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  • Washington Post photos Challenger the eagle awaits the start of the first of two practice flights on an upper deck at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

  • Al Cecere, president and chief executive of the American Eagle Foundation, smiles while Challenger looks more serious.

Sunday, January 14, 2018 1:00 am

This eagle stars in 'Star-Spangled Banner'

Bird's flights dazzle crowds at 350 events

Samantha Drake | Washington Post

PHILADELPHIA – The first big cheer at Lincoln Financial Field occurred when the Philadelphia Eagles ran onto the field. The second roar came during “The Star-Spangled Banner” – when an actual eagle swooped around the stadium.

The feathered one was a bald eagle named Challenger, and he is a big deal. The 28-year-old rescue bird is trained to free-fly to the national anthem, a feat he has performed at more than 350 public events over the past two decades.

Among them: More than 80 NFL regular season games, three NFL Pro-Bowl all-star games, the NCAA national college football championship, 11 World Series games, dozens of regular season Major League Baseball games and the Indianapolis 500.

When bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list in 2007, Challenger was there. When Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were each inaugurated for the first times, Challenger – a firmly nonpartisan patriot – appeared at the concerts afterward.

“We don't pick between Democrats and Republicans,” said his trainer, Al Cecere, the president and chief executive of the American Eagle Foundation. “Challenger represents all Americans.”

Keeping up with all this demand requires an impressive entourage and a strict schedule.

Cecere and four other humans travel with the bird to care for him, coordinate with organizers and film his flights. The Tennessee team is on the road nearly every week except in the summer, when Challenger is molting and isn't looking his best. Sometimes they drive, but often they fly – always on Southwest, which allows Challenger in the cabin and occasionally lets Cecere commandeer the pilot's microphone to offer an in-flight education session on eagles.

“Challenger is an uplifting part of our game day experience,” said Anne Gordon, a senior vice president for the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that enlisted the bird for four games in 2017 – and which, she noted, took its name in 1933 from the emblem of the New Deal's National Recovery Act. “Having Challenger at our games today not only reminds us of our team history, but also of the history of our nation. That really resonates with our fans.”

Challenger's assignments last just a few minutes, but they're preceded by plenty of preparation. A few hours before the Eagles played the Dallas Cowboys on New Year's Eve, the bird practiced his flight twice. The team members, all wearing headsets, inspected the premises to ensure no cables or other obstacles would impede his soaring. One measured the wind velocity to make sure it was below 17 mph, because stiff gusts can blow the six-pound eagle off course. As usual, two GPS trackers were clipped to Challenger's tail feathers just in case the bird decided to seek freedom beyond the stadium; Cecere said they've never had to be used.

Cecere and his daughter, Laura Sterbens, the foundation's director of operations, walked onto the field as a boys' choir began singing the national anthem. Fireworks exploded at the line “And the rockets' red glare ... ,” and when the last spark dissipated, it was Challenger's moment. Sterbens blew a whistle and started swinging a leather lure on a long cord, while Cecere held up his gloved hand. Both the lure and the glove tell the eagle to “come here” and that a tasty reward will be waiting.

Only one variable was left, and that was Challenger himself.

The eagle decides how to get from where he's released to where he lands. Sometimes he flies straight from point to point. Other times, Challenger opts to circle once or twice before landing.

On this day, Challenger's image flashed on the stadium's big screen as the eagle was released from an upper level of the stadium. He sailed straight down to the field and settled on Cecere's glove. The trainer, 70, held the eagle aloft for a moment and then headed to the sidelines, where Challenger showed his media savvy by majestically spreading his wings as people held up smartphones to take his picture.

Challenger's path to stardom wasn't quite so direct. He came to the eagle foundation in 1990, five years after Cecere decided to leave a career in the entertainment industry to try to help save a species that was then near extinction in 48 states. The organization now breeds bald eagles for release and rehabilitates and cares for injured raptors, owls and other kinds of birds.

A storm had blown Challenger's nest out of a tree in Louisiana when he was just a few weeks old, and his initial rescuers fed him by hand before handing him over to wildlife authorities.

They tried to release him three times, but he had become conditioned to handouts and wasn't able to fend for himself in the wild. So they placed the bird with Cecere's group, which named him in honor of the crew of the space shuttle that exploded in 1986.

But unlike many of his injured peers at the eagle foundation, Challenger was in perfect shape and could fly. That ability and his laid-back disposition gave Cecere an idea: Why not train the eagle to free-fly, without a lead line attached, at events during the national anthem? The dramatic spectacle would help raise awareness about protecting bald eagles, he figured, and be a patriotic tribute to boot.

Cecere researched training techniques and decided on those used in falconry because they're based on positive reinforcement and rewards of food.

“Everything you do is designed to gain the bird's trust,” he said.

By 1995, Challenger was ready for his first flight at a big event – a professional fishing tournament in North Carolina. He gave a flawless performance.

Today, event organizers who want to book Challenger must cover travel expenses for him and his team, as well as make a donation to the American Eagle Foundation. And after all these years, the bird still appears to enjoy being in the spotlight and tends to perk up whenever he hears the national anthem, because to him the tune means treat time.

“It's his favorite song,” Cecere quipped.

One sports event Challenger has yet to attend is the Super Bowl, but it hasn't been for lack of Cecere offering. The trainer said he'd love to see Challenger add it to his accomplishments.

Challenger, for his part, doesn't seem to be losing sleep over it.

Back in his dressing room in Philadelphia, the eagle tore into a raw hunk of wild-caught salmon and drank Fiji water from a cup, both of which his team had procured earlier that day at Whole Foods.

“We like to give him the best on the road,” Cecere said. “He's treated like an athlete.”