COLUMBIA — This is Tiger country, and the presence of the orange-and-black striped feline is never more obvious than at Memorial Stadium on game day.
Tiger tails dangle from the trunks of mini vans in the parking lots. Missouri faithfuls wear cat ears. Black paws are painted on the cheeks of beaming children.
But nowhere is the tiger presence more powerful than at the tailgate of longtime friends Russell Stokes, George Linne and Jack Frier.
Their tailgate looks like a scene from the Lion King with more than 30 stuffed tiger dolls decorating their cars. An ambush of 12 tigers lounge on the top of Stokes’ black Chevy Avalanche truck. Some are big (three tigers measure more than four feet long and three feet tall), and some are small (a three-inch tiger clings to the truck’s antennae). At the front of the truck, one tiger, with its leather jacket, looks like Fonzie from Happy Days.
Stokes, who graduated from MU in 1965, began collecting the stuffed animals with his wife in 1970. What began as a hobby slowly turned into an obsession. They began purchasing tigers from all over the country. They bought the most recent one in North Carolina. Another is from New Orleans.
But Russell Stokes’ favorite is a tiger puppet that he bought 25 years ago at a magic shop in Houston. Like a ventriloquist, Russell often brings the puppet to life with his hand, entertaining his friends and children with the tiger’s life-like gestures.
“We’ve always tailgated,” he said. “We just needed something to spice it up.”
Originally from Macon, the Stokes family relocated to Arkansas after Russell Stokes retired from his job as a principal in St. Louis. The family keeps the tigers at the Friers’ house during the season and picks them up on the Friday night before the games they attend, and the two families get to the stadium extra early on Saturday to put their tigers on display.
“This isn’t even all of them,” Russell Stokes said. “We left two or three orphans at home.”
REAL EYE OPENER: When two Iowa State fans were buying their tailgating staples at the grocery store Saturday morning, the cashier looked into their eyes and gasped.
Chris Hess and Jake Sullivan, seniors at Iowa State and self-declared “superfans,” had frightened her because of their red-and-yellow eyes. This week, Hess wore two red contact lenses and left his yellow ones at home. Sullivan’s eyes were even freakier. They didn’t match. His right eye was red, but his left eye was a combination of yellow and red.
Sullivan got the idea to color his eyes after attending a Cyclones game last season. He was dressed in red and painted his arms, legs and face red. He even had a red afro. But Sullivan still wasn’t satisfied.
“The only thing red not on my body was my eyes,” said Sullivan while he and Hess were tailgating in the Reactor Field parking lot before Saturday’s game.
Before the season started, Sullivan went online and purchased the lenses, and Hess soon followed. Their outfits were similar Saturday. Their sneakers were painted red and yellow with “ISU Superfan” written on the side. “ISU Superfan” was also printed in yellow above a yellow tornado on their red custom-made T-shirts. Their socks and shorts — you guessed it — were yellow and red.
Hess also sported an ISU belt buckle he made in casting class. The ISU emblem was painted gold on a metallic buckle. But his ensemble wasn’t complete.
“I still have to get the capes ready,” he said.
He went into his trunk and pulled out his shimmering red and gold cape. It was the only part of the costume he and Sullivan couldn’t put together themselves.
“We had to consult some female friends,” Hess said.
— Missourian reporter Drew Schmenner contributed to this report.