Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Bird loses head, shows inner life

An accidental beheading provides a chance to peek inside the hidden life of Virginia Tech's Hokie Bird.

By Erinn Hutkin
The Roanoke Times

The stadium is sold out on this night where it is cold enough to see your breath. The Virginia Tech Hokies are leading North Carolina 6-0 in the first half.

The stands are full of the roaring faithful decked in VT lampshades and orange-wigged Hokie hair. Yet on the field, unknown to anyone, disaster is about to unfold.

Somewhere between playing with pompoms and using a megaphone as a telescope, it happens.

The Hokie mascot -- a six-foot maroon turkey with feathered arms, an orange beak and a fuzzy, teddy bear complexion -- loses its head. It tumbles to the sideline ground, landing near the cheer squad's feet.

"Ohh nooo," a male cheerleader shouts, covering his mouth in giggles.

It's not the Super Bowl. Janet Jackson is nowhere around. But here, in Blacksburg's Lane Stadium, the Hokie Bird mascot has just experienced the ultimate wardrobe malfunction.

This is, after all, a job that comes with maintaining a secret identity.

During a game, the Hokie Bird struts into the stadium through a long, white-walled tunnel. He pats the ceiling at the field entrance, just like the team. He is first to run onto the field, among coaches and players and giant "VT" flags as flashbulbs pop, fireworks explode and the crowd roars so loud it's hard to hear anything else.

Under stadium bleachers -- where he sits in an armchair gulping water during breaks -- the Hokie Bird is sweating.

"That's never happened before," he says, fixing a broken chin strap on the fallen Hokie head.

Three students who share mascot duty also share the suit. They get no pay.

Unlike the cheerleaders and the band, only one Hokie Bird travels to bowl games.

There are paid appearances -- birthday parties and wedding receptions, usually a surprise for the bride from the groom.

Before leaving early for a bartending gig, the Hokie Bird handed a woman an engagement ring as she tailgated Saturday. One Hokie Bird's brother asked him to be the best man at his wedding -- complete with a tuxedo over the bird suit.

Before each game, the Hokie Bird gets feathered inside "the cage," a corner in the bowels of the basketball gym lined with cinder block walls.

"This smells like Chinese food," says the Hokie, lifting the bird's fuzzy orange pants.

The bird's gut pokes out, thanks to taped-together hula hoops inside the costume's chest. The wobbly thing on his beak wobbles. Its feet are plastic and orange and almost too big for climbing steps -- the kind that might make Big Bird envious.

Two seniors who play the Hokie Bird will wear the feet on graduation day, revealing their faces and ending a job that began three years ago with 43 students and tryouts spanning three weeks.

On the field, the Hokie Bird steals kisses from cheerleaders, pressing his beak to their lips. He picks one up, carrying her across the end zone like he's a groom with a bride and a threshold.

He flirts with the crowd, high-fiving and posing for camera phones with anyone within wing's reach.

"Hoo-kee Bird," fans shout from the bleachers.

There are hazards -- his tail feathers catch in an open fence. A TV camera cord gets wound around his foot.

But there are perks.

"Ooo! Hokie Bird! Yea!" a pretty girl squeals as the mascot perches himself on her lap.

In the stands, the bird jumps to the opening chords of Metallica. A college-aged fan leaves his seat and bounces with him.

On the sidelines, the Hokie Bird's voice is muffled as he confides about losing his Hokie head. He talks to a young man, the one who will wear the costume for the game's second half.

"I can't hear you," the young man says, noticing a TV crew. "You've got a camera on you."

The conversation ends, mascot dancing for the camera begins and as soon as the crew is gone, the Hokie Bird resumes talking to Hokie Bird No. 2, who begins to laugh.

The second-half Hokie Bird tells all the cheerleaders the mascot's head toppled off.

"Hanging out with the Hokie Bird is like running around with a chicken with its head cut off," he jokes to people on the sidelines.

At halftime, under the bleachers, the first Hokie Bird's job is done. He kicks the bird feet off first. Then the Santa-style fur jacket fastened with zipper and Velcro, leaving only shorts, socks and a sweaty T-shirt.

He sits in an armchair with the upside-down bird head in his lap. The beak pokes his stomach as he digs inside, double-checking the faulty chin strap.

"You're all sweaty," his second half replacement groans, knowing he has to pull on the same costume.

"We're going to make the bird smell good," the second-half mascot says, reaching into his duffle bag and dousing the costume with musky Axe body spray.

He tosses the just-finished mascot a boxed dinner, who reaches in and bites into a cookie.

"Hey, bird," a man standing nearby calls to the mascot, offering him an uneaten sandwich.

The halftime clock ticks, the band plays and the cheerleaders rest against the wall.

"Oh, I really don't want to do this," the second half Hokie Bird says.

Off go his warm-up pants, hooded sweatshirt and hat. He shivers bare-chested in the cold as unseen feet clomp up and down the bleachers overhead.

"Oh, this is so cold," he stutters.

On go orange suspenders. On go the Hokie feet with yellow, molded claws. On goes the teddy-bear-textured maroon jumpsuit. On go the feathered gloves.

"Warmth," he shouts as the first-half Hokie zips him.

Finally, on goes the head. The first-half bird pats the mascot, sending him into the field. His tail feathers bob up and down as he marches. His hula-hoop gut pokes with pride.

The flag corps runs with banners spelling H-O-K-I-E-S. Cheerleaders flip across the field. A touchdown raises the score to 20-3 in favor of Tech, on the way to a 30-3 victory, and fireworks explode over the scoreboard. The Hokie runs across the zone spreading both feathered arms like he's an eagle.

It is five months until graduation, the day when those big bird feet will poke from a graduation robe. For now, the Hokie Bird sweats in his costume on a cold night, standing with those big feet crossed as he leans against the goalpost.

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