An hour before kickoff, Nic Maloukis suits up in the locker room at Texas State University in San Marcos (pop. 34,733). He zips up his furry costume, steps into floppy feet, wiggles into paws with claws and pulls on the head of Boko the Bobcat.
Faster than you can say Go Bobcats, Maloukis transforms into a 6-foot-6-inch feisty mascot who charges onto the football field, leaping and raising his paws victoriously as he leads the home team into the stadium.
Boko bounds among the bleachers, snatching a hat from one fan and hugging another. He scrambles over a railing to join the cheerleaders as they signal the crowd to yell louder. Everywhere Boko the Bobcat goes he leaves a trail of laughter.
I like being the embodiment of school spirit, says Maloukis, 22, a graduate student who has energized Bobcat fans for four years.
Since age 7, Maloukis longed to be a team mascot. While serving as a ball boy for the Lady Longhorns at the University of Texas at Austin, Maloukis found his heronot on the court sinking baskets, but on the sidelines swishing his tail.
I wanted to be HookEm, he says about the teams longhorn mascot. To someone growing up in Austin, the university is such a part of the city. To me, HookEm was as big a deal as Mickey Mouse.
While being Boko is an honor, its also physically demandingand exhaustingto perform in a cumbersome costume that often is 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the outside temperature.
You have to keep moving, says Maloukis, a fit 165-pound guy who skateboards to class and is an avid mountain biker. A mascot standing there just looks like a big stuffed animal.
Like most mascots, Boko the Bobcat isnt allowed to speakor growlso emotions are expressed with body language. After a baffling play or referee call, Boko slaps the sides of his shaking head. To laugh, he tips back his head and pats his stomach. If a player is down or injured, he drops reverently to one knee. When he wants to pep up the crowd, Boko launches himself into the stands where he body surfs on a sea of upstretched hands.
What I love most is seeing the look on little kids faces, Maloukis says. I feel like a celebrity, but more than that, I feel like a hero.
Go Criminals, Kicking Mules and Horned Toads
Adored in hometowns across America, school mascots are a menagerie of furred, feathered and fanciful critters and characters that provide a symbol for college and high school sports teams and their fans to rally round.
Many times the mascot is derived from the school or town name, the school namesake, the dominant industry of the area, or a landmark or feature of the area, says Marc Sheehan of Federal Way, Wash., who maintains a website devoted to mascots.
While Bears, Bulldogs, Cougars, Eagles, Hawks, Lions, Patriots and Vikings are the most common team names, sports fans also cheer for the Appleknockers, Banana Slugs, Beetdiggers, Claim Jumpers, Cottonpickers, Earwigs, Gila Monsters, Hippos, Hot Dogs, Logrollers, Millionaires, Skipjacks, Sparkplugs, Trolls, Unicorns and Witches.
At Yuma High School in Yuma, Ariz. (pop. 77,515), the crowd cheers on the Criminals, named after the 1870s Yuma Territorial Prison where high school classes were held for three years before the school was built. In 1913, after beating the Phoenix Coyotes in the last few seconds of a football game, a spectator remarked that it was just criminal the way they stole that game. A sports reporter overheard the comment and published the description. Soon after, the high school officially selected the Criminals as the team name.
In Cairo, Ga. (pop. 9,239), the towns Roddenbery Syrup Co. inspired the team name one rainy night in 1910 after the company owner ran to his business and grabbed jackets for the players. Printed on the back was Syrupmakerand the name stuck. Each year, a senior at Cairo High School is chosen to be the Syrupmakers mascot: the Syrup Pitcher.
Up north in Temperance, Mich. (pop. 7,757), Nick Olszewski, 16, portrays Maximus the Mule at Bedford Senior High School. Bedford was a big farming place with mules and open fields miles long, says Olszewski, explaining how the Kicking Mule became the schools mascot. Plus, mules are stubborn and hardworking.
Olszewski was selected to be the spirited mule because hes an outgoing kid, says Bob Titus, who teaches the schools sports and entertainment marketing classes. He gives high-fives and passes out goodies and gives hugs to little kids.
In many small towns, sporting events involve the whole community. To help Ozark High School in Ozark, Ark. (pop. 3,525), the Rev. Ted Darling serves as the schools revered mascot: the Hillbilly. The Baptist minister wears a beard, overalls and a floppy felt hat, and totes a 12-gauge shotgun. He fires a blank after every touchdown.
We enjoy the stereotype of the hillbilly, says Darling, 58. It gives us kind of a novelty status.
Fans of all ages embrace the Horned Toads and their mascot, Oscar the Horned Toad, in Coalinga, Calif. (pop. 11,668). The regions real horned toad lizards have been the stars of the towns annual Horned Toad Derby on Memorial Day weekend since 1933.
I remember the first time I did a cartwheel at a football game and almost the entire crowd started clapping, says Jessica Harrington, 15, who wears the Oscar costume. Among those clapping was Alexa Silva, 4, a devoted fan.
Alexa invited Oscar to her birthday party. She even wanted to be Oscar for Halloween, says her mother, Nikki Silva, 27, a graduate of Coalinga High School.
Mascots in training
To add sizzle to their half-time skits and fun to their on-field antics, some mascots attend a workshop taught by Erin Blank, 36, owner of Keystone Mascots in Lancaster, Pa. (pop. 56,348).
Last summer, Blank coached about a dozen mascotsincluding an overstuffed Toucan, a Robin, Cedar Tree, Baron and Piratein practical matters, such as how to stay cool in their costumes, sign autographs in paws and claws, and use props to pep up their acts.
A car shade can be a surfboard, Blank says, stepping on a piece of cardboard and teetering with outstretched arms. I want you to use ordinary objects in ways that they were never intended to be used.
With music booming, the mascots get cracking with creativity in a room with a mirrored wall so they can see their silliness. Soon, the Toucan is sitting on a red ball as if its an egg and checking to see if it hatched, the Baron is using a baton for a Q-tip and the Cedar Tree is wearing a head scarf as a blindfold.
Come football and basketball season, these spirited school ambassadors will parade into stadiums and gymnasiumssome dressed in decades of town history and team traditionto cavort, cheer and create as much hoopla as possible to support the home team.
Mascots from A to Z
American high schools and colleges have some uniqueand unusualsports team names and icons. Here is a partial list from Marc Sheehans mascot website. For a comprehensive list, visit http://www.halcyon.com/marcs/mascot.html.
Anteaters, University of California, Irvine
Appleknockers, Cobden (Ill.) High School
Artichokes, Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College
Atoms, Annandale (Va.) High School
Auctioneers, Mullins (S.C.) High School
Banana Slugs, University of California, Santa Cruz
Beetdiggers, Jordan High School, Sandy, Utah
Bellringers, East Hampton (Conn.) High School
Big Trains, Silver Grove (Ky.) High School
Billygoats, Pateros (Wash.) High School
Briar Jumpers, Somerset (Ky.) High School
Camels, Campbell University, Buies Creek, N.C.
Cheesemakers, Tillamook (Ore.) High School
Claim Jumpers, Columbia College, Sonora, Calif.
Conchs, Key West (Fla.) High School
Cossacks, Sioux Valley High School, Volga, S.D.
Cottonpickers, Robstown (Texas) High School
Crabbers, Crisfield (Md.) High School
Donkeys, Bray-Doyle High School, Bray, Okla.
Doughboys, John J. Pershing High School, Detroit
Dynamiters, Glendale (Calif.) High School
Earwigs, Dunn High School, Los Olivos, Calif.
Eels, Clay City (Ind.) High School
Emeralds, Manistique (Mich.) High School
Fire Ants, University of South Carolina, Sumter
Flaming Hearts, Effingham (Ill.) High School
Friars, Providence (R.I.) College
Galloping Ghosts, Abington (Pa.) High School
Gila Monsters, Eastern Arizona College, Thatcher
Gorillas, Davenport (Wash.) High School
Grape Pickers, North East (Pa.) High School
Gremlins, Karns City (Pa.) High School
Halfbreeds, Aniak (Alaska) High School
Haymakers, Cozad (Neb.) High School
Hippos, Hutto (Texas) High School
Hoboes, Laurel Hill (Fla.) High School
Hot Dogs, Frankfort (Ind.) High School
Ichabods, Washburn University, Topeka, Kan.
Ironheads, Eufaula (Okla.) High School
Irrigators, Newell (S.D.) High School
Jackrabbits, Quincy (Wash.) High School
Jug Rox, Shoals (Ind.) High School
Kangaroos, Lake Washington High School, Kirkland, Wash.
Kavemen, Kuna (Idaho) High School
Killer Whales, Kingikmiut High School, Wales, Alaska
Lawyers, John Marshall High School, Cleveland
Little Giants, Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Ind.
Logrollers, Wabeno (Wis.) High School
Maniacs, Orofino (Idaho) High School
Martians, Goodrich (Mich.) High School
Mean Moose, Alamosa (Colo.) High School
Millionaires, Williamsport (Pa.) High School
Nimrods, Watersmeet (Mich.) High School
Orediggers, Colorado School of Mines, Golden
Orphans, Centralia (Ill.) High School
Outlaws, Rawlins (Wyo.) High School
Parrots, Polytechnic High School, Sun Valley, Calif.
Peglegs, Stuyvesant High School, New York
Planets, Mars (Pa.) High School
Plowboys, Roscoe (Texas) High School
Pretzels, Freeport (Ill.) High School
Quarriers, Dell Rapids (S.D.) High School
Quips, Aliquippa (Pa.) High School
Railroaders, Sparks (Nev.) High School
Ricebirds, Stuttgart (Ark.) High School
Ringnecks, Hill City (Kan.) High School
Russets, Shelley (Idaho) High School
Shipbuilders, Morse High School, Bath, Maine
Skipjacks, Chesapeake College, Wye Mills, Md.
Skyrockets, Wellington (Texas) High School
Sparkplugs, Speedway (Ind.) High School
Spongers, Tarpon Springs (Fla.) High School
Sycamores, Indiana State University, Terre Haute
Teddies, Roosevelt High School, Minneapolis
Trolls, Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, Ill.
Truckers, Clintonville (Wis.) High School
Unicorns, New Braunfels (Texas) High School
Vandals, University of Idaho, Moscow
Vaqueros, Fernley (Nev.) High School
Vulcans, University of Hawaii, Hilo
Wasps, Emory & Henry College, Emory, Va.
Watchdogs, Beresford (S.D.) High School
White Buffaloes, Madras (Ore.) High School
Witches, Salem (Mass.) High School
Wooden Shoes, Teutopolis (Ill.) High School
Yachtsmen, Falmouth (Maine) High School
Yellowhammers, Rotan (Texas) High School
Zebras, Wayne (Mich.) Memorial High School
Zizzers, West Plains (Mo.) High School