Before I can cable my personal stylist and dresser for more dignified duds, the other campers start filing in, huge equipment bags in their wake. Most are in their mid-20s and, while each boasts at least a semiregular mascot gig, all are keen to refine their craft. Prior to my arrival, I am under the impression that there is no “right” way to educate a mascot, no accepted canon-of-Western-literature-type curriculum, nor any widely recognized sanctioning body. In my mind, there were two sacred commandments — “Thou shalt not interfere with the game action” and “Thou shalt not end up on YouTube” — and the rest was basically acting goofy and trying not to get punched.
It turns out that Blank has more information to impart than a newbie like me could consume in a single weekend, which was confirmed by a glance at the encyclopedic 41-page mascot manual handed to attendees at registration. The pages on costume maintenance alone make the head spin. They note how dry cleaning “fries the polyester fibers in a fur suit,” suggest that costume heads might be soaked “in an industrial or laundry sink” and recommend the acquisition of a “PVC piping costume hanger” for storage.
In the half-hour rules discussion to follow, however, Blank sticks to the basics. Don’t use guns as a prop. Never speak, break character or remove your head in public. Hydrate. Interact with cheerleaders, referees and other mascots only if they’ve consented ahead of time. It occurs to me that being a mascot has a lot in common with dating.
During the classroom components of mascot camp, my fellow charges seem disengaged, as if being confined to the bleachers during the big game. That changes when Blank shuts her copy of the mascot manual and says, “OK, costumes on.” Within seconds, the room is alive with activity, the clicks and whirs of zippers, harnesses and Velcro straps providing an ambient soundtrack.
I approach the Striker costume warily. Splayed out on the floor of the studio, it looked harmless enough: a pair of furry brown pants, a furry brown top with gloves (“paws”) attached, a patriotically hued jersey/shorts pullover, black shoes and the aforementioned dome. After I wrestle it onto my body, however, I understand why I’d been forewarned to wear only shorts and a moisture-wicking T-shirt to class. The costume has the ventilation of a sealed coffin; within minutes, I begin to sweat profusely. Confirming my initial fears, the head has only pinhole slits for eyes and weighs north of 30 pounds (two weeks after returning home from camp, I was still suffering from either real or imagined spinal compression). Overall, it feels like the inside of a stomach.
That’s only the beginning of my discomfort. We spend the next 30 minutes engaged in a series of “emotions skills” drills, all in front of the studio’s wall-to-wall mirrors. Blank asks us to act happy (me: bobbing head, swinging arms to and fro), goofy (ditto), confused (ditto) and angry (ditto, but with fists/paws balled). Emotional expression doesn’t come easy for the neophyte mascot with a permasmile affixed to its skull; a lowered head doesn’t connote sadness or embarrassment half as well as a Gwyneth Paltrowian pout.
The pregame exercises conclude with videotaped drills, in which each participant is asked to strut before the cameras. “You’re proud, you’re confident!” Blank shouts when I approach the front of the line. In response, I dig deep into my constricted-motion arsenal and fire off what I envision as a commanding salute. Blank is not impressed: “Uh, you just saluted from your nose.”
Semiacclimated in our costumes, we explode out into the chilly Bethlehem night. Our first stop is the Moravian student union, where the bemused Friday-night diners decline to act on the normal human impulse to pelt invaders with tater tots. After that, we head out to travel Bethlehem’s streets en masse, where I notice that every mascot has his or her own “thing.” Amy and Amos, the mascots for the Moravian Greyhounds, play off each other like seasoned vaudeville pros; Doane Academy’s Sparty the Spartan projects sarcasm and enthusiasm in equal parts; and at nearly eight feet in height, Gwynedd-Mercy College’s Merv the Griffin boasts the stern, severe visage of a reckoning-day judge. Alas, my special skill is walking into parked cars and tripping over curbs, which I do enough times to prompt a cohort into breaking character and inquiring about my welfare. Not unlike a tough-love teacher or last night’s leftover meatloaf, peripheral vision cannot truly be appreciated until it’s gone.