LOUISVILLE - The secret life of mascots is like being a superhero: You get to perform mighty deeds and no one sees who's behind the mask.
And for the students who don the costumes of Western Kentucky University's "Big Red," the University of Kentucky's "Wildcat" or "Scratch," or the University of Louisville's Cardinal Bird "Louie" and cavort with the crowds at games and events, it's flat-out fun.
Take Shane Milburn, one of seven WKU students who portray the Hilltoppers' nationally known and androgynous mascot, Big Red. Sure there are perks: traveling with the team, attending sporting events for free, and at least a partial scholarship. But that's not what drives Milburn, 22, a senior.
"I do it because it's so much fun," Milburn said. "Anything that I can dream up that I think could be cool, all I have to do is put that suit on. Without the suit on, I could probably get arrested for some of it. But when I put the suit on, it's funny and everybody thinks it's awesome."
For example, Big Red has a big mouth and likes to pretend to swallow things, such as women's purses. Try doing that if you aren't in costume.
"He's the ultimate fan," Milburn said of Big Red. "He can get away with anything."
Almost anything. Mascots do get in trouble.
The most infamous mascot in the country might be the Stanford Tree, which has been cited and suspended for public intoxication and has been in altercations with other mascots. The Tree, an unofficial mascot, is also clever. In 1999, when members of the UCLA football team were caught using handicapped parking passes, the Tree entered the field before the UCLA-Stanford game in a wheelchair.
Big Red has also drawn the ire of officials. Once during the Sun Belt Conference basketball tournament at Diddle Arena, Big Red left a designated mascot area. A referee took umbrage and ejected Big Red.
"Big Red was taking it personal that an official was telling Big Red what he could and couldn't do," said Paula Davids, a WKU marketing assistant who is also known as Big Red's Mom. "Our fans booed."
Milburn, an athlete at Bullitt East High School who competed in soccer, golf, tennis and track, brings the same game face to his mascot performances, once performing with a broken bone in his hand, he said.
Mascots don't just wing it on the sideline. Many are sent to national camps. For example, UK's go to Wisconsin, where they hone their craft and learn tricks of the trade, exchanging skit ideas and learning how to enhance their performances.
How does one become a mascot? Taylor Menard, a UK senior who is one of two students who perform as the Wildcat mascot, auditioned as a freshman.
The 6-foot-4 Menard already met the requirement that mascots be at least 6 feet 1 inch tall. With his sister's encouragement he climbed into the Wildcat suit, did dance moves and pretended to injure himself after a back flip before a panel of judges.
Two weeks later Menard was the Wildcat, and he has been the primary mascot ever since. He gets his full tuition paid and was in New Orleans for the 2012 men's basketball national championship game.
"You'll meet all these people," the 22-year-old said. "Then you'll get out of the suit and you'll just be yourself. You can't do the same things."
U of L declined to make any of its students who portray Louie the Cardinal mascot available. U of L spokeswoman Nancy Allison Worley said the suspension of disbelief is important to the image.
"It is akin to keeping the Santa Claus magic alive, as many children believe the Cardinal Bird is real," she wrote in an email. "The magic persona is something we guard quite tightly."
Michael Grant writes for the Louisville Courier-Journal.
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