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The Power and the Furry 

Inside the mask with Swoop, Butch, Skitch and Walker D. Plank

click to enlarge [PHOTOS COURTESY OF WSU, EWU AND WHITWORTH]
  • [Photos courtesy of WSU, EWU and Whitworth]

The only time Swoop the Eagle has ever broken character was when a woman at a game put her hands down his pants.

The man who plays Eastern Washington University’s feathered friend is a 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound applied-psychology major. He’s been a professional mascot around Spokane for five years. But this was crossing a line.

“I pulled her hands out,” he recalls, “and she actually did it again.”

Groping, inappropriate gestures, and lingering hugs are all too common in the world of mascots. Just ask Butch the Cougar, the mascot for Washington State University.

“It gets really awkward sometimes,” says Butch, a 6-foot-tall junior bioengineering/pre-med major. “People don’t understand that there’s a person inside the costume. Sometimes I’ll be walking around, and guys will grab and grope me in awkward places.”

With college basketball already in full swing, it’s the high season for Butch, Swoop and the rest of the area’s college mascots. But while fans may see only fun and games, mascot work is actually pretty demanding, as we found out.

Swoop wasn’t always a dancing eagle. Before he shook his tail feathers to “Crank That” at Eastern games, he was a Red Robin, a sasquatch, and a slew of other characters throughout the region.

But Swoop can’t reveal his identity. Most universities have mascot-secrecy policies.

“Revealing a mascot is kind of like finding out who Santa is,” Swoop says. “Once that happens, it goes from ‘Swoop’ to ‘Uncle Fred,’ and then it’s no longer a bird, it’s just a guy in a costume acting strange.”

If too many people discover Swoop’s identity, he could lose his scholarship. “It’s a pretty awesome scholarship,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons why I’m at EWU.”

The story is similar for Skitch the Sasquatch at Spokane Community Colleges. The sophomore woman who plays the hominoid wants to go on to Gonzaga Law. Right now, though, doing the splits in a 20-pound sasquatch costume helps pay the bills.

“I’m fine following the rules but, honestly, I don’t know what the real importance of secrecy is,” she says. “It would be a lot easier if I could just say, ‘Oh, the big thing in my bag, covered in hair — and the reason why I’m covered in hair — is just Skitch.’”

Besides the secrecy, there are also the physical demands. Swoop the Eagle trains nine hours a week in the gym, working on skits and practicing with breakdancers. Each summer, Butch the Cougar is sent to cheer camp, and during the school year he does three mandatory cardio and strength-training workouts a week with an official spirit-squad coach.

“But you can be in the best shape of your life and it still doesn’t matter,” Butch says. “There is no air moving through this costume.”

Butch says it’s 30 to 40 degrees hotter inside his 15-pound full-body fur suit. It’s not uncommon for mascots to get light-headed, hyperventilate, or pass out at halftime.

“It’s hard for me to breathe inside the suit,” says Skitch of the pounds of fur and shoulder pads on her 5-foot-4-inch frame. “I don’t actually have a mouth hole — I have nose holes, but those are really, really far away from my mouth.”

All the training and hard work doesn’t prepare mascots for the inevitable awkward moments. Skitch says she’s been chased by dogs. Swoop reports getting three-inch slivers in his chest from sliding belly-first down a bowling lane once.

Walker D. Plank, the recently revamped pirate at Whitworth University, is still getting a feel for the job. As of press time, he’d only worn the swashbuckling costume twice.

“I’m not really sure what I can and cannot do yet,” he says. “I was told to go out and get a feel for it.”

He tried to watch other mascots on YouTube, to prepare for his first game, but all he could find were video bloopers of mascots falling or being attacked.

“That really didn’t do anything to help my confidence,” he says. “But my first game went pretty good. But I did kind of scare a little girl the other night. I waved at her, and she just ran away crying.”

Swoop says he’s had people of all ages “crumble to the ground and start crying” or panic and run out of the room. Skitch has faced similar problems.

“It’s not exactly easy to convince everyone that we’re friendly,” she says.

Still, most say the rewards of the job are worth it.

“I wanted to be the mascot the moment I came to this school,” Walker D. Plank says. The junior business-management major transferred from California to Whitworth this August. “Mascots … inspire confidence and pride in our students and fans. We are ambassadors of the school.”

For mascots like Swoop, the job is more than a scholarship or a fleeting college pastime. He wants to go pro.

“I’ve already made an audition tape and taken classes from the Philly Phanatic ... the grand poobah of mascots,” he says. “Right now, I’m thankful to Spokane for getting my career started. I’m very blessed. Here it is, in a hard economy, and I get paid to be a clown.” 

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