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48 HOURS OF FOOTBALL: Truman the Tiger outshines MU cheerleaders on game day

Friday, October 28, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:37 a.m. CDT, Friday, October 28, 2011

Hour 18: 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 22

Outside of Memorial Stadium, mingling tailgaters take sips out of beer cans and paper coffee cups, hands buried in their pockets, taking in the crisp October morning.

Breathing makes the cool air sting nostrils just a little. Dying leaves, charcoal and cooking meat mix into a strange, comforting fragrance that says it’s game day.

Suddenly the beep, beep, beep of a horn bursts through the murmur of chattering Missouri fans. A white golf cart whips around the stadium’s northeastern corner.

First, it becomes clear that there is an impossibly wide-eyed tiger stuffed into the cart’s passenger’s seat. Behind him, a menagerie of cheerleaders is packed into the cart like crayons, two rows of three, their teeth bared in perky smiles.

The group’s coach, a determined-looking woman named Suzy Thompson, is behind the wheel. She presses down repeatedly on the yipping horn, then swings the cart up to one of the tailgates peppered around the stadium’s eastern edge. The cheerleaders and tiger hop out of their mobile sardine-can with surprising ease and begin to greet fans before the game.

Sure, the cheerleaders create some excitement. A few young girls peek from behind their mothers' legs at the cheerleaders' sharp-looking sweat suits and bouncing fuchsia bows. It’s the tiger, however, that steals the show.

Everyone wants a picture with Truman.

At each tailgate the group stops by, cameras come out. People scramble to find their cell phones, then raise them into the air to snap a shot of the plushy cat. Gold-clad mothers bark at their children to move into the tiger’s extended arms and smile for a picture that will no doubt be honored with a place in an album, in a frame or on the family refrigerator.

“They’ve never been to Columbia for a game,” Robin Caringer, one mother explains after taking a few pictures of her kids, Lily and Clayton, with the tiger. “So they’ve got to have a picture with Truman, am I right? It’s a must have in Columbia on game day.”

Although tailgaters tend to smile or gasp or yell his name when they see him approaching, Truman’s expression doesn’t change much. He jaunts around the tailgates, doling out high-fives and patting backs. His tail drags on the ground behind him, rustling its way through fallen leaves.

Occasionally, he moves too close to a baby, and the infant begins to sob. He is a tiger, after all. Unfazed, Truman moves away from the child and begins to dance or swing his tail in circles, like a rock star swinging a microphone by its cord.

After a few minutes at each tailgate, Thompson says it’s time to go, and the group squeezes back into the golf cart.

The group continues its meet-and-greet ritual for 30 minutes before being whisked away to Hearnes Center, where they join the golden girls, the band and the rest of the cheerleaders for the “Tiger Experience” rally.

Then, they go outside and pile on top of the yellow-gold fire truck that will carry them through more screaming fans and into the stadium for Missouri’s game against Oklahoma State University.

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