When you reach 50 years old, you ponder things that you’d still like to accomplish before leaving the building for keeps like Elvis.
Some people call it a bucket list.
Mine is short, and not about parachuting, climbing mountains, going over Niagara Falls in a barrel or ski jumping blindfolded.
No. 1 is playing one song as a rock drummer in concert before thousands of people. I’ve always wanted to scream, “Thank you (fill in the city here)!” and throw my drum sticks in the crowd.
No. 2 is playing five minutes in an NBA game. Why five minutes? That’s all I could last before everyone would figure out the old guy is a shooter and playing defense isn’t high on his list of priorities.
Finally, No. 3 is portraying a mascot at a college athletic event. Nobody knows you, you are encouraged to be somebody you’re not. It’s about making people feel good, inviting laughs and smiles.
What could be better than that out-of-body experience?
Robert Price, Tyler Fullbright and Chris Decker are a few among a select group of Southeastern Conference students living or have lived my mascot dream.
“You definitely go into a different character,” says Price, 20, a Vanderbilt junior who portrays Mr. C, the only non-animal mascot (he’s a Commodore) in the SEC jungle full of cats and dogs along with a rogue elephant, an angry chicken and a hacked-off hog. “The majority of the people don’t know who you are, so you can really do whatever you want. It’s freeing in that sense, to act a fool in costume in front of a lot of people.”
The average sports fan knows that the SEC traditionally is ranked as the best football conference in America, and that the league consistently battles for national titles in almost every sport it sponsors.
When you start looking at the resumes of the various mascots around the conference, you understand there’s also a standard of mascot excellence.
For instance, Aubie, Auburn’s mascot, has won six Universal Cheerleading Association national titles, the last in 2006. Cocky, South Carolina’s mascot, won UCA titles in 1986, 1994 and 2009 (watch his winning routine here
There’s also the Capital One Mascot Challenge, which is in its ninth year. Cocky was the Cap One’s 2003 Mascot of the Year, and the SEC has had at least three schools as finalists in seven of the nine years, including three this year (Vandy’s Mr. C, LSU’s Mike The Tiger and Tennessee’s Smokey). Nine of 12 SEC schools have had mascots in the Cap One finals.
Albert, one of Florida’s alligator mascots, was on a SportsCenter commercial with the late Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter (watch it here
The national honors are testimony to the financial and emotional support SEC schools provide their cheer squads to consistently produce funny, engaging mascots that promote the schools far beyond the athletic venues.
Every school has at least three students playing its mascot character, and it’s not just because of all the athletic events and school functions the mascot must attend.
Some schools, like South Carolina, also rent out its mascot for a fee for various occasions.
“We get requests for Cocky to attend children’s birthday parties and wedding receptions, to have him in wedding portraits, family portraits, and Christmas card pictures,” said Erika Goodwin, South Carolina’s head cheerleader coach and spirit coordinator. “People love him so much that I’m never surprised how many requests we get.”
The first event that Fullbright, a 20-year-old sophomore, ever portrayed Cocky was at a wedding reception.
“They played the 2001 theme music (Carolina’s entrance music before football games) and my heart was pounding,” Fullbright recalls. “Then I went running into the ballroom, everybody clapped and I relaxed.”
Some SEC schools have more mascots than others, like Arkansas. The Razorbacks have the best mascot depth in the league, with five different characters to reach every target audience.
“We’ve got Big Red, a scary looking character that is supposed to be mean,” says Jean Nail, who has been Arkansas’ spirit group coordinator for almost 30 years. “Because he tends to scare little kids, we came up with Pork Chop, a small mascot with a height requirement of 5-1 or less, that really relates to children. We also have a girly mascot named Sue E., one for baseball called Ribbie the Razorback and a 9-foot inflatable mascot called Boss Hawg.”
Perhaps one reason why SEC mascots have constantly performed at a high level is they’ve been well-trained to handle the job. The tryouts to win the coveted spots are thorough and rigorous.
The winners are become versed on some of the SEC’s mascot rules (no messing with the referees and no interaction with opposing mascots) and are taught to handle awkward situations.
Florida cheerleader coach Lauren Brady, who helps select and train the Gators’ mascots, Albert and Alberta, said she tries to prepare her troops for the unexpected.
“What if someone pulls on your tail?” Brady says. “Most of the time, you just sit down on it so it can’t be pulled. Alberta sometimes will whip around with her tail and wag her finger at the person who pulled her tail.
“Or how do handle it when we’re losing (a football game), though it doesn’t happen that often? We learn how to remain spirited while not ignoring the fact we’re losing.”
Every school has a character concept for its mascot, all the way down to possessing a distinct walk.
For instance, Vanderbilt cheerleader coach Pam Pearson insists Mr. C have a strutting, regal stride. Brady says that Florida’s Albert strolls confidently with arms swinging high, while Alberta has more of a sassy swagger swinging her tail back and forth. Cocky simply mimics his name.
“Cocky is THE man,” Fullbright says. “He does what he wants, he goes where he wants. He’s always trying to find something to push the limit. His motto is, `It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.’ ”
Decker, 23, who’s now a volunteer coach training mascots at Arkansas after portraying several Hog characters over the last three years (but mostly Big Red) said the key for any successful mascot is for the person in the suit to own the role.
“A lot of people we get just come in, put on the mascot head and walk out there like you or I walking down the street,” Decker says. “You can’t do that.
“You’ve got to make that mascot your own character. You have to make every gesture bigger and bolder. You have to have attitude.”
And you have to adapt to the crowd, good and bad, because the strength of most mascots is improvisation comedy. Since mascots aren’t allowed to speak, they must be exceptional mimes (and probably world-champion charade players).
“The most exhilarating thing is walking into the large stadiums on the road like LSU and Florida,” says Vandy’s Price. “I kind of get pumped up, because I know just about everyone there hates me.
“The first away game I did as a freshman, someone at Ole Miss threw a large Frisbee like a pretzel and hit me in my head. That was pretty funny.”
Often overlooked with mascots is that the students inside of the costumes have to be in superb physical condition, because of the weight of the costumes (about 25 pounds for Cocky) and the heat generated.
“It does get pretty hot earlier in the season in the day time games,” says Stephanie, who is a friend (wink, wink!) of Florida’s Alberta and can’t have her last name used per school policy to protect the aura surrounding its mascots. “Gatorade is a great thing.”
Through all the heat, the sweat, the rehearsal of skits and the numerous public appearances, the job of mascots does have its perks, like Stephanie. . .er. . .Alberta’s week-long stay in Miami when Florida won the BCS national championship in January 2009, or Price’s California sojourn last spring when Mr. C and the Commodores went to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
“I’m there for a week on someone else’s dollar,” Price says with a laugh. “I didn’t pay for any of it. Sometimes, I think it’s a joke I get to travel with an SEC team around the country.”
The one thing most of the students portraying the mascots eventually realize is how much that character means to their fan base.
It especially struck home with Fullbright last spring. That’s when Bayler Teal, a 7-year old South Carolina baseball fan who had been fighting cancer for two years, threw out the first pitch at a Carolina home game.
Teal died a few months later in late June, the week before Carolina won the College World Series with Whit Merrifield, Teal’s favorite player, getting the game-winning RBI.
“The day Bayler threw out the first pitch was the very last picture he had taken with Cocky,” Fullbright says. “He’d been back and forth through treatment, but I take a picture with him, and I had the chance to make him smile.
“We live for stadiums packed 85,000 strong and winning national championships. But the chance to do something like that, to make a difference in somebody’s life, if only for a moment, means so much more.”
The other thing Fullbright will never forget about that day was how glad he was to be wearing the Cocky outfit, particularly the head, because it hid the tears trickling down his cheeks.
The tears of a well-intentioned clown.