Friday, July 17, 2009

School mascots get tips on sideline safety


When Jevin Fluegel took the job as his high school's mascot, "Ty the Tiger," he thought the gig would be all about generating school spirit and making people smile.

He didn't know it would involve learning self defense, too.

"You're an easy target" when you're in costume, said Fluegel, who will be a senior at Union Endicott High School in Endicott, N.Y. "Kids want to pull my tail. Even adults are like that. We don't let that go by."

Fluegel has honed his mascot and self-preservation skills at yearly training camps taught by former professionals. It helped him keep his cool, for example, when a fan from an opposing team ran straight for him during a football game.

The training sessions, usually held over three days, teach high school and college students character development, dance moves and safety skills. Campers spend time in and out of costume and watch video footage of themselves performing.

"There's much more that goes into mascotting than we ever dreamed," said Teresa Gereaux, director of public relations at Roanoke College, in Salem, Va., which enlisted the help of Keystone Mascots, a Brownstone, Penn., company, when it launched a new mascot — a maroon-tailed hawk named Rooney — in April.

"We felt training for our mascot students would be valuable to them and valuable to the institution," she said.

The professionals stressed safety, which includes pairing mascots with spotters, providing safe places for them to take breaks and making sure they don't become overheated in their suits, she said. Assigning mascots companions protects them from bullies and helps them maneuver in their costumes, many of which combine big feet and poor visibility.

Mascots can face "serious physical injury" from poor visibility and from "punks" who want to hurt them, said Erin Blank, owner of Keystone Mascots.

"Even in high school, we need to have somebody with the mascot that can be their eyes and ears and voice," Blank said.

Cait Norman, a high school mascot for three years, could not believe how rough sports fans can be on mascots.

"They'll body-check you," said the 18-year-old, who dressed as a cedar tree during football and basketball games at Lebanon High School in Pennsylvania. "They're trying to look cool. Really, you're beating up a mascot. What's so tough about that?"

Sending Norman to camp helped Lebanon High get the most out of the mascot, said school adviser Terri Johnston.

"There are a lot of unwritten rules of mascotting like not talking in costume," Johnston said. "It's something you have to learn how to do."

Staying quiet was "the hardest thing ever," said Norman, who relied on gestures, signs and dances to rev up the crowd.

Learning to engage a crowd without words is what makes a mascot successful, said Dave Raymond, the original Philly Phanatic, who now runs a mascot boot camp.

"This takes practice in front of a mirror," said Raymond, owner of Raymond Entertainment Group in Newark, Del. "Every subtle nuance of movement up to very large movements is very purposeful."

He teaches mascots how to do everything from creating a back story for their characters to managing the heat inside the costume to sewing and cleaning the suits.

Figuring out what you can and can't do in costume is crucial, said Fluegel, who has had his share of mishaps. He fell during a broomball game, lost his costume's head while visiting an elementary school, and dodged an underwear-clad fan who charged him during a football game.

"People think you're just putting on a suit and making a fool of yourself," he said. "It's hard. It's a science."

Devon Kendall gladly tolerates the heat and discomfort of his panther costume because of the positive impact the mascot has had on fans at Spencer-Van Etten High School in Spencer, N.Y. The soon-to-be senior revived the mascot program two years ago.

"Our school had no hope — no school spirit," said Devon, 16. "It's made a complete difference. There's a lot more people coming to the games."