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CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

College sports mascots extend the action well beyond the playing field

Oregon's Duck is the star of the moment in the world of costumed characters, but there's also a lot of hard work that goes on under that oversized head.

January 09, 2011|Chris Erskine

College football's clown princes — trees, tigers, hound dogs and something that resembles a giant hemorrhoid — have a culture all their own. Or maybe it's an anti-culture. What's the opposite of evolution? Devolution? Whatever the antonym, it is represented by this band of floppy deviants — pie-eyed and padded like a bomb squad.

America, meet your mascots.

Like the teams themselves, college mascots range from the polished — Oregon's Duck and Auburn's Tiger — to the downright scruffy. For example:

Maryland has a funny-looking something called Testudo — a turtle, apparently — though his name sounds like the lunch special at Taco Bell.

Idaho's tough-looking Joe Vandal looks like a bouncer in a biker bar.

At Western Kentucky, they have what would politely be described as a blob. Or maybe a very personal wart.

Why do we love mascots? They seem so untroubled by it all. On occasion, you and I may be frozen between thoughts and deeds, but never a mascot. They are animated, edgy, comforting, proud. And as we approach the Bowl Championship Series title game, it's hard to envision the matchup without these unsung heroes with the oversized heads and eyebrows the size of crows.

The mascot of the moment would be Oregon's cantankerous and strutty Donald Duck knockoff, who will be performing Monday night when his school takes on Auburn, itself represented by a high-fivin' Tiger (think Tony, of cereal fame) with an entourage and the smooth moves that garnered multiple national mascot titles.

The Duck is renowned, mostly, for doing a push-up for every point his high-scoring football team accumulates. Like body sweat or grade-point averages, the pushups are cumulative. In the game against New Mexico when Oregon scored 72 points, the Duck did 506 push-ups over the course of the contest.

Oregon picks four students to wear the Duck suit at athletic contests and events, though there is a lead Duck who works most of the football games. Tryouts are pretty informal. If students show an interest, they get a chance to show what they've got.

"We put them in the suit and send them to an event to see how they do," says Dana Guthrie, an athletic department employee who oversees the cheer and mascot programs. "They have to have the same mannerisms … they have to be funny, they have to have a personality."

Guthrie also designates the lead Duck based on showmanship (and push-up ability). Street dancing, skits, high-fives with the crowd are all part of the Duck tool kit. Each of the Duck mascots is free to come up with an individual routine. There are little things — movements, gags, spin moves, reactions — that set the four personas apart. Guthrie says she can tell who is whom by the shtick each performs.

The football Duck is developing new skits all the time. Props include weights, noise machines, light sabers. Among mascots, the Duck is known as particularly cheeky. If Oregon is winning big, he'll bring out a lawn chair to demonstrate what a day at the beach the game has become. Auburn's Tiger, known as Aubie, should be expecting almost anything.

"He has a Trojan outfit for when we play USC," Guthrie says.

Among the mascot subculture's quirks is an anonymity that rivals a witness-protection program's. Most schools do not reveal the students' names, in part to protect them from retribution but also so that students who might know the kid in the costume don't come up shouting his name in the middle of a crowd, detracting from the mascot's unique identity.

"I always tell people that mascots are the most unfamous famous people there are," says Benji Gray, who stages mascot camps throughout the year for the United Cheerleaders Assn. and is a former full-scholarship mascot at Tennessee.

Full scholarships are rare, Gray says, and are mostly granted by football-crazed Southern schools. More common are partial scholarships or cash stipends that turn mascoting into a typical part-time campus job.

This adds to the fraternal feel among the mascots, several said, a mutual understanding of the challenges they face: heat, dehydration, low compensation, kids grabbing at their tails — all in the name of school pride.

"People have no idea," says Old Dominion's mascot Big Blue, a lion character. "It's miserable. It's the worst. It's heaven."

Gray says the temperature inside a typical mascot suit is 20 to 50 degrees warmer than the outside air.

The Duck suit weighs 30 pounds. It doesn't breathe particularly well. And it is as absorbent as a pile of Pampers.

"I find it interesting when I check it into the airport for a game we're going to, how much it weighs when I check it in," says the anonymous student who plays the lead Duck. "Then on the way home, after I wore it, how much more it weighs with the sweat added on."

On average, five to 10 extra pounds of Duck soup.

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