Neil Mumm lives in Singapore, but he made plans long ago to be in Wisconsin this week because he has missed only one Gophers-Badgers football game since 1995. And even the one-year absence deserves an asterisk.
His son was due to be born the week after the 2015 game. The doctor thought the baby might come early. Mumm crafted a well-devised plan.
He lived in California at the time. He would fly in on the red-eye, attend the afternoon game, fly back home that night. Gone less than 24 hours — brilliant!
Then, he shared his idea with his wife. … So, yeah, he wound up staying home. His son arrived a week after his due date, and Mumm knew he'd done the right thing.
"Gophers didn't really show up, so I didn't miss the long-awaited reclaiming of the Axe," he e-mailed last week. He added, "If I had … would've had to question if I was part of the curse!"
Mumm graduated from the U in 1999. Since then, he has lived in Minneapolis, Puerto Rico, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco and now Singapore. But he never misses the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe.
Even when a new job relocated his family to Singapore in January, he made plans to be at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday for the 130th meeting between rivals.
"Before 2020 did its thing," he wrote.
Sadly, 2020 keeps doing its darn thing. An outbreak of positive tests inside the Gophers program halted this storied rivalry for the first time since 1906. Yes, they have played this rivalry through two World Wars, the influenza pandemic of 1918, Bobby Bell's phantom roughing-the-passer penalty in '62, Rhys Lloyd, the 2005 blocked punt …
But probably not this year. There is hope that the game might be rescheduled for Dec. 19, though this pandemic has taught us never to assume anything.
The world is facing far more important matters than a football game being canceled, but of all the games to be affected, it had to be this one?
This cuts deep. For players, for coaches and for fans.
Fans such as Mumm, who was born in Minneapolis, then moved to Madison at age 7 until graduation, but never lost his allegiance to Minnesota sports.
Fans such as Erik Peterson, a pharmacist who holds two degrees from the U and has a "great affinity for the rivalry," which means he maintains a healthy dose of disdain for the other side.
Peterson does not own a single clothing item that is red. Shopping at Target is troublesome because of red carts. And he would never be caught driving a red car.
"You can correlate my dislike of red back to the Badgers," he said.
Fans such as John Stock, who owns a woodworking company and made a replica of Paul Bunyan's Axe that he brought to a game a few years ago.
Stock's Axe is about 5 feet tall and weighs close to 20 pounds. Fans at tailgate parties kept stopping him to take photos with it.
Stock carried his Axe into a bar after the game. A guy dressed in Badgers attire saw him and "his eyeballs just about popped out of his head," Stock said.
That man was Jim Keene, who has missed only five Badgers home games in 45 years. Keene, 72 and retired, stopped Stock that day and asked to buy his replica.
Stock declined. Keene gave him his business card in case he changed his mind. A month later, Stock texted him and asked if he was still interested.
The Gophers fan made the Badgers fan his own Axe replica. For free. Keene paid for shipping.
How's that for Minnesota Nice?
Keene has a friend in Wisconsin who stenciled the scores from every year on the handle. His Axe hangs on a wall in his family room filled with Badgers memorabilia.
After every meeting, Keene turns his Axe so the blade displays the winner's school color. He keeps in that way for the entire year, which means he had to look at the Gophers emblem every day after their 2018 win.
"It hurts," he said.
Stock has a similar arrangement with a friend here in Minnesota, a Badgers fan. The winner gets to keep Stock's Axe for the year.
Just as the victorious players make a mad dash to grab Paul Bunyan's Axe after the game is over, Stock called his friend immediately after that 2018 game and said he was driving to his house to retrieve the Axe. His friend was out of town, so he had his son put the Axe on the porch.
This is what makes college football a cut above the rest. Historical rivalries that spark friendly wagers and spirited trash talk between friends, neighbors and strangers.
Axe Week normally is a hoot.
"It's not like any other rivalry in the country," Keene said. "Wisconsin-Minnesota is just a fun time. You go to the tailgate earlier than other games. The weather is brisk. The deer hunters come out of the woods."
Having it canceled is a bummer, but fans seem to have proper perspective. Peterson, the pharmacist, has viewed 2020 as a "practice season" for the Gophers. He also felt a schedule disruption was inevitable.
"It was bound to hit close to home at some point," he said.
Stock spent a week in the hospital last month recovering from COVID-19. He's feeling better now, but that experience reinforced what matters most.
"It's more important than the football game," he said. "But I love that rivalry."
The rivalry only paused. It will resume next year (if not in three weeks), and Mumm likely will make every attempt to be there in 2021, even if he's still in Singapore.
"I have so many priceless memories from the pregame tailgates and games over the years," he wrote. "It's been part of what's kept me anchored to home despite living far away."