- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2005

NEW YORK — Otto the Orange struts across the floor, leaning back limbo-style. Syracuse has just trounced Rutgers 81-57 in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, and Otto is in wanton celebration mode. Otto high-fives junior gunner Gerry McNamara, who rained 25 points on the hapless Scarlet Knights, and topples backward in end zone-style ecstasy.

It’s approaching midnight, so the isolated slurred heckles from the Rutgers faithful are unmistakable in half-empty Madison Square Garden. Otto, now making a hand-slapping tour of the courtside seats, doesn’t seem to notice. One unsteady fan delivers a combination hip check/forearm shiver to the bumbling, oversized citrus mascot, but Otto’s sewn-on smile never wavers as he reels across the floor, heading for the first of several dozen photo ops with camera-toting Syracuse zealots.

At 12:14 a.m., nearly 30 minutes after the blowout’s final buzzer, Otto collapses on an unused riser in the bowels of the world’s most famous arena, and diminutive junior Laura Brienenall wriggles out of one of the college world’s most recognizable costumes.

“Did you see that one guy just lay into me? Thanks a lot, Dan Patrick,” Brienenall says with a grin, referencing the commercial in which the ESPN anchor slugs Otto in the studio’s parking lot. “I get punched all the time. I mean this thing just begs to be whacked. … What a workout.”

Brienenall is soaked with sweat, exhausted from more than two hours of over-enthusiastic exertion … and profoundly happy.

• • •

March is the month of the mascot. Thanks to a slew of postseason tournaments, highlighted, of course, by the NCAA’s 65-team carnival, mascots spend an entire month cavorting for the cameras between baskets. With so much exposure forthcoming for this outrageous clique of characters, it’s time to go under the fur, feathers and foam to experience the sights and the smells, the perils and the perks of mascot mania.

The suit

Please don’t call it a costume. Clowns wear costumes. Mascots, universally, will tell you they wear suits … like Superman.

These suits almost always are bulky, poorly ventilated, expensive and difficult to wash. The first two traits, when married to two hours of strenuous exercise, tend to turn the average mascot uni into a stench sauna. The latter two traits of the typical suit mean the stench is usually there to stay.

“It’s horrible,” says Saint Joseph’s senior Mike Tecce, this season’s Hawk. “We try to get it dry-cleaned as much as possible, but every feather is on a strip of velcro that is a different length. It takes about a week to get it cleaned because every feather has to be meticulously taken off and put back perfectly. Basically, that means it gets cleaned twice a season — before and after. I go through a bottle of Febreze about every two weeks trying to keep it endurable.”

The Hawk suit, valued at approximately $3,500, may be more pungent than most because no mascot works harder during a game than the Hawk, who must flap his wings from opening tip to final whistle. At one point last season, ESPN attempted to count the flaps, which do not stop at halftime or during timeouts, and estimated the Hawk flaps somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 times a game.

“The fatigue is brutal when you first start the season, but I could flap for four hours straight by midseason,” says Tecce, the only mascot who travels to regular-season road games (in part because of his dual duties as team trainer). “Eventually, the burning just becomes a warm numbness.”

At least there is only one Hawk. Wake Forest, like most schools, has multiple mascots to account for scheduling and appearance conflicts. There are five Demon Deacons but only two suits.

“You can’t do it with just one person, because sometimes the Demon Deacon needs to be at two places at once — say a football game in Tallahassee and a charity 5K run in Winston-Salem,” sophomore mascot Matt Hammer says. “In fact, the absolute minimum for us would be three people. Because at football games, it gets so hot that we have to switch off every quarter and hydrate. We’ve only got two suits, so you can imagine what happens if one is back home and one is at that football game against Florida State in September in the humidity. God help you if you draw the fourth quarter because the suit will be sopping wet and in full stink by then.”

For some mascots, suit stink isn’t a major issue. At West Virginia, each Mountaineer has his own set of custom made buckskins. The skins of the current Mountaineer, Derek Fincham, cost $425 and breathe rather well. But there are other tradeoffs. No mascot is asked to sacrifice more personal time than the Mountaineer. Fincham has done 190 events (games, hospital visits, school trips, alumni gatherings, etc.) since last April. And Fincham’s costume (forgive us) places other rigorous demands on its owner.

The fully functional black powder musket Fincham discharges intermittently during most of his appearances (firing is prohibited at postseason events) requires three hours of cleaning after each firing.

“Cleaning the musket is somewhat time intensive,” says Fincham, who has a noncorrectable vision impairment that makes the task even more tedious.

The standard

The Cardinal Rule of the mascot is never retaliate.

All mascots are expected to display good sportsmanship in the course of representing their academic institution, and aggressive behavior or retaliation is viewed by all within the fraternity as the ultimate breach of etiquette.

Hawaii’s mascot, Vili the Warrior, perhaps has flirted most often of late with betraying this central tenet. Unlike most college mascots, who are students, Vili is played by 39-year-old professional entertainer Vili Fehoko, a 6-foot, 300-pound Samoan. A bare-chested, tattoo-festooned, drum-beating intimidator, Vili the Warrior is known for consuming entire pineapples (husk and all) and screaming, “Let’s make war,” at Hawaii football games.

Vili ran afoul of the trade’s standard at a home game two years ago when he picked up Alabama’s elephant mascot, “Big Al,” and hurled him WWE-style over his head. “Big Al” wasn’t injured, but Hawaii still hasn’t decided to renew Fehoko’s contract, which pays him $400 an appearance and ends in June.

“It was choreographed and all in good fun,” Fehoko says. “But I’m definitely not the stuffed animal type of mascot.”

Restraint is a necessity for the “stuffed animal” mascots like Otto, the Demon Deacon and many others because their frozen-featured inhumanity tends to bring out the inhumanity in the crowd. The Duke Blue Devil is something of a double lightning rod for abuse given the team’s legion of devoted antagonists.

“It’s probably a good thing that we don’t travel with the hoops team until the postseason,” says veteran Blue Devil Josh Friedman, a senior at Duke in his third season under the cape. “At football games, you’ll get projectiles of various descriptions. We’ve had the cape pulled off at Georgia Tech. People frequently punch the suit’s head, but it’s almost impossible to pull off. For the most part, it’s all verbal and pretty harmless.

“But you do have to look out for the 10- to 12-year-old boys. That’s the must-touch demographic. They’re old enough to inflict damage and yet still young enough to disassociate from the fact that there is a person in the suit. That’s really who we try to locate and watch. When you see this demented glow come into their eyes, you’d better run.”

Hammer the Deacon agrees that prepubescent boys, fan or foe, are the primary mascot predators. However, Hammer did have a belligerent fan at a Clemson football game in Death Valley attempt to put a cigarette out on his Deacon head.

“The Deacon’s arm might have unintentionally spasmed into the guy’s chops,” Hammer says. “You’re never supposed to retaliate, but I put that one under the heading of instinctive self-defense. You just can’t allow anyone to desecrate the Deacon.”

The spoils

So what is the ultimate reward for all the physical and emotional duress placed on the college mascot?

At Saint Joseph’s, Tennessee and a few other select schools, it’s a full scholarship.

At some schools, it’s status.

“The ladies definitely dig the Hawk,” Tecce says.

Brienenall the Orange claims she hasn’t paid for a beer this season.

One member of our panel of 12 mascots jokes: “Everybody wants to hug the mascot. It’s a license to grope.”

Most agree with N.C. State’s Lori Moll, one of three Mrs. Wolfs:

“It’s a chance to travel, meet lots of great people and be a part of the spirit of the university.”

But perhaps Duke’s Friedman gives the most revealing glimpse into the soul of the mascot.

“The coolest thing about being the Devil is access,” Friedman says, waving his hand around MCI Center at the recent ACC tournament. “If I tried to walk around here in street clothes, I couldn’t get anywhere. But as soon as I put that suit on, nobody’s stopping me, and this place becomes my playground.”

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