It's fascinating how kids are all about make-believe. Though the whole world is so new to them with so much to explore, they still invent their own worlds, games and people.
Kids believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy...we construct all these whimsical characters to explain mundane things, because we want kids to have fun. Then at some point they grow up and are told that much of what they took great joy in wasn't real, just fiction invented for their happiness; now they should let go of such childish things and embrace new responsibilities and complex harsh realities.
Adults are not supposed to enjoy silly kid things. They're supposed to enjoy things that come as a result of hard work, liberties granted as a right of being older and supposedly wiser, things that require maturity and experience to operate and navigate properly. And yet, sometimes it seems like as we get older, the gentle innocence and whimsy and imagination of childhood is yearned for more than ever, a beautiful escape from the pressures and expectations that pile on as the years do.
I was 5 when I met my first mascot. My cousin Jeff played football for the Ogemaw Heights Falcons in Michigan.
I don't recall anything beyond that I was in love the way small children love mascots, apparently no matter how nightmarish they actually look.
Seriously, I see kids that bawl when they see the most friendly faced adorable puppy suit ever and here I am next to the Babaduck and you don't see me freaking out....though that look doesn't QUITE say adoration to me.
My cousin sent me this photo a few weeks ago, after decades of looking for one of us. I guess be careful of what you wish for.
It's true, though... I was obsessed with the Falcon for some reason. I didn't see any other mascots for several years beyond Grimace at McDonald's, and let's face it.... Grimace is a pretty appropriate name considering most people's reaction to him. McDonald's didn't become famous for their irresistible children's characters, ok? Eat your burger and shut up, kid or we'll lock you in the PlayPlace with the ball pit of lost diapers.
It was another several years before my unexpected obsession with mascots began, on a typical day when my dad was watching college basketball and I was bored enough to watch it too. Suddenly, the Kansas Jayhawk (Big Jay, cause yes I know the actual names of every single Division One mascot) shuffle-danced across the screen during a time out while the crowd looked on excitedly. Long dormant feelings stirred in my addled 13 year old brain. What was this feeling? I'm supposed to want to torment these guys, not BE them!
But I did want to be them. They were colorful, they were funny, they made people cheer and laugh and smile. Some were even sort of...uh....ahem. Suddenly it was like I knew all at once what my destiny was. I didn't want to be a doctor or a lawyer or an astronaut or a rock star. I wanted to be a party animal, running around being a complete crazy maniac, getting loved and loving every second of it.
It's hard to overstate just how ridiculous my obsession with mascots became, and how fast.
I went to the library and searched for everything and anything about mascots. I would buy college sports mags, but only if they had mascot pictures. I watched ESPN, recorded dozens of games every week and fast-forward watched them all, just in case they showed the mascot for 3 seconds. I made videotapes of mascot footage. I wrote letters to mascots for photos. I wrote analyses of mascots. Reading stories about mascot camps affected me the way lonely single women feel when they watch The Notebook or Titanic.
There wasn't any part of me that wasn't attracted to costumed animal mascots and the idea of being one. They didn't get bullied at school, they got cheered and hugged! They didn't have hideous acne and white guy afro. They got to be smart asses and get away with it, people ate it up! They were walking cartoons, albeit bound to perpetual promotion of their school. But that was a small price to pay to get to be something infinitely cooler, more attractive and more popular than boring, self-questioning me.
Getting to be one of those colorful characters seemed like winning the lottery, a fun pipe dream that I constantly thought about, but little by little I started to believe that I needed to make it real. If you want something bad enough, you go for it, and I'd never wanted anything more in my entire life. I decided to transfer from my little commuter college where I was doing fairly well, to a REAL college with a REAL mascot. Nothing was going to stop me from my destiny.
I started to write more and more mascots, collecting the photos and letters and posters and memorabilia they sent. At first I hid it all away, but eventually I got bolder and started framing them and putting them on the wall of my room, waiting for my dad to say "uhhh, and what's all this?" But he barely seemed to notice at all.
While living in Tennessee, the Gators travelled for a football matchup with Vanderbilt, only about 30 minutes from where I lived. After finding out that Florida would be holding a pep rally in a local hotel, I went so far as to write letters to arrange a meeting with the people behind Albert. I'm sure I seemed completely normal in my boundless enthusiasm, but I was a man with a plan, and that plan was in motion.
At the rally, in my gaudy Gators shirt, I anxiously tried to fit in, knowing exactly NONE of the cheers and lyrics that literally every other person there knew by heart. I felt like a spy on reconnaissance, my eyes constantly scanning the crowd for a seven foot tall gator, my heart racing. Too many fight songs and a thousand years later, he arrived. I just stared at him from across the room, in awe yet terrified now that I had to make a move or lose my chance.
After I got my absolutely essential photo with Albert (do not even THINK about calling him Al, because Big Al is Alabama's mascot), I picked one of Albert's cohorts and said "hey, I'm the guy who wrote the letter about meeting". Instead of calling security, they graciously told me to follow them as Albert left the rally and went into a surprisingly open but mostly unpopulated area of the hotel to de-suit. This was really happening. Why was everyone being so nice?
The guy playing Albert was super cool, he showed me the pieces of the suit, how it went on, answered my too many too-interested questions. Eventually, the "wrap it up before you press your luck" alarm in my head went off, so I thanked everyone, said I would be transferring there soon and hoped to see everyone again. They smiled as if I was being perfectly reasonable. It felt like the best day of my whole life. I drive back home feeling unstoppable, my head far above the clouds. Maybe this was meant to be.
UF was a sprawling campus in Gainesville, beautiful and huge. I was in a whole new world....alone, but excited and a little overwhelmed. My burning desire to be Albert drove pretty much everything I did. I told my folks I was going there for Journalism, but that was really just a very convincing excuse. I was majoring in Journalism and their program was quite good, but it was all just to get to be a big ol' gator. Of course, no one but me knew, because everyone would rightfully think me crazy. Heck, even I thought I was crazy.
I lowkey would stalk Albert any time he appeared on campus for some event, taking tons of photos, getting as close as I could within reason. I got on yearbook staff, so I could have an excuse to do events I knew Albert would be at. I got field passes to photograph football and basketball games, which was objectively awesome because our football team was Top 10, but of course that was just the bonus, I was really there to get shots of Al and maybe take some football pics too.
It was a textbook case of tunnel vision. I couldn't get myself to care about classes that much. All I thought about was Albert. Some more reasonable, logical but much weaker part of me started to feel uneasy, but I was going for my dream, making more effort than I ever had for anything, so how could it be bad? It would all be worth it when my dreams came true, then I could focus on other things. I needed this.
I arranged an interview with the guy who was currently playing Albert. His answers were alright, but I wanted them from the perspective of Albert, not watered down "it's fun to be a mascot" stuff from some random guy. So, instead of our actual interview, it became a fictional interview, and I wrote all of Albert's answers, as it appeared in our yearbook. I was pretty proud of myself, I thought for SURE if the person in charge of Albert reads this, they will have to see how in tune I am with his spirit and playful attitude! All I had to do was not choke when the auditions came and I had a great chance at this. A bright, stinging hope bubbled in my gut. Or was that just stomach acid?
But the auditions, never came. There weren't any. Not one person got to put on the suit, they just chose the people they liked, no interviews, no phone calls, no contact. It made no sense.
What did come, was a letter, one I had been waiting an eternity for. It was so thin it almost looked like an empty envelope. I felt it even before I started to read it. I wasn't going to get a chance to prove I deserved a spot, because that's not how it worked. It was who you knew that used to be mascot, who you had connections to...a good 'ol boys network. I should have known when I found out how many of the mascots had known each other before they got picked.
I was completely and totally devastated, and I knew that anyone who saw me like this wouldn't understand how it could be so important. But it didn't matter. There wasn't anyone to cry to anyway, because I didn't really have any friends beyond a few casual roommates who didn't really know the real me. I'd tainted my education and racked up thousands in student loan debt in the relentless pursuit of something I had never dared to imagine I wouldn't get, something most people wouldn't even see much appeal in.
The complete despair I felt in over the next many weeks led me to anti-depressants and even darker thoughts, but it also eventually led me toward my actual destiny. I had to know what the hell was wrong with me, if something was wrong with me, or were there other people like me who wanted to be a big fuzzy animals more than they wanted anything?
The answers would come from far away, but my salvation was shockingly near..