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Riding a High Horse : Saukko, Better Known as Tommy Trojan, Saddles Up Traveler for 25th Season at USC

September 19, 1985|DAVID WHARTON | Times Staff Writer

There are few clues to Richard Saukko's "other life" as you walk through his Saugus ranch on a windy late-summer afternoon.

Several white Arabian horses amble across a dusty corral. Up the hill, in front of the house, stands a wire-mesh skeleton of a prancing stallion that formed the headpiece to a Rose Parade float. Saukko himself wears a cardinal-and-gold USC cap.

Otherwise, the ranch looks much like what it is: home to a soft-spoken, retired paint salesman given to raising Arabians and Tennessee Walkers and taking quiet rides along trails in the afternoon.

But there is another ride Saukko takes. It is short, fast and furious. And it has made him one of the most famous men in the history of college football.

On Saturday afternoons each fall, Saukko jumps on Traveler, a powerful white horse, and sprints across the floor of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. On those days, he is not a 65-year-old retired paint salesman. He is Tommy Trojan.

Saukko is the original Tommy Trojan, and Saturday's USC-Baylor game marks his 25th season as the sword-wielding mascot for the USC football team. In the past quarter century he has perhaps become college football's most recognized mascot, having appeared before millions on national television and ridden in about 20 Rose Parades and 12 Rose Bowl games. He has outlasted three Traveler horses, three USC head coaches and five Heisman Trophy-winning tailbacks.

Saukko kicks the dirt with a well-worn cowboy boot.

"It's been kind of an interesting hobby--a conversation piece," he said. "I guess everybody has a little ham in him. This is my way way of getting mine out."

Around the USC campus, Saukko and Traveler are known simply as, "the Horse." They are a fixture at pep rallies and university functions. After every USC touchdown, fans scream for the horse to run onto the field.

While the mascot is predictably beloved by students and alumni, it was the horse's far-reaching notoriety that surprised football Coach Ted Tollner.

"I never really realized it before," Tollner said. "The number of athletes that we recruit who identify us with the Trojan horse is amazing. The kid could be from Iowa and the only time he's seen it is on television. They know the horse and the rider.

"There's a power, a mystique--it exemplifies the tradition of the football program at USC," he said. "Saukko is part of the game, part of our home-field advantage. He can get the crowd riled up to get us going when we're struggling. He's our secret weapon."

Mike Garrett was a Heisman Trophy-winning tailback at USC in 1965, during Saukko's early years. Garrett said he has vivid memories of seeing the horse on the sidelines.

"The horse is the thing. It's beautiful," Garrett said. "It was a great feeling to see the horse come prancing out onto the field, especially after we scored. Or if it was late in the game and we were driving, you would look over and see the horse and it really inspired you. You got turned on."

Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame's football coach from 1963 to 1974, was asked for his reaction to Tommy Trojan and Traveler. "Can you print it?" he quipped.

"It was one of the those intimidating things," he said. "They'd come storming down there with that horse and him riding it. It was right out of the Trojan days."

Parseghian said the horse was such a hated rival on the Notre Dame campus that on the eve of the 1973 USC-Notre Dame game in South Bend, Ind., he had a friend rent a white horse and show up in a Trojan costume at a pep rally.

"We told (the students) we stole the mascot," Parseghian said. "The kids went crazy."

There have been other indignities, too. In 1980, during halftime of a USC-Stanford game at Stanford, the Stanford band marched onto the field with a horse's skeleton ridden by a Trojan-helmeted human skeleton. And Saukko and Traveler often were bombarded with ice, garbage and fruit by student rooting sections at UCLA, Stanford and Berkeley.

"People either love the white horse," Saukko said, "or they hate the damn horse."

It was New Year's Day, 1961, when Bob Jani, then USC's director of special events, first saw Saukko leading a group of white horses in the Tournament of Roses Parade.

Until then, an odd variety of mascots had represented the university. In 1940, George Tirebiter I, a mutt famous for chasing cars across campus, was dragged into the Coliseum and became USC's first mascot. Some years later, he was run over and killed. In 1954, a student rode a rented horse at halftime of a USC-Pittsburgh game. For several years thereafter, Bob Caswell and his horse, Rockazar, rode at games. In the late 1950s, however, there was no mascot.

Jani thought Saukko might be the man to build a tradition.

"I wasn't even a football fan," Saukko said. "I said, 'I'll do it for one year, then you find someone else.' "

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