'Hey Reb' crowd-surfs at a University of Las Vegas Nevada basketball… (Jon Goldman )
LAS VEGAS – For six crazy years, Jon Goldman has undergone a transformation before every UNLV game from energized boy-wonder student to, well, cartoon character.
He’s got the facial hair of Yosemite Sam, the speed of the Roadrunner and the whirling-dervish energy of the Tasmanian Devil. But for fans of the Runnin’ Rebels sports teams, he’s the high-fiving, fist-pounding, fireworks-shooting, do-it-all dance machine who goes by the name “Hey Reb.”
Goldman, the University of Nevada Las Vegas team mascot, retired Saturday with a ceremony at the Rebels basketball game against Fresno State. That’s when fans saw the real Goldman, a 23-year-old communications major who told the Los Angeles Times, “I’m having way too much fun.”
Because Goldman is graduating, he's reluctantly leaving his alter ego behind.
At halftime, he walked to center court, tears in his eyes, his mother by his side, without his huge-mustachioed cartoon head. Celebrated for his years of hard work, Goldman was given a framed Hey Reb jersey with its telltale No. 57, marking the year UNLV became a university.
Many colleges have sports mascots, chararacters who become the faces of the teams, in some eyes as important as the players. Duke has its Blue Demon, Syracuse its Orange, Oregon its Duck.
Under Goldman’s direction, Hey Reb has as much spunk as any of them. He’s a scarlet-and-gray mountain man with oversized shoes, a hoops uniform and a 25-pound fur-and-Styrofoam head that is instantly recognizable to fans.
In the stands, some wear “Respect the 'Stache” T-shirts. There are ads with a mustaschioed basketball. Hey Reb even crowd-surfs, passed along the stands by hundreds of loyal fans.
Since arriving at UNLV in 2007, Goldman has worn dozens of costumes and played lots of rah-rah roles – for conventions, company promotions and even private parties. He’s been a shark, a bear and a kangaroo and gone on a four-city tour to help promote a company brand.
His favorite character is Hey Reb, “hands down.” But Goldman had to work to get just the right mojo to wear this big mustachioed head.
While attending high school back home in New Jersey, he realized that no one performed as the school’s Viking mascot. He told himself this would change in soccer’s offseason. That’s when he put together a costume made of medieval knight armor and a Viking helmet.
It became an instant sensation. “People ate it up,” Goldman told The Times. “The dancing, the jumping around. They loved it.”
To get the nod as UNLV's Hey Reb, he ran a campaign of sorts.
“I just started hitting up everybody,” he said. “Athletic director, cheer coach, dance coach, random people on campus, the president of the university, people that had nothing to do with the mascot."
Eventually, the cheer coach brought him on board and he eventually received a partial scholarship to play the role.
His first time in the Hey Reb outfit was for half of a football game in 2007. “People noticed automatically the difference between me and the other guy,” he said. “When I first came, there was no community service, no community outreach. Now, the department gets blitzed with Hey Reb requests nonstop.”
Before games, he plays music to absorb the energy required to inspire 20,000 fans in UNLV’s Thomas and Mack arena. “I mean, I get pumped,” he said. “I feel like Iron Man putting on the suit. I just go to town.”
As Hey Reb, Goldman has even rappelled down the side of the Rio casino in a fundraiser for the Special Olympics.
He's had some scary moments -- for instance, a pregame rally in 2011 when he had an epileptic seizure while in character. But he shook it off, and Hey Reb was quickly back in costume.
What with running around and sweating, the atmosphere inside the big head can get as hot as a sauna. Goldman endures it for he smiles on younger fans' faces.
Now, Goldman is helping find his successor as Hey Reb -- a character that will have some very big shoes to fill, literally and figuratively.
The best part of being the mascot is the fun, he says, and the chance to spread it around: “If you enjoy your job, everybody else is going to enjoy it because you’re actually putting passion and effort in it.”
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