Word about college mascots in Texas and Louisiana this week was a reminder of the strong emotional connection sports fans have with live animal mascots.
Texas announced that a new longhorn steer has been selected to be Bevo beginning this fall. At LSU, word spread that Mike the Tiger is battling cancer.
Mascots like Bevo, Mike, Reveille the collie at Texas A&M, War Eagle at Auburn and countless others have long been part of college football’s pageantry. As beloved as these animals are to the fans, the attachments are even stronger for the handlers who manage and care for them.
Here’s a look behind the scenes at four popular mascots:
The new Bevo, known as Bevo XV, was selected among 400-500 longhorn steers from across Texas and will make his debut at the Sept. 4 opener against Notre Dame. Ricky Brennes, executive director of the sponsoring Silver Spurs Alumni Association, said the first requirement is orange and white coloring. Disposition also is assessed, as well as whether he’s comfortable in a halter.
Like his predecessors, Bevo XV is privately owned. He lives on a ranch near Austin, roams among his herd and dines on hay, grass and occasional “sweet feed” treats made of oats and molasses.
He'll be transported to games in a $70,000 air-conditioned custom trailer and arrive at the stadium well before gates open. Four student handlers keep Bevo in place on the sidelines. He’s a load. Consider that Bevo XIV, who died of cancer in October, weighed 2,100 pounds and had a horn span of 80 inches from tip to tip.
In addition to home football games, Bevo goes to charity events and has been to weddings and funerals. He also was on hand for President George W. Bush’s two inaugurations.
“I have pictures of him at a black-tie ball,” Brennes said.
The 49-year tradition of a running Ralphie the buffalo leading the team onto the field before kickoff and after halftime is, as you can imagine, no small undertaking. She – yes, Ralphie is female – has 15 student handlers who train two hours a day, twice a week, lifting weights and doing speed work in addition to the practice runs they do on other days.
John Graves, manager of the Ralphie Live Mascot Program, holds tryouts each spring for prospective student handlers. Part of the audition is running 100-yard sprints. There’s a need for speed, considering Ralphie can cover 125 yards in 14 seconds.
There are five “runners” who hold lead ropes. The two in front typically are small and really fast; the two in the middle are a bit stronger and in charge of steering; and the one in back is strongest of all because he or she is the brakeman (not easy with a 1,200-pound buffalo). The other 10 handlers are out front making sure Ralphie’s path is clear.
Ralphie V is entering her ninth year as mascot. She lives on a ranch in the Denver area with her predecessor, Ralphie IV. Both buffaloes were donated by former media mogul Ted Turner.
A local rancher donates the 50 pounds of hay Ralphie eats each day. That’s in addition to the 20 gallons of water she goes through.
CAM THE RAM (Colorado State)
Cam lives outside Fort Collins on a small farm owned by Kraig Peel, an associate professor in animal sciences who is in charge of about a dozen student handlers. On game days, Cam runs across the end zone with his handlers when the Rams score a touchdown. He also poses for lots of pictures.
This Cam, No. 25, has been on the job for eight months. He’s a manageable 230-240 pounds and 36-37 inches tall at the shoulder.
Peel is discriminating when he picks the ram that will be Cam. “We want to make sure he’s a high-quality ram,” he said. “Structurally he’s well-made, muscular (with) an attitude of pride, uprightness and just a boldness.”
Cam lives indoors in a deluxe horse stall and eats high-quality alfalfa and grain.
“He has an exponentially better life than any sheep on the planet,” Peel said. “I tell people all the time that if I believed in reincarnation, I would want to come back as Cam.”
Uga X, also known as Que by his owners, comes from the same bloodline as the nine white English bulldogs that previously served as Georgia’s mascot. He turned 3 on Friday and will start the second year of his reign this fall.
Sonny Seiler helped start the tradition of Uga (it stands for University of Georgia) when he was a student in the 1950s. His son, Charles, took over as primary handler about nine years ago. Charles said he plans to have his 8-year-old son, Cecil, eventually assume Uga duties.
Uga hangs out in or around his air-conditioned doghouse at the 5-yard line. There are more perks. He rides in a new fire-red SUV provided by a Chevrolet dealership. He sits next to Charles on the team plane for road games. He has a two-bedroom suite, decorated with Uga pictures, at the campus hotel where he and Charles stay when they’re in Athens. He dons whatever jersey the team wears – red, white or black – and has a black tuxedo for when he appears at formal events.
“Comparing a bulldog to other mascots, we’re kind of lucky in that when he’s not at a ballgame, he’s just a family pet and he’s treated as a family pet,” Seiler said. “I can’t imagine dealing with Bevo, what it takes to feed him and keep him in good health. If I had to compare handling Uga to other mascots, I’ve got a pretty easy deal.”