Willie the Wildcat had a head cold.
Well, Willie didn’t have a head cold. The student wearing the furry gray Wildcat head had a head cold.
You see, Willie doesn’t get sick. Willie’s always on his A-game.
If Willie gave in to the sinus pressure and chest congestion of flu season, the sight of Willie coughing might give kids nightmares of half-human, half-cats barfing up giant hairballs.
So, for nearly an hour before tipoff of the Kansas State-Texas Tech game last month at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Willie sucked it up. Mutely, he threw souvenir purple luchador masks at Wildcat fans, clowned with concessions workers, swam the backstroke across the concrete concourse floor and schmoozed with the big deals in the Wildcat Legends lounge.
At one point over a 15-minute span, I watched fans of all ages stop Willie for a photo a total of 34 times. And this was a game with an 8 p.m. tipoff on a school night. Imagine what Saturdays are like.
Willie took the elevator down to the bowels beneath Manhattan’s so-called Octagon of Doom. We walked down a couple of hallways, turned a corner and ducked into a laundry room, where Willie took off the head.
“I’ve had a bad bug, and I’ve really been trying to hold it in,” the maskless Willie said as he grabbed a bag of Ricola cough drops.
I stood there, speechless and aghast. I felt like I had just learned Superman had a secret identity.
It’s a workout
Being a college mascot looks like a tough racket. Long days. Hot nights. Hours of practice. All of which are done in near total anonymity. Mascots at K-State and the University of Kansas try never to reveal their identities, not even to this mild-mannered reporter, who agreed not to disclose their names.
And if you’re thinking the mascots’ season is nearing an end because basketball is winding down, think again.
“In March, we have three days where we’re not doing anything,” said Kamille Ratzlaff, the mascot coach at KU. “Our Saturdays in April, sometimes we’ll have seven events, and they’ll go from morning to night and travel all over the place.”
The Jayhawk mascots — Big Jay and Baby Jay — make about 500 appearances a year. There’s March Madness, of course, but baseball and softball seasons are gearing up. Then there are appearances at weddings, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, anniversaries. Even funerals. Big Jay has been requested as a pallbearer in the past, giant Jayhawk smile and all.
“Listen,” Ratzlaff said, “if you want us there, and we can fit it in, we’ll try to get there.”
This year, eight students take turns suiting up as KU’s Big Jay and Baby Jay. Four men and four women. Four are from Johnson County, but there’s a Topeka, a Tonganoxie, an Augusta, Kan., and a Peoria, Ill., too.
It takes a special kind of person to wear the suit, someone with a lot of personality who doesn’t mind looking silly in front of thousands of people.
“We have a lot of kids who have ADHD tendencies,” Ratzlaff said, only half-joking. “A lot of our kids are education majors, so they’re ready to teach the future of America once they’ve acted like a fool out here.”
On Tuesday nights, the KU mascots get together for schedule run-throughs, some improv exercises, a little interpretive dance to Lady Gaga and a whole lot of practice at … walking.
Don’t laugh. They have to walk a certain way to keep fans from noticing that different people wear the suit.
“We’ll get called out on it,” Ratzlaff said. “People will be more than happy to send lovely emails my way if they’re not doing the fight song right, or they’re not doing the Rock Chalk chant right.”
The Jays are supposed to be gender neutral. The height requirements — 4-foot-11 to 5-foot-1 for Baby, 6-foot-1 to 6-foot-3 for Big — generally mean guys play Big and women play Baby. But sometimes, when a woman is a Big, Ratzlaff has to make some adjustments to get her to strut the right way.
“For girls it takes a lot more time to get the walk down, because lots of women have kind of a swishy hip walk,” she said. “We have to de-program that. During the summer when we have our training, I think we walk 10 hours. Just walking.”
Some days of the week, the KU mascots start their day with 5:45 a.m. strength training workouts. They do some cardio during the week, too.
It’s crucial. The Big Jay suit weighs between 60 and 70 pounds, with the head tipping the scales at about 15 pounds. Baby’s suit weights about 50, with the head weighing in around 5 pounds.
Then add to that about 10 pounds of sweat.
Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence can get really warm at court level, to say nothing of those August and early September football games. You’re basically wearing furry Cookie Monster footie pajamas with a poorly ventilated, oversized helmet on your head. The heat can take its toll.
“When you first get started on the team, it’s such a complete shock for your body,” said one of the current Baby Jays.
Shhh, it’s a secret
The most mentally challenging part, however, may be keeping the whole thing a secret. K-State takes it to another level by not revealing how many students play Willie.
“Uhhh, there’s only one Willie,” said former Willie Travis Kurtz. “That’s what we’re supposed to say.”
Kurtz is an Olathe firefighter who wore the Wildcat head from 2008 to 2011. Today he lives outside Paola with his wife and his two sons with K-State-inspired names: Beckett Willie, who is about to turn 3, and Snyder (as in football coach Bill Snyder), who turned 1 in November.
“It was tough not being able to tell anybody,” Kurtz said of keeping his secret in college. “I think two people in my family knew. My girlfriend (now wife) was trainer for the cheerleaders, so that made it easier, not having to keep it a secret from her.”
There were times, though, when people asked him where he was during a game, and he had to say he had to go home or come up with some other lame reason.
“It became really difficult to make up excuses all the time,” he said.
Sometimes people would follow Willie out to Kurtz’s car.
“There was one event where I hopped in my car and had to drive a little ways away with the head on so no one could see who I was,” he said.
KU’s Ratzlaff, who was a Baby Jay when she was in school, said when she disappeared during sports events, she told people she was an intern for the marketing department. Her family knew, though, including her grandpa Bill Fry, who was a radio color commentator for the Scott City Beavers.
“He liked to tell people his granddaughter was Baby Jay, and it got to the point where he’s announcing it on the radio,” she said, laughing. “I was, like, ‘Papa!’ And he said, ‘But I’m so proud of you!’ And I was like, ‘Be proud at home!’ ”
The only time the kids in the suit get officially recognized at KU is on senior day, when they might be announced as part of the spirit squad. Ratzlaff called it their five seconds of glory, a moment she didn’t get to enjoy herself. She was in the suit that game.
“I was sobbing uncontrollably,” she said. “I’m sure they thought Baby Jay was having a seizure.”
Both Kurtz and Ratzlaff have many fond memories of their time as mascots. Strangely enough, Ratzlaff was Baby Jay when football was up, and Kurtz was at K-State when basketball was up.
“I got to go to the Elite Eight, and I’m the only one who can say that since the ’80s,” Kurtz said. “It was phenomenal, getting to go to those games.”
And there are some not-so-fond memories. Ratzlaff, who also works full time as a nurse in the infectious disease ward at Children’s Mercy Hospital, was injured at Allen Fieldhouse when she was Baby Jay.
“There was a little boy who was trying to get my attention,” she said. “He was, like, ‘Baby! Baby!’ And on my way up, this drunk girl was, like, ‘I hate mascots!’ and hit my beak, and I was just enough off balance that I went into a beautiful swan dive down the steps. Some kid helped me up and said, ‘That was an awesome swan dive!’ And I was like, ‘I can’t feel my legs.’ ”
Ratzlaff has a herniated disc from the incident; she credits the padding of the suit for saving her from worse injuries.
Nonetheless, it’s the small moments that the people in the suit remember.
“A baby said its first words to me,” said one of the current Baby Jays. “That was the best thing that happened so far. The parents were saying, ‘Say bye-bye’ and she said, ‘Bye-bye,’ and the parents freaked out that the first words were said to a mascot.”
A couple of years ago, a man wanted to see Willie as his dying wish.
“The guy was asleep the whole time, and he woke up when he saw Willie and was so happy to see him,” the current Willie said.
Ratzlaff once attended a special graduation ceremony as Baby Jay.
“We had a kid whose mom was terminally ill and wasn’t going to make it to graduation,” she said. “So the dean and the provost and a professor and the student and I — we actually used K-State’s plane because our plane was busy. They flew us out to some town in the middle of Kansas and we had a nice little ceremony for his mom. It’s stuff like that that nobody gets to see.”
Kurtz goes back to Manhattan to help with Willie tryouts. Ratzlaff tries to use her experience as a mascot to help her students, ahem, spread their wings.
“Sometimes I miss getting in suit,” she said. “There’s nothing better than being center court or midfield and hearing the crowd do the Rock Chalk chant or something like that. But it’s so exciting for me to see the kids who are currently in suit. Especially my new birds, my little hatchlings, when they finally get it.”
The biggest piece of advice she tries to impart?
“I try to tell the kids they need to have more fun,” she said. “We’re not going to cure cancer, but we might make someone smile.”