This is a repost of the story Kirk McCraken wrote in 2004. It did well and won an AP award. It has been reprinted here with his permission.
Sapulpa is a town steeped in tradition. Every year the Chieftains have a ceremony before the first home game called “The Burning of George.” It started sometime in the 1950s or 1960s, but no one is quite sure when it started.
Most high schools around the country have an event that symbolizes the beginning of their football season. Some host barbecues or ice cream socials while others hold player auctions or watermelon feeds. But at Sapulpa the townsfolk prefer to hang a man from the gallows and burn him at the stake.
The ceremony is affectionately called “The Burning of George”, where an effigy of the unknown George is torched. Many questions have arisen from these annual ceremonies that have gone unanswered for many years.
Who is George? What was his crime, and why do Sapulpans hate him so much?
George is usually burned at the stake, but he has also been tortured in year’s past. Due to burn-bans, Sapulpans didn’t get to set him ablaze, so they found other ways to entertain themselves at his expense. George has been drowned, pelted with water balloons, hung, beaten with sticks and stomped on while the entire town watches with glee.
The burning is rumored to have started in the 1950s and at that time, Sapulpa played Stillwater High School for the first game of each season. Jim Harris, a coach at Stillwater from 1949 to 1969 doesn’t remember a George at Stillwater, but did have a run-in with the Chieftains.
One year, the Chieftains typed letters and put them in the Stillwater locker room. “The letters said that they had spies in the school and they had been watching our practices and writing the plays down, but we got to the fields late and didn’t read the notes until after game. I think we beat them pretty bad,” he said. Harris said he can’t remember any George at Stillwater that was a player, principal or coach.
It is also rumored that George was a running back or a principal from Bristow in the 1950s. Rosemary Laforth is a native of Bristow and a 1941 graduate of the school and can’t think of who it might be.
“I have gone to every game and I can’t think of anybody named George,” she said.
Sapulpa began to play Bristow for their season opener in 1976 and the teams played until 1995. Sapulpa held an 11-9 edge during that time, and has a 25-16-2 series lead. The first time Sapulpa and Bristow met was in 1916 and they tied 6-6. The last time the two teams played, Sapulpa won 41-0 in 1995.
Former Sapulpa Superintendent Dr. Charles Dodson isn’t sure about the origin of the burn either. Dodson played football at Sapulpa. He graduated in 1951 and has been a part of the school system in some capacity since the early 1950s.
“I went to college in 1951 and came back to Sapulpa from 1957 to 1961. I left and then came back in 1971,” he said. “When I came back in ’71 it (the burning) was already a tradition, so it must have started somewhere from 1961 to 1971.”
Dodson was a quarterback on Sapulpa’s only undefeated season. Bob Nale said the event was going on as early as 1952 but wasn’t around in 1949. Basically, the only thing that everyone agrees on is that they have no idea how the “Burning of George” started or who George is.
Whatever the case, George will go up in flames every year prior to the Chieftains first home game even though no one can say what he did, or who he is.