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Earning their stripes
by Gabrielle Maxey

Since its creation in 1960, Tiger mascot Pouncer has become the face of U of M athletics. A lot of sweat, a little blood and even a tear or two come with the role. So who exactly is behind that mask?

Badges of honorThey pull on a throw rug-like Tiger suit that weighs in at around 10 pounds. They do this even on the most sweltering Memphis days. The temperature inside the suit can easily reach 100 to 120 degrees. Under the orange-striped faux fur, they may be called upon to be a spirit leader, dancer, clown, gymnast or entertainer, sometimes all at once.

The University of Memphis student mascot is part of a legacy that stretches back to the late J. Wayne Johnson, a 1964 U of M alumnus who originated the role. Johnson had the first Tiger costume personally made in 1960 and assumed the mascot role for the next three years. Since those early days, the mascot has evolved from a fearsome jungle cat to the cartoon-like, friendly Pouncer who roams the sidelines at Tiger games.

Each student to wear the Pouncer suit has put his own paw print on the role. For Terez Wilson (BSEd ’08), who portrayed Pouncer from 2005-08, being a mascot was an extension of his high school days in Little Rock. “I was the class clown, voted the most school spirited,” Wilson says. “I was always painting my chest, being loud, getting everybody into the game. People would ask, ‘Why is he cheering so hard?’”

Wanting to reach beyond his hometown for college, he earned scholarships to attend the U of M. But when his scholarships started to run out, Wilson looked for a way to stay in school. He was working in the U of M Admissions Office with then-Pouncer Chris Kourvelas, who suggested Wilson try out for the mascot job. He sat in his room for two days cropping music and prepared an audition based on the song “I’ll Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).”

“I didn’t know there was a full scholarship involved,” Wilson says. “It’s crazy how things work out. I really didn’t want to leave. Pouncer’s what kept me in school.”

His first mascot assignments were at Lady Tiger basketball and volleyball games. He began adding costumes to give Pouncer different personalities, including a basketball jersey, a referee shirt, a football uniform complete with pads, jersey and cleats, and Elvis Presley jumpsuits (blue for basketball, white for football). “I wore the Elvis suit a lot during the NCAA tournament for the TV timeouts. When we’re on ESPN, they’re going to focus on the mascot. I have a video of me in the middle of the Final Four symbol doing a snow angel in a blue Elvis Presley suit.”

There’s a certain code of conduct among mascots, Wilson says. “If this is your house, I’m not going to come and disrespect you by messing with you or trying to pick a fight with you. I kind of let them have their way in their house, and in my house it’s the same way. We have dance-offs, play fighting, but I’ve never been in an altercation with a mascot.”

Wilson, who is now a mulitcultural events marketer at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, always tried to mingle with the youngest fans. “Even if all the adults in the room hate me, the kids are still going to love me. I make sure the kids are happy and having a good time.”

During the Tigers’ 2008 NCAA championship run, Pouncer finished second to the Stanford University tree as favorite mascot. Wilson’s Soulja Boy dance became an overnight youtube.com sensation.

Pouncer was first introduced by J. Wayne Johnson in 1960 and has become one of the top mascots in the country, winning several national mascot competitions. Visit www.memphis.edu/ncaa09/featurestory0320.php for a Web-exclusive story on current Pouncer, Taylor Burnside.
Gil Stovall and family
He recalls one game during the tournament when the mascot wasn’t so popular. “The ref made a horrible call. I put a towel over my eyes and got my blind cane and walked around the court and the whole arena was laughing. The referee got mad at me and told me to get rid of the cane or he would call a technical on my team. I couldn’t have cared less. I was in the suit, I was entertaining, all the schools were laughing. It was about the fans.”

For Wilson, who played baseball in high school and took gymnastics for five years, being Pouncer allowed him to channel his inner athlete. “I feel like I’m the sixth man for basketball, the 12th man for football,” he says. “I can still tumble, but I can’t tumble in the suit because it sits about a foot above my head. I’m an athlete at heart. I love sports. I have so much energy, that’s the only way I can let it out. Pouncer kept me connected to sports.”

Like athletes, mascots can have their share of injuries. At one football game, excited fans were carrying Wilson up the stands in a crowd surfing frenzy. “They dropped me. There was a big thud. I wasn’t hurt, but I knew everybody was going to be laughing at Pouncer,” he remembers. “I jumped up like ‘I’m OK’ and everybody started clapping. I was supposed to fall at least twice a season.”

And how did he deal with the intense heat generated by the costume? “I would tell people I’m on the Pouncer diet,” Wilson laughs. “I’m eating everything and sweating it off.” His advice: Take lots of breaks and drink lots of fluids. “I would take longer breaks for football. I’d take the head off, get some water and get some air, so it wasn’t too bad.”

The suit — which includes a head, two bodies, a pair of feet and a pair of hands — costs about $6,000 and is replaced every two to four years. Wilson would wash the costume after each game and spray the head with a fabric refresher to remove any game-day funk.

For Chris Pegg (BSEd ’93), what began as being Pouncer from 1991-93 turned into a career. He is currently Rockey the Rockin’ Redbird, mascot of the Memphis Redbirds. He’s hammed it up as the Memphis RiverKings’ River Thing, the Memphis Pharaohs’ Mummy, the Memphis Chicks’ Chief Chickasaw and the WMC-TV 5 Snowbird. He even graduated to the major leagues, serving as the Dallas Cowboys’ mascot Rowdy in 1997. Pegg also runs Mascot Central, a company that markets its own mascot for others to use, helps companies design a mascot and provides trained mascots for corporate events.

Unlike Wilson, Pegg considers himself more of an entertainer than an athlete. “I’m a larger guy. I don’t tumble and I don’t flip,” he says. “I love to dance. I’m a big dancer and entertainer of people when some people think a mascot is only for children. If I can make an older person think the character is real for three seconds where they forget it’s a guy in a costume, then I’ve done my job. They break away and go ‘Wow,’ and start thinking the character is real.”

Pegg enjoyed the travel that comes with the job. “Penny Hardaway was playing basketball, so that year we did a lot of traveling. We went to New York, Madison Square Garden and to Maui for the Maui Classic. That was great.”

For part of his tenure, Pegg worked with another mascot, as Pouncer and Bouncer. Bouncer, introduced as a cousin of Pouncer, arrived by plane and was whisked away in a limousine to his first game. One of his favorite memories came at the football game at which tiger cub TOM II was introduced as the live mascot. “Andy Messick (Pegg’s co-mascot) and I were on the field, petting him and everything and TOM II grabbed a hold of Andy’s glove and wouldn’t let go. It was kind of, ‘Oh, little tiger, let go,’ and we started laughing.”

During a football game against rival Ole Miss, mascot Colonel Reb would kick a 60-yard field goal. The routine required him to fill the football with helium and exchange one of his soft costume shoes for a harder shoe. “When he put that hard shoe on, that ball would go flying. Later we started playing around. He forgot to take his hard shoe off and kicked me, and I’m like ‘Owwwww. What in the world did you just kick me with?’ It was a play kick, but it was kind of hard with that loaded shoe. Those things should be staged.”

Alan Ramsey began his mascot career as the Bartlett High School Panther. While at Bartlett, he also took gymnastics with the cheerleading squad. At the U of M, he was Pouncer from 1986-89, starting out at women’s basketball games as a freshman. While the other Pouncer he worked with was tall, the shorter Ramsey used the contrast in height to create his own Pouncer persona: “Baby Pouncer.”

Ramsey’s mother made a tiger-sized diaper, which he covered with large tiger paw stickers. “I went to Spencer’s and got an adult pacifier. It was pink. I cut one side off and put aluminum foil on it so nobody could pull it out.”

As Pouncer, he was one of four finalists for the best college mascot at the College Cheerleading Championships, competing against two other tigers (Missouri and Auburn) and the University of Akron’s “Zippy the Zipper.”

Ramsey enjoyed the playful nature of Baby Pouncer. “At a game against Florida State, there was this tarp we used as a slide. We would run around and slide back down on it. It got a great reaction from the fans,” Ramsey says. “At Florida I was wrestling with an inflatable alligator — pile driving it, giving it a couple of elbows.”

Chris Kourvelas, who wore the Pouncer suit from 2000-05, cheered on the Tigers long before he attended the University of Memphis. “I’ve been a Tiger fan since I was a kid,” he remembers. “My family had Golden Circle tickets. I would sit behind the players and watch the mascot.”

Kourvelas (BPS ’04, MAT ’07) stresses it’s important for a mascot to be aware of what’s happening on the basketball court or the football field — not a simple task when your eyes are at the top of your head like Pouncer’s are. “You have to keep up with what’s happening on court,” he says. “If there’s a good defensive effort, you’ve got to react to it.” In football, he says, “You have to be aware of where the play might be coming. You could get run over.”

One of his most memorable games was the New Orleans Bowl against the University of North Texas. In the fourth quarter, the North Texas Eagle hit Kourvelas in the head. “I drew a line with my foot and said, ‘Come on then.’ The game pretty much stopped. They put us up on the JumboTron. He came up to hit me and I took him down. There was a lot of screaming and yelling.”

He especially liked to make kids smile. While some youngsters can’t wait to get a hug from Pouncer, some are a bit shy, like one young boy who had been watching Kourvelas intently during a game. “His father came up and said, ‘My son wants to meet you.’ I held out my hands to give him a hug. He was literally shaking he was so excited.”

There are certain traditions surrounding Pouncer, Kourvelas says. For example, Pouncer has a specific walk, which Kourvelas passed on to Wilson. “There’s sort of a swagger to it, kind of a bounce. I started a new tradition of players huddling around Pouncer.”

J. Wayne Johnson, the first costumed mascot, was killed in a helicopter crash while serving on special assignment with the Navy in 1967. But those who follow as Pouncer carry on the tradition proudly.

“Some day I can actually watch a video of Pouncer with my kids and say, “That’s your dad jumpin’ up and down, that’s your dad slidin’ on the court,” says Wilson. “So my children will have a lot to look up to. Their dad came to school on hope. He was told he wasn’t supposed to be in college. But I graduated. I was actually a collegiate athlete. I didn’t get to play baseball, but I was the mascot. That counts for a lot.”

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