Hour 4: 8:05 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21
COLUMBIA – "Landon? Scott? Gates? Bobby? … Were you at the soccer game last Friday? Just tell me who you are!" A stare into the mouth of a six-foot bear will still yield no answers.
It is a long, dark walk from the gymnasium to the football complex on Friday nights, one that is done without peripheral vision or much fanfare. The roughly paved asphalt walkway makes the walk on rubber-soled fur shoes difficult to say the least.
A sleek brown and black coat, a happy smile and a nub of a tail adorn the Rock Bridge High School Bruin, a big bear in a sea of green, gold and white.
Welcome to the life of a high school mascot. There is tail spinning, shoe stepping and nose poking in this world, so be ready or don’t try. With the band, cheerleaders, dancers and, of course, players on the field, the man in the suit somehow gets overlooked.
On this night there were two men brave enough to take the challenge, a student and an apprentice—I was the latter. Even on a cold night, a sweat filled-helmet was passed between us like a hitter's batting helmet in mid-July. The body stays nice and warm, but the bear's head brings sweat down like rain in May — it's brutal.
A meeting with activities director David Bones at Rock Bridge High School leads to some helpful advice.
"The junior high kids will pull your tail. The high school students will try to figure out who you are. Some of the little kids will just want a hug, but others want nothing to do with you. Just be ready."
"Obviously, never take your head off, and there is no talking to anyone," he continued. "We just want you to have a good time, and if it ever gets out of hand, there is some space under the bleachers you can hide out." Oh, that's reassuring.
It was a quick meeting at 6:30 p.m. to decide on a suit. There were two options, both bringing their own unique look to the table. An all-brownsuit with a vicious scowl on the face and a shiny black suit with a big smile and sleek look were laid out in the activities office. "Happy Bear", as the second suit was referred to, won out.
There is time to study game tape like a coach on Monday morning. As mascot No. 1 took the field, a look from the bleachers unveils the secrets.
Walk slow. Pay attention. Walk away when your cover could be jeopardized. Have fun. Stay quiet. Make sure you're part of the experience of the game. Wave to the kids that call your name. Be ready and willing to lend a hug.
Time ticks down in the first quarter. Rock Bridge has a lead, and the crowd is in the game. There is a calm before the storm; the walk up to the gymnasium, leaving the field behind. Walking up a man, walking down a bear. Time for transformation.
Time to Go
There are feelings of anxiety and nervousness when the walk to the field is made.
"How will people react? What will they say? Please, don't let me fall."
The first patron approaches; it is a young girl, not more than 7 or 8, who wants a hug. There goes a bit of the edge. Next, two junior high boys. They pull the tail and cause a spin. With no peripheral vision, a full turn has to be made to see what's going on to each side. They want high fives. I oblige and walk away.
Next, a little girl with her parents. She is young; young enough to have to be held by her mom during the game and scared enough to make a new bear feel terrible. Her mom and dad reach for high fives, showing her it's okay. It doesn't matter — tears are on the horizon, and it's time to move on.
There are the cheerleaders; a group of about 20 trying to pump up the crowd. Heading towards the track, it's time to have some fun.
A quick mimic of the girl nearby leads to a stare and a smile. She doesn't know who is inside the suit. A quick look into the mouth, and again no answers. A quick shrug and she chats with the next girl in line. Some pom-poms lay on the ground. My big bear hands wrap around the plastic, and they are now mine. A quick dance and a couple of laughs, and it's time to move on.
Up to the student section there is a group of 10 guys, upperclassmen from the look. The farther back the student section goes, the younger looking the students get. It's sort of a hierarchy of bleachers. Walking up the metal ramp, the same questions ring out.
"Yo man, who are you? Is it Scott?" I still want to know who Scott is. Three or four pull on the helmet, poke the nose and look into the mouth. Shrugging when questions are asked seems to hasten their enthusiasm for the bruin.
Halftime comes, and students watch the band and dancers perform their newest routines. The walk back to the gymnasium has begun. With some last high fives and puzzled looks from the walking crowd, I head to the concession stand to fuel up before the second half. A few smiles and a one-sided conversation with some sixth graders ends the night.
There were two students on this cool October night dressed as Captain America and Batman. Drawing attention and a couple laughs, these students tried to stand out in the crowd. However, I would like to believe that on this night, Bruin the Bear outshined them both.