‘I had a secret’: Wilbur and the clandestine world of college mascots (With ASNS Highlight Video)

 

[Above video: ASNS Highlight anchor Jade Nunes interviews Forrest Gmitro, former Wilbur. Production by Jade Nunes and Stephanie Casanova]

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There are lots of secret communities: Skull and Bones, the legendary Freemasons,  the Knights Templar, the alleged Illuminati.

Me, I belonged to one. My fellow members in this highly cloaked society have names that sound like code: Duck, Cocky, Chip, Bucky the Badger, Goldy Gopher, Smokey, Big Al.

Me, they called me Wilbur. Wilbur the Wildcat.  Mascot for the University of Arizona — till last spring, when my secret identity was revealed. And now, as a new Wilbur is about to be chosen (not “named,” of course), let me tell you a bit about the shadow world of mascots.

For two years I was Wilbur, the man inside the costume and a member of a community of mascots at colleges and universities all across the country who have to keep their identities secret under the protocols of mascotry.

From the fall of 2011 until the spring of 2013, in a strange collegiate undercover realm, a significant part of my life was hidden from the outside world. On Saturdays, as college students tailgated before football games and streamed into the stadium, Forrest would disappear and Wilbur would emerge as I dawned the costume. When I wore the suit, my identity changed; I became a completely different character.

wilbur t wildcatThis is what it is like for college mascots. The identity of the person portraying the character must remain a secret. Everyone knows Wilbur at the University of Arizona, but no one needed to know Forrest Gmitro.  For us mascots, this can be a very hard thing to deal with, as secrets go.  That is why mascots are a collective community who understand the struggles and joys of being literally on the inside.

This community camaraderie is never more evident than during those times when various university mascots meet up, even if they don’t know each other. “When I met all of the other mascots for the first time at a Capital One commercial shoot it was literally like walking into a roomful of your best friends for a surprise birthday party. We all talked for hours on end, sharing mascot stories, telling jokes, kicking back. It’s amazing how fast you can create such a strong bond with complete strangers,” said the current Oregon Duck.

What, you really didn’t expect me to give you his name, did you?

Mascots get to experience many different crazy stories but then can’t tell anyone about them until they finish their tenures. Since I was revealed to the public in the spring of 2013 at the last U.A. basketball game of the season, I am finally able to spill the beans, so to speak.

Mascots are expected to be wild in-suit but many times that doesn’t stop when we are “out-suit,” as they say.

“I remember going to a karaoke bar with a group of mascots and being on the dance floor while one of the mascots started rapping Sir Mix A Lot’s ‘I Like Big Butts’ and from there we lifted him up and he was crowd-surfing in a karaoke bar, which might be the first time that’s ever happened” (at least in the realm of mascots), said a mascot who asked not to be named, not even by school.

Sometimes, in movies and TV shows, mascots are portrayed as the nerdy kids who get beat up. In reality, many mascots are in the gym five days weeks working out with college football trainers.  Sure, I might not be all that muscular-looking, but when you have to do over 250 one-arm pushups at a football game — well, come and talk to me.

One reality is that the mascot is often flying high and traveling well — on chartered airplanes, jetting across the country for commercial shoots or football games. Flying from Tucson to Boston to shoot an ESPN commercial with the rapper Macklemore, a day after you were working in front of a roaring crowd at a football game in Utah would be considered a fairly big adventure by some people.

For many collegiate mascots — well, we just call that the weekend.

Imagine doing all of that – but you are not allowed to tell anyone you’re doing it.  Such is life for the mascot. Which explains why there is a bond among mascots. Many people think that because of fierce college rivalries, mascots don;t get along. But it’s really the opposite.  When we get together it feels like old friends catching up again — even with your school’s biggest rival.

“I would say the mascot team we get along with the most is our rival, Clemson. We get to hang out with those guys at various appearances all of the time, so we get to plan what we are going to do with them in advance. We will stage fake fights, dance-offs or whatever and set up specific music to this,” said Cocky, who also shall remain anonymous, except to say that he is the University of South Carolina’s eponymous mascot, Cocky.

When mascots get together, there is usually competition – typically, who’s going to make the other laugh, through antics like dance, signs or stunts on the can-you-top-this scale. For instance, when the Oregon Duck and I managed to piss off  ESPN producers when we were shooting a PAC-12 promo at the Bellagio fountain in Las Vegas by trying to persuade bystanders to jump into the fountain just for the heck of it.

We discuss these things in private, of course. As a mascot you are not allowed to talk in-suit.

As mascots, we travel with the teams, and whenever a fellow mascot is in town, we try to get together. Like when Wisconsin’s Bucky the Badger was in Oregon for a game.

“The Duck and his friends gathered and had fireworks ready when Bucky and his team arrived in their car.  Fireworks got shot off, neighbors complained but no one cared. There were 9 people running around, some of them never met and yet, we were all best friends,” said Mikey Navarro, a former Oregon Duck who graduated in 2011 and, hence, is able – like me — to talk out-suit.

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