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Becoming Mr. Wuf

Thursday, April 29

Ever since I was in kindergarten, I’d always wanted to be a hapless little cartoon animal with a dangerous lifestyle and seemingly endless vitality. I’d share that with my classmates again and again and, inevitability, my teacher would tell me that when she said I could be anything I wanted to be, she was really lying.

I was disheartened. For little, five-year-old Zach Jones, the realization that I would never be animated was the catastrophic end to all my dreams. Until now, that is, because tomorrow’s the beginning of my quest to become Mr. Wuf.

Have no fear, I’m entering tryouts with a dream and experience – a few years ago, I served as a counselor at the YMCA, where I spent a memorable weekend as Willy the Safety Squirrel. “This won’t be so bad,” I told myself as I stood proudly in a room with my boss (and a few other highly amused counselors) while I got accustomed to my oversized, furry costume (complete with a three- to four-foot bushy tail poking from my squirrel-backside.)

What could be so hard about walking around a field in the guise of a six-foot-tall squirrel? Everything is hard about it.

I was sweating by the time I made it outside, miserable by the time I reached a child, and utterly terrified by the time I finished a first go-round of the field. Breathing heavily and half-blind inside the suit, I stumbled everywhere I went and, on more than one occasion, ran into some poor little kid and his or her horrified parents. I was a terrible mascot. When I retreated behind a building to rest without the helmet on, a preschooler saw me and told his parents that Willy’s head had fallen off.

That’s when I realized that to all these people outside that day, I was Willy the Safety Squirrel, not some angry, dehydrated teenager with a bad job. Knowing that you’re anonymous as a mascot is important. Yes, Zach Jones was still miserable, sweaty, out of breath and possibly on the brink of a heat stroke but no one knew that.

I was a happy squirrel without eyelids and a perpetual smile.

After that realization set in, I changed my game. If someone called me, I waved in their general direction and darted off to go be goofy somewhere else. Willy didn’t have time for small talk. Willy had people to entertain.

It was fun being a squirrel, doing things that might normally embarrass Zach Jones. I joined middle-aged women in a jazzercise routine. I held my hand out for high-fives from children as they walked by. I tried jumping rope – an epic failure, but a funny one.

When my safety mission was complete, I stumbled into the YMCA building and decapitated myself. Falling into a chair, I told my boss that I’d had a load of fun, but would never do anything like that again. But now here I am, preparing to take part in NC State mascot tryouts.

I couldn’t be more excited. Really.

But questions race through my mind as I prepare to go back “under.” Will I make it? Will this be as difficult as I remember? Will it be as much fun? If the adrenaline was pumping as I performed for a small group of YMCA campers and their parents, how much more exciting will it be to howl on the 50-yard line of Carter-Finley Stadium as fireworks go off and the crowd roars in anticipation of a Wolfpack victory?

• • •

Friday, April 30 (11:27 a.m.)

Advice: if you want to make all of your friends jealous, try to become your school’s mascot.

Since word has gotten out about my endeavor, I have been flooded with well-wishes, envious death threats, and marriage proposals. I didn’t really know how big of a deal this was going to be. I mean, I haven’t really done anything yet. One particular friend, after a string of profanity and a bear hug, told me I was going to have to carry around a large stick to keep all of the ladies off of me. I don’t think I believe him.

But even with popular backing, I must admit that I’m nervous. Judging by my last attempt at being a mascot, this could go poorly. But what’s life without a little risk? This could really all turn out two ways. I either get the position, becoming a timeless artifact of awesome for the rest of time, or I don’t and I have a silly story to tell at parties. I’d consider both of those possibilities a win.

It all kicks off at 6 p.m. tonight, so we’ll see what happens in no time.

• • •

Friday, April 30 (11:06 p.m.)

So this mascot adventure began like almost all my adventures do – with me completely confused.

Walking into the gym, the first thing I noticed was a massive sea of cheerleaders and cheerleader-hopefuls stretching, bouncing, tapping their feet and sharing the latest gossip about whomever is doing whatever. And there I was, dressed in jeans and a Dragon Ball Z shirt, shuffling my feet amidst a line of five-foot girls chattering nervously while waiting to turn in their paperwork.

As soon as I turned mine in, I rushed to the bathroom to change into the shorts and t-shirt I had under my street clothes. While dressing, another cheerleader walked in. I started an awkward conversation, telling him I was trying out to be a mascot, and asked him what he did. He was now in his fifth year of cheerleading and didn’t have much else to say, or maybe he just didn’t want to talk to some weird kid changing in a bathroom. It could have been either one.

After finally dressing the part, I went out to the gym floor and attempted to look the part. Unfortunately for me, a gangly kid with disheveled hair, a fuzzy face, and Chuck Taylors does not look like a cheerleader, and a human being does not look like a mascot.

So I sat there, surrounded by people who were in better shape than I, acted more confidently, and all-around looked like they belonged there. Sitting on a mat with my legs stretched out in front of me and my face expressionless, I tried to look as cool as possible, hoping that the abject horror in my mind wasn’t showing through. And then my savior (the cheerleader from the bathroom) walked by me and asked what I was doing. I was at a loss for words. I want to reply “duh,” but he continued on before I could respond.

“Mascots are meeting over there,” he said, pointing across the gym.


The mascot meeting was more chill. We sat in a circle and introduced ourselves to our fellow hopefuls and veterans before the two senior-most mascots gave a tag-team speech about etiquette, as well as general information about wearing the suit. It was as dry as any lecture I’ve been privy too, and a lot to take in.

Then it was time to take turns trying on the suit. At first we wore just Mr. Wuf’s head, gloves, and feet. It was strange standing there as a half-human, half-wolf-monster, surrounded by normal people. You just don’t really know what to do in a situation like that.

So, I shuffled awkwardly and basically tried to look out for people – a difficult task considering I was looking through a veil of mesh inside a wolf’s mouth. (I have a new respect for food; being trapped inside an animal’s mouth is slightly terrifying.)

The Mr. and Mrs. Wufs separated and worked on gender-specific actions. Us man-Wufs learned how to strut and, well, act manly. I thought I was an adequately manly person coming into this, but I quickly learned quickly that even the most self-confident man in the world acts as manly as the least-manly mascot. Every move and every action is exaggerated.

I puffed my chest out as far as possible, and spread my arms from my side as if they belonged to the Incredible Hulk.

The feet were especially tricky to work with. Try walking with feet three times the size of your own. It is difficult. You have to pick your legs up to uncomfortably great heights and stomp them solidly back to the floor. It feels ridiculous at first, but then you see how other people look in the gear, and you realize that looking ridiculous is the only way to truly look like a wolf.

After we got our struts down and the Mrs. Wufs perfected their skipping, we took turns in full-body gear. We wore lacrosse shoulder pads and what amounts to a fuzzy jumpsuit that zips in the back, so it’s impossible to put on by yourself. I soon found myself the warmest I’ve been since the time my shirt accidently flamed up at a bonfire.

There was a lot of emphasis on “acting big” during the introductory speeches from the veterans and coaches, but it really wasn’t difficult to do in a full suit. You didn’t really have to act big. You feel big. The kind of big you’d think Hulk Hogan feels every day. Being a hyper-macho-predator isn’t difficult when you look the part.

Next, we each got in front of the other hopefuls and went through what I can only describe as “mascot drills.” Really, it was just amounted to the veteran mascots telling us to do things, while giving us props to work with.

I had to strut arm-in-arm with a prospective Mrs. Wuf and pretend I was pumping up the crowd. I felt ridiculous, fist-pumping like a champ toward an empty set of bleachers and cupping a hand over my Mr. Wuf ear, prodding an invisible crowd to get loud. But being ridiculous is the point. It’s fun being an anonymous guy in a suit – you have free reign to act however silly as you wish.

My temporary wife and I were given were a half-full Dasani water bottle and a folding chair. What do you do with props like those?

Mrs. Wuf picked up the bottle like a phone and began “talking” into the phone. It’s against the rules to actually talk when you’re in costume, so speaking becomes an exaggerated pantomime of head nods and arm waves. I took the phone from her and “yelled” angrily at the imaginary man on the other end, slamming it down to the ground while giving Mrs. Wuf the cold shoulder.

She started flailing her arms about and circled around me in what I assume was an attempt to win back my affection. It could have been anything, really – I didn’t know what she was doing. Realizing that women wear the pants in most relationships, she picked up the folding chair and chased after me.

Have you ever tried to run in huge boots? It is difficult, and I flopped to the ground. Hoping it looked natural, I dropped to my knees and prayed for mercy. At least I hope that is what it looked like.

Following prop time, the veterans called out different emotions for us to evoke. Body language is the law in the mascot world, and you must exaggerate everything to help people get the point. “Frightened” came first. I guess I cowered well enough. “Frightened” soon turned into “excited,” and I was jumping and pumping my fist and throwing up wolf-signs with both paws.

“Sleepy,” however, proved to be the easiest. Lie down and act like you’re napping. I was the best at that.

It’s hard to notice how abysmally hot you are when you’re trying to impress people with your mascot abilities. However, when everyone’s eyes are off of you, you soon realize that you’ve been sweating buckets after what amounted to just 5 or 6 minutes of fairly simple work.

In addition, I was sucking wind like I had just climbed a mountain. Stripping the costume off was interesting – as I said earlier, costume changes are something you can’t do alone. Although the outside air was warm, it hit my skin like a Nor’easter as soon as I de-Wuf’d, and I shivered for a solid three minutes.

Once everyone had a turn, we all went our separate ways. Although putting the suit on helped ease some of my mid-day fears, I walked out of the gym still a little flustered and jittery from the overall experience. Tomorrow is when the real test happens. I’ll be at a baseball game interacting with a real crowd with all of fifteen minutes of experience under my belt.

This should be interesting. Play ball!

• • •

Saturday, May 1 (10:48 p.m.)

My second day started just before an NC State baseball game against Georgia Tech. We mascot-wannabes crowded outside the ticket booth before sneaking off to the J.W. Isenhour Tennis Complex, where each of us would be transformed into our university’s iconic mascot. Since starting on this quest, I’ve learned that the actual process of becoming Mr. Wuf is a heavily guarded secret. I cannot tell you the specifics of the transformation but, each time, one of us would enter the building as themselves and leave as Mr. Wuf.

And that is how it works, really. From the moment you don the costume, your personality ceases to exist and you are Mr. Wuf. It’s a difficult task to perform, to become someone – or something –  else entirely. You have to force your mind to think as Mr. Wuf thinks: mute and manly with a certain flare for the comedic and dramatic.

Mr. Wuf doesn’t walk places. He struts. But not the John Travolta, Saturday-Night-Fever strut – Mr. Wuf’s strut is all machismo. Mr. Wuf knows he can take on anyone at any time, and win. But he doesn’t have to prove it. Mr. Wuf doesn’t fight. It is just understood that he is manlier than anyone in his vicinity.

Not only does your mind transform in when you’re a Wuf, but the actual way you perceive your surroundings changes as well. The world around you is shrouded by a veil of mesh, teeth and fur. You can forget peripheral vision ever existed.

Have you ever wondered why mascots nod so much? It’s because that’s the only way they can see where they’re going. Hearing is affected too. Everything reverberates and echoes inside the helmet. You can never be sure if someone is talking to you or not. This leads to a lot of miscommunication when you are surrounded by hundreds of people.

And with your senses dulled, torrents of children and parents (and the elderly couple that speaks to you as if you are best friends) inevitably descend upon you. You hear a small voice call your name, so you search around completely disoriented. You try to turn it into a joke and cup your hands over your “eyes” and swing your head in an arc.

You hope that people laugh because that means they think you’re joking instead of realizing how confused you actually are. You spot the child and kneel down with your arms spread. You can never really be sure what a kid is going to do. Some of them give aggressive hugs and tug at your fur and face. Some cry. Others stand behind their parent’s leg and stare at you.

Slowly, you coax them over. They give you a hug or a high five and then they’re off again. While you’re getting back to your feet, another more brazen kid rushes at you and latches on to your leg, almost knocking you down. You twist awkwardly in their direction and kneel down again. Another high five. But this kid sees the arm of your suit ride up, revealing a patch of skin.

“I knew you were just a person under there.”

What do you do? You act like you didn’t notice and point to your fur like it’s your actual skin. You wave to the kid and strut off. Alas, you just broke the cardinal rule of mascots: Never, ever reveal that you are a person.

By now your fur-covered body is in danger of overheating. You stumble a little bit, instantly regretting that greasy bratwurst and Coke you shoveled in on the way to the field. With your focus now off of the crowd around you, the parents asking for photos and children seeking hugs come as surprises, and with each new encounter, you second-guess yourself. You don’t really know if you’re doing well or not.

How could you? It’s nearly impossible to judge people’s reactions when you can’t see them.

Eventually, the other mascot candidates come to relieve you. You follow them down the road to the tennis complex, pantomime-playing with the drivers of the passing cars at the crosswalk and waving to the families on their way to the game. Finally, you enter the building and leave as yourself, with Mr. Wuf walking behind you.

The rest of the day is spent keeping track of Mr. Wuf just in case a situation turns bad. It doesn’t though. Most fans are used to mascots and rarely cross any boundaries.

One by one, the different incarnations of Mr. Wuf make their rounds, switching places inside the suit until the game is over. In appreciation for their hard work, the veteran mascots get free drinks from the smoothie stand, while the rest of us are offered free leftover pizza. We return to the tennis complex to grab our belongings and part ways. Then, we headed home to wash off a well-earned layer of dried sweat and, in my case, nap away the exhaustion.

• • •

Sunday, May 2, 9:27 p.m.)

While there is only one Mr. Wuf, four NC State students share the honor of becoming him when needed. The same goes for Ms. Wuf. This fact thrust our group of mascot prospects into dangerous territory. Eight men and seven women battling for just four available spots (per gender). What deception and hatred might erupt from such pressure?

The answer is none.

I barely had time to work on my own routine, much less worry about someone else’s. On Saturday, we were told what we had to do Sunday in our quest to become a Wuf: perform a one- to two-minute skit and dance in front of a panel of judges. In addition, we were to dance to a medley prepared by the judges. Because this was revealed on such late notice, we each had around 24 hours to plan.

I spent my first 19 hours either asleep or terrified of having to come up with a skit so quickly. Terrified so much, in fact, that I stopped thinking about it completely. This morning I had no concept of what I was going to do. Through a few hours of frantic thought, I came across the idea of just being Godzilla and terrorizing a city made of boxes. The planning ended there. There was no time to work out the specifics which – as I would realize after the fact – was the point of the entire task.

There was a large group of cheerleaders waiting to watch us. No one had mentioned an actual audience until then. I still didn’t have a real concept of what I was going to do when the competition started.

The first top-secret-Mr.-Wuf-candidate’s skit was simple, and effective. Mr. Wuf went to a party, “drank” some water and danced, grabbed a cheerleader from the crowd and put the moves on her, gave her a stuffed penguin, and gazed at the stars through solo cup binoculars with his new lady. The magic was definitely not in the plot, but the skit was great because it was seamless.

There was never an awkward moment where Mr. Wuf’s posture sagged or he lost his definitive strut. Even when trying to give directions (through pantomime, to a cheerleader whom he had probably never met) went well. Sure, she looked confused for the entirety of her part, but it’s funny when an audience member doesn’t know what’s going on. The important part is that Mr. Wuf did know, and the skit progressed as if it were planned that way.

You see, the skills of a mascot rest almost entirely on the art of improvisation. With such a short planning period, everyone was forced to improvise most of their skit. There isn’t much thought allowed for the future, and the past is forgotten almost as quickly as it happens.

The current moment is the most important thing that you could possibly thinking of. To stretch your mind beyond that slows reaction time, and the entire act suffers when you aren’t quick on your feet.

As with most improvised scenes, my turn went much better than expected. I set up my props on the floor. There wasn’t much to them. There were three boxes the size of a cat kennel, a cone that I, um, just happened to find in my dorm and the aforementioned stuffed penguin, which I borrowed from Mr. Wuf candidate #1.

I emerged from behind some gymnastics mats and did my best Mr. Wuf-impersonating-Godzilla impression while I crept toward my city of boxes. With techno beats pumping in the background, I swatted and kicked and stomped at these boxes as long as I could before it became boring.

It didn’t take long –  I had just exhausted half of my plan in about twenty seconds.

What was there to do for the next minute or so? The best course of action, I deemed, was to terrorize the large group of cheerleaders watching my every move. So, I stalked along the front row of people, clawing near their faces and roaring silently. At one point I accidentally hit one of them. But nothing can look like an accident, so I was forced to hit him again.

There was still more time to kill after my cheerleader supply had run dry – it was time for the climax. I attacked the foot-tall penguin and locked into a battle with it for what seemed like a few minutes, but could have easily been ten seconds. I slashed and clawed at my diminutive foe, but was eventually pecked to death. The skit was over.

Looking back – if I could give one bit of advice to prospective mascots – never base your audition skit on the sheer premise of your university’s mascot meeting his demise – especially at the hands of a miniature prenguin.

After all the Wufs had performed, the judges deliberated for an agonizing few minutes. The majority of us sat or stood in silence, waiting. The few attempts at conversation died out quickly. The judges finished and brought the news to us.

Unfortunately, I’m not quite cut out to be a mascot. As the judges called out the names of the victors, the bitter taste of failure filled my mouth. My name did not echo throughout the gym with those who will don the suit this season.

I was dejected. Crushed. I congratulated the new Wufs and moved on to the next part of the day. What else was there to do?

If being a mascot has taught me one thing, it is to forget the past ever happened and to know the future comes however it wants to.

What is important, I think, is what you do with the moment you’re in. And that, readers, is what I’ll take with me during the rest of my experiences here at NC State.