The Thunder That Is Sunder
"What God has joined together, let no man put asunder."
-- Matthew 19:6
The Apostle Matthew's above verse might not have been what Chris Cornell had in mind when he unceremoniously ripped the ape-head figurine from his teammate and buddy Raj Lal's Planet of the Apes DVD box set, but if it wasn't God's work, one could argue the act was spurred on from a higher power.
The Rock Bridge High School distance runners have paraded the head of an apelike creature atop a stake to cross-country meets in the fall for the past ten years. It is not a handsome ape's head. One might even say it is a bit disturbing. And those feelings of uneasiness are just fine with the Bruins' runners who have worshipped at the altar of Sunder.
Let's start at the beginning.
Raj Lal happened to be the fun-loving cross-country kid whose house was where everyone on the 2009 Rock Bridge cross-country team hung out. Raj's home was big enough for impromptu basketball games and even a one-time-only water gun fight in the not-so-waterproof lower level of the Lal home.
"These so-called friends of mine would pretty much invite themselves over to my house pretty much every day," laughed Raj Lal, a senior that season. "Not that I encouraged them or even liked it!"
"Raj's mom would buy all of these DVDs movie titles off of Amazon," recalled Cornell. "They had an entire room filled with DVDs. I spotted the Planet of the Apes box set that came with an ape head figure on it and decided to just tear it off the box. What can I say? I was an immature juvenile delinquent."
The original plan was to play ding-dong-ditch with the ape-head around the neighborhood for an afternoon and then move on to the next time-killing distraction. Ah, but this ape head proved to possess mystical powers when it came to survival.
After leaving the ape head on the porch of one of Lal's elderly neighbors for the better part of a week, they returned to the scene of the crime to retrieve their fledgling mascot. The people inside the house were relieved to discover this was merely a schoolboy prank, rather than a satanic cult targeting senior citizens in Columbia, Missouri. They gladly (and gingerly) handed the ape head back to the boys and the legend began to take flight.
As the 2009 Rock Bridge team boarded their team bus for an early-morning ride to their season-opening meet in Liberty, Missouri, Tim Quetsch, a senior on the squad, walked toward the back of the bus with this former DVD ornament securely fastened to the end of a sawed-off broom handle.
"I wasn't all that surprised to see Tim carrying that ape head onto the bus," said Griffin Humphreys, a 2011 graduate of Rock Bridge. "He was always bringing weird stuff on the bus to meets. He used to show up eating a bowl of leftover cold mashed potatoes. Who does that at 4:30 in the morning, knowing you have to race in a couple of hours? Tim thought nothing of it."
"It's food," Quetsch would shrug. "What's the difference?"
No one is quite sure when the ape head got its name, but it was sometime during that 2009 cross-country season when the Bruins boys team started winning. And kept winning.
"We just called it Ape Head at first," said Humphreys. "Then we started calling it Sunder, after Raj's father."
"You have to remember we were just dumb kids," explained Cornell. "Raj was a real practical joker and we were always making fun of each other. We told Raj that we were going to call the ape head Sunder, his father's name, because he came from his basement and so he was part of his family."
"My dad had no idea that my friends named a monkey head after him," said a somewhat distraught Raj. "He still has no clue that the Rock Bridge cross-country team is parading around the state with a monkey head on a stick named after him!"
"And believe me," added Raj. "He doesn't want to know!"
"I was like everyone else who sees Sunder for the first time," laughed Neal Blackburn, who has been the head cross-country coach at Rock Bridge since 2001. "What in the heck is that! You have to admit, it stands out. The stories and history of Sunder have been passed down from team to team kind of like a game of telephone, with the legend blurring and growing with time. It changes with each class. Heck, I am learning things about Sunder from this story that I didn't know!"
The ape head started traveling with the Bruins to all their meets that fall in 2009 and quickly became a favorite of the both the team and their loyal fans.
"Sunder was kind of our good-luck charm," explained Cornell.
"I used to rub his head for good luck," added Humphreys.
Opposing teams though, were not so sure about this odd creature on a stick.
"We pretended to worship it," laughed Cornell. "Caleb Wilfong would perform these crazy rituals and dances around Sunder before the meets. We wanted to psych out the other teams or at least make them think we were crazy - which in Wilfong's case was not far off."
"That group of guys were so crazy," recalled Wilfong. "There is no way I would have been as eccentric as I was back them without their influence. They were so crazy!"
On a road trip to Memphis that first season of Sunder for the Twilight XC Classic, there was panic that Sunder had been lost.
"Sunder disappeared after we went to Memphis Twilight that fall," said Humphreys. "Many of us feared someone had stolen him from our team area during the varsity races."
Reality was that some of the underclassmen on the Bruins team had pirated Sunder away from his perch in the team tent in Memphis and hidden him from the varsity.
"It was hard to get too mad at them," said Cornell. "It was exactly like something we would have done when we were on the JV team."
"We showed up our freshman year wearing basketball shorts to run in," said Wilfong with a note of disgust. "What self-respecting cross-country team trains in basketball shorts? Chris Cornell changed our culture with crazy stuff like making this ape head our mascot."
Cornell's older brother, Tim, had won the Missouri state cross-country individual title as a member of the Columbia Hickman team in 2003 and 2004. Tim went on to run at Mizzou. His success played a part in helping mold the winning culture that became Rock Bridge cross country.
"We started hanging out with Chris' brother and some of the guys on the Mizzou cross-country team," recalled Wilfong. "They got us to start thinking, this could be us. Why can't we be great? We wanted to be like them."
Wilfong credits Chris Cornell for instilling a killer instinct into the culture of the Rock Bridge team.
"Chris changed our mindset," said Wilfong. "He brought that if-you're-not-first-you're-last mentality to Rock Bridge cross. As sophomores, we ditched the basketball shorts and started wearing short shorts. We looked at each other and decided we were going to set goals and be great, not just good."
The 2009 cross-country season proved to be the best one yet for Rock Bridge. The boys finished atop the podium in third place at state. The following year the Bruins finished second at state. In 2011, Wilfong won the Class 4 individual state title and the boys won their first cross-country team state championship, with their top six runners earning All-State honors.
"We hated to lose," recalled Wilfong. "We wanted to intimidate the other team, and dancing around like a crazy person with Sunder's head on a pole made us look all the crazier. We wanted to race the best teams anywhere and everywhere - and we were pissed when the best teams weren't there to test us. We developed a nasty, gritty attitude that we carried throughout high school."
"Sunder is part of our culture," explained Mojuba Shonekan (Rock Bridge class of 2019). "Every runner meets Sunder for the first time and says, 'What is that?' But we all come to understand that he is a part of Rock Bridge and our identity."
The legend of Sunder grew with each season, but things have a way of changing over time.
Despite all the success that Sunder's powers had apparently bestowed on the Bruins, you might find it surprising that over the years, he has not always been worshipped by all members of the Bruins cross-country team.
"After the Liberty meet one year," recalled Quinn Miller, a 2016 graduate of Rock Bridge, someone got all creeped out by Sunder. They thought it was too weird looking and scary, and bringing the team bad luck. So, after the meet they chucked him - pole and all - into the woods there in Liberty. We got on the bus and headed back to Columbia thinking that was the last we'd ever see of Sunder."
"But sure enough, there at the next meet, Sunder was back good as new. Another time, someone broke his head off the stake but the next time we got on the bus for a meet, Sunder was there all patched up once again."
Cornell, the guy who started this Sunder madness way back in the Lal family's basement in 2009, went to his first Rock Bridge cross-country meet in years earlier this fall at Gans Creek in Columbia.
"I know that darn Sunder is around here somewhere," Cornell said when he spotted Coach Blackburn. "Where is he?"
Blackburn pointed Cornell toward the Rock Bridge team tent and off he went to be reunited with the legendary mascot.
"When I got to the Rock Bridge tent, I looked inside and I didn't see anybody I knew and none of the kids had any idea who I was," said Cornell. "I asked them where Sunder was and none of them wanted to show him to me. They were all real protective of him. Like I was going to steal him or something! I had to explain to them who I was and how I had been in the class that started the Sunder legend."
"We didn't know who this guy was who was asking about Sunder," said Kellen Klowe, a senior on the current Rock Bridge cross-country team. "After he explained who he was, we let him see Sunder. He told us the story about the Planet of the Apes DVD set, which was pretty cool."
Coach Blackburn is not involved with Sunder's off-season whereabouts or who his caretaker is year to year. "I don't have anything to do with Sunder," announced Coach Blackburn. "I don't store him in the shed or have any idea where he disappears to after the season. All I know is he shows up again each fall."
"We designate the 'Sunder Holder' each season," explained Klowe. "A departing senior chooses who the next Sunder Holder will be, and that person is in charge of caring for Sunder until he passes him on to the next Sunder Holder."
Klowe made it clear that there are specific rules of etiquette to follow regarding Sunder.
"His head is to never touch the ground," explained Klowe, who recently passed on his caretaker position of Sunder. "I carried him upright on the bus to all meets."
The power of Sunder is such that no varsity runner can ever be deemed the Sunder Holder for fear Sunder's overwhelming aura will zap some of the strength required to race.
"Sunder is revered by our cross-country team," added a solemn Klowe. "He has been around a lot longer than any of us and we respect his powers. Just looking into Sunder's eyes is enough to make strong legs weak."
"I see Sunder as a piece of symbolism for our cross-country program," said Coach Blackburn. "That first year of Sunder was our first podium finish at state. Those kids wanted the classes that followed them to carry on the tradition they started. Keep the fire of success burning, a passing of the torch. Sunder, along with a lot of our other traditions at Rock Bridge, are a big part of the legacy of being a Bruin."
"I love those guys," said a serious Raj Lal. "I played tennis at Rock Bridge instead of running track in the spring. We had some great tennis teams, always battling Rockhurst for state titles. I only talk to one or two of my high school tennis teammates now, but I still talk and keep up with almost all my cross-country teammates. Cross country is just different."
"Our kids take a tremendous amount of pride in being a member of our cross-country program," said Blackburn. "Sunder symbolizes that uniqueness of being part of something special. I am glad he's part of our program."
"I like to think that Sunder represents not just the Rock Bridge cross-country program, but all cross-country programs everywhere," said Miller. "This sport attracts the goofy, fun-loving kids who know how to work hard but also love to get a little crazy. Sunder is what cross-country is all about."