness about bald eagles, which in 2007 were removed from the federal endangered species list and now are protected under federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
“Our delisted national symbol can be compared to a patient that has gone home from the hospital to recuperate,” says Bob Hatcher, a retired coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “Its progress needs to be closely monitored for at least 20 years, as federally mandated, after delisting so that it doesn’t return to the hospital. We believe Challenger and similar educational projects can inspire the public to learn about and support these conservation needs.”
And nothing is more inspiring than the sight of a bald eagle soaring high in the air. “The thing people are going to remember for years and years and years, when they’ve forgotten everything else about the game—who played, who made the touchdown—is the eagle flying,” Cecere says. “When you see that, it’s a very, very powerful, emotional, soul-stirring experience.”