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Lions and Tigers and Bears. And Bobcats and Wolverines and Alligators and – Chickens? Hens, to be exact. The University of Delaware's famous fighting blue hen, to be even more specific.
A regular Noah's Ark of animals are on the football fields, providing a focus for cheerleaders at high schools and colleges all across the country. While many of them are just fans dressed up in costume, there are plenty of real critters livening up the gridiron.
"We're a poultry state," says Delaware's head coach, Tubby Raimond, explaining how a chicken, of all things, came to represent the fighting qualities of his football team. "During the Revolutionary War, the British came down from Philadelphia and had a hell of a fight with the Colonialists at Cooch's Bridge, near the school. The people who ran the school sent a courier down to southern Delaware to get a hold of farmers down there. So, these poultry farmers came up here to join in the fighting. They fought so well, everybody called them the Fighting Blue Hens."
University of Texas Longhorn
The University of Texas also brings a farm critter to the fore. Its fearsome Longhorn made his entrance 90 years ago, when Texas A&M – the university's great rival – trounced U.T. on the gridiron. Exuberant A&M fans branded the U.T. animal with the score: 13-0. Since then, there have been mascot-nappings between the two schools: Sometimes the Longhorn disappears, sometimes A&M's collie, Reveille, goes missing.
After their infamous defeat almost a century ago, U.T. fans turned the humiliating brand into a proud acronym, BEVO – by making the 13 a B, turning the dash into an E, and inserting a V between the dash and the 0. The name has stayed with the animal through the generations, but the original beast suffered an ignominious demise, ending his days on a barbecue spit.
The current – and 13th – Bevo, whose real name is Sunrise Express, lives on a ranch outside Austin. "He's probably the favorite Bevo of them all," says Justin Gilbert, the animal's handler, a senior majoring in government. "He's been here the longest and he's the prettiest one."
Handsome he certainly is, with his burnt-orange coat and a white star mark between his eyes. He's also fairly intimidating, with a horn span that measures close to 56 inches. "This particular Bevo is well-mannered because he's a show steer," says Gilbert. "There's a big myth that he's on tranquilizers or some kind of drug. It's totally untrue."
But his good behavior doesn't mean the 1,850-pound beast is docile. "I don't want to say he's mean, but he doesn't like anyone near him," says Gilbert, who learned how to handle cattle on his grandfather's Texas ranch.
Gilbert and three other handlers take Bevo to every game, to alumni functions and to fundraisers all over Texas. "He's really smart. He knows who we are, but when we approach him to put on the halter, we have to get crafty and sneaky and be extremely careful."
While these animals have been known to live into their 20s, this season might be this Bevo's last. He's been on the job since he was four and at 16 he could head off to retirement this spring. Unlike his turn-of-the-century ancestor, though, he'll stay on the ranch and live out his days in the pasture.
The Canine Mascots
Canine mascots are a familiar species of their own: Texas A&M's Reveille is a collie, and the University of Washington has King Redoubt, an Alaskan malamute. But bulldogs are especially popular. It must be their pugnacious mugs that convinced Yale, The Citadel, Mississippi State University and Georgia to adopt these normally sweet dogs.
The top dog at Georgia is the white-coated Uga (pronounced UH-guh), the sixth in a dynasty of U. of Ga. dogs. The Seiler family has bred and cared for the Ugas since 1956. Now, it's Savannah lawyer and University of Georgia alum Sonny Seiler's turn.
The current two-year-old has big shoes to fill, Seiler says. "Uga VI's father, Uga V, made the cover of Sports Illustrated and appeared in Clint Eastwood's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
But Seiler says the dog is up to the task. "He was only a year old at his coronation last year," he says. "But he's the biggest of all the Uga mascots, weighing 55 pounds. That's 11 pounds heavier than his father." Another famed bulldog lords over Georgetown, even though the team is called the Hoyas, and the dog himself is only a caricature.
According to campus lore, back when all Georgetown students had to take Greek and Latin, the university's teams were nicknamed The Stonewalls. During a football game, one student started cheering "Hoya Saxa!" – Greek for "What Rocks!" The crowd took up the chant, and "Hoyas" stuck. Although the bulldog had no connection either with the cheer or the history of the school, the university adopted the dog as its mascot and dressed him up in a spike collar. After all, it's not easy to come up with a mascot-based on some obscure Greek cheer.
The Feline Mascots
If the dogs have their day, the cats have their own following: Arizona, Kansas State, Villanova and Kentucky have all seized on the wildcat as their symbol of do-or-die scrappiness.
The University of Kentucky Wildcats got their name on October 9, 1909, from Commandant Carbusier, who ran the school's military department. After Kentucky beat Illinois in football, Carbusier declared his team "fought like wildcats."
"After that, people started calling them the wildcats, and then the university officially adopted the name," says UK athletics staffer Jackie Sale.
The Wisconsin Badgers
Not all mascots have a reputation for ferocity. Take the Wisconsin Badgers, for example. These small burrowing mammals were adopted by the Big 10 school in the early 1940s not because of their alleged toughness but because the state's economy was dominated by mining, and the miners – who also burrowed into the ground – seemed fitting heroes.
During the early '40s, when live animals were used, the fast-moving badgers often slipped away from their handlers and terrorized the fans, on more than one occasion stopped only by a sideline tackle. Finally, the animals were exiled to the Madison zoo and replaced for a time with Regdab (badger spelled backwards), a small raccoon who was passed off as a badger in a fur coat.
In 1949, the familiar Bucky Badger finally appeared, a papier-mache critter in a red and white sweater. By 1973, though, he was once again under siege, this time from the state attorney general, Howard Koop, who wanted to replace him with what he called a lovable and productive cow, Henrietta Holstein. Bucky, however, triumphed, beating back his bovine challenger.