- Associated Press - Sunday, July 31, 2016

FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) - Florence native Pete Nelson has been the man behind the T-Rac mask for 17 years.

He was the first Tennessee Titans mascot after the franchise moved from Texas to Nashville and has received accolades over the years for a job well done.

In early July, Nelson announced he was hanging up his mask.

In the wake of his career ending, it’s interesting to recall that the beginning of his mascot journey was as a lion and not a raccoon.

Nelson said his years as Leo at the University of North Alabama made him think he could make a career of being a mascot.

“My time at UNA . the awards I won there and the passion I had for it — the fun I had with it — was of course the reason for me to try to do it professionally,” Nelson said. “I was the mascot for five years at UNA. I taught mascot camps; I even taught my own camp for UCA (Universal Cheerleading Association) and I competed with NCA (National Cheerleaders Association.) NCA was pretty prestigious - they only took five - and I was one of the five. I don’t think any Division II mascot had done that. It was quite an honor.”

David Phillips, originally from Florence but currently living in Huntsville, met Pete Nelson in the late 1990s in a night class at the University of North Alabama. Phillips said he had taken a history class under Larry Nelson and knew Pete was his son.

“Pete was just this nerdy kid and you couldn’t help but like him,” Phillips said. “We got to know each other. I was already in Sigma Chi, and me and another guy he went to Bradshaw with got him to come through rush.”

Phillips said Nelson didn’t look the fraternity type at all. He said he ended up being Nelson’s big brother when he was a pledge because only a few of them knew him. But, Nelson was so likeable, and the fraternity gave him a bid.

“I was pretty shy, especially up to my senior year in high school. Then, as a freshman at UNA, I was still really shy. I was the youngest in the class; I was the smallest in the class,” Nelson said.

Nelson said he remembers the conversation he had with his father about making a decision about where to attend college and about his future.

“I remember my dad took me to a UNA game - I had never been to an NFL game, I had never even been to a Division I football game. My dad saw me smiling while we were at the game and he asked me, ‘So, you think you want to come here?’ I guess I was a junior in high school and I said, ‘Oh yeah.’ “

The next question and answer ended up defining a 22-year path for Nelson.

“My dad asked, ‘But what do you want to do?’ I saw the mascot walking up and I said, ‘I want to do that.’ I wasn’t smart enough to get an academic scholarship; I wasn’t athletic enough to get an athletic scholarship, but I knew I could do that. My dad was my biggest fan. He had a grown son that dressed up in a fur costume for a living but he and my mom were my biggest fans.”

Phillips said when Nelson was Leo it was as if an alter ego took over. He said after time, it was obvious that the once shy Nelson kept getting more confident in his role. Phillips said he never thought Nelson would have ended up with one of the coolest careers of anyone he knows.

“I was head cheerleader back then, and Pete told me he thought it would be cool to be Leo,” Phillips said. “I told him to go for it. The guy who was Leo was leaving so a couple of us got his foot in the door. I never would have thought he would be that good at it but from day one, he was hilarious.”

The year Nelson graduated from UNA, the Houston Oilers were relocating to Tennessee to become the Titans.

“Pete knew Bud Adams - then owner of the franchise - he was a Sigma Chi,” Phillips said. “He thought this (being a mascot) was something he could get into. He did that and got the job.”

Nelson said it was down to him and one other guy for the job. He said his fraternity connection helped him land it. The first year Nelson was T-Rac for the Tennessee Titans, the team went to the Super Bowl. He said going to the Super Bowl was an unbelievable experience.

“It was the 1999 Super Bowl played in 2000 in Atlanta. It was against the Saint Louis Rams and it was the greatest show on turf,” Nelson said. “We were the big underdog even though we were one of the few teams to beat them in the regular season at home. My very first year, I got to lead the team onto the field at the Super Bowl. That was something pretty wild.”

Nelson said he has always prayed he would know when it was time to retire. And, he prayed he would be OK with the decision when the time was right.

“I prayed just to let it be and let it be OK,” Nelson said. “That’s exactly what happened. It was just time to try something else and let the body heal.”

Being a mascot is a physically demanding job. Nelson has had many surgeries and blown both his knees out during his career. He’s had injections into his neck and spine for ruptured disc and many chiropractor visits.

“That was my style of humor, very physical,” Nelson said. “During my school shows, I threw myself down in various ways like 17 times. I was in full body armor underneath. It took a toll. I’m not complaining about it. Even if I wake up in pain every day for the rest of my life, I’m not complaining about it one bit.”


Information from: TimesDaily, https://www.timesdaily.com/

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