Me and Otto

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It was about 8:00 p.m. on a chilly March night in Syracuse. If you’ve never been to Central New York, let me tell you: Even for a townie like me — it was cold. The kind of cold that makes you scrunch up while you’re walking down the street, trying to remember what your toes feel like.

It was the kind of night you would normally stay in, but everyone was outside. Something big had happened. The entire city was going absolutely insane.

And that meant it was time for work.

The Syracuse men’s basketball team had just completed the greatest comeback in program history, shocking top-seeded Virginia to advance to the Final Four. This happened right after the women’s team had also advanced to the Final Four with a victory over Tennessee. We were Cinderella City.

As soon as the game ended, I suited up and ran to Marshall Street, where there are bars, restaurants and that night, thousands of crazy Orange fans.

I sprinted down the street, stopping cars and doing somersaults. I started spinning, jumping, clapping, rolling around, absolutely losing my mind in the pitch-black night. Everyone was celebrating and I was the life of the party.

About 12 girls pulled out their camera phones and tried to take pictures with me, but they would have to wait. I was preoccupied with a couple of big drunk guys who had me sandwiched in a group hug. They were screaming, the girls were screaming, everyone on the street was screaming — except for me. I had to stay silent. Always silent.

And everywhere I went I would hear the same excited scream. The kind you might only hear from a kid who just got exactly what he wanted for Christmas.

“Oh my God, it’s Otto!”

Just another day at the office.

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This will probably come as a surprise to most people I know at Syracuse, but for the past three years I’ve been hiding something from you. You see, I’ve had a pretty specific extracurricular activity on campus.

It had to stay a secret the whole time. I even hung out with a bunch of you while I was doing it — you just didn’t realize it. But now that I’ve wrapped up my last full semester on campus, there’s something I can finally tell you.

You know Otto the Orange?

That was me.

***

Happy birthday, dear Grandma,

Happy birthday to you!

On the night three years ago that my grandma turned 80, our whole family gathered in my house to celebrate. It was a good night. I had great people to hang out with and a lot of cake.

It was my first semester at Syracuse University. I was a commuter student that year. I shared a minivan with my parents (who both work at SU) and was usually back at my childhood house by 8 p.m. every night.

If you don’t know from experience, commuting to college kind of sucks. Sure you save a lot of cash, but you’re also kind of an outsider on campus. (I also happened to be going through a Nirvana phase, which didn’t help — but I digress.)

I’d never been a mascot before — I’d never considered being a mascot before — but this wasn’t about just being a mascot.

At the time, I was looking for my place at school. I needed to find a place to belong.

Let me back up a bit further. I’ve never been very into school spirit. You’d never see me shirtless at a sporting event with my face painted, howling, “DEFENSE!” But I did have two interests that I was passionate about — music and hockey. So I decided to try to pursue those things at SU.

But someone on work-study at the ice rink told me the wrong dates for hockey tryouts, so not long after I started school, that was off the table. 

Sometime though, life comes screaming by you on a two-wheeled hunk of metal and changes everything.

The same week I found out I’d missed out on hockey tryouts, I was walking on campus and nearly gotten plowed over by a scooter-mounted Otto the Orange. I was kind of shook up, but as he sped by I noticed a sign on his back recruiting students to become Otto.

I don’t know why, but the idea just kind of intrigued me. I’d never been a mascot before — I’d never considered being a mascot before — but this wasn’t about just being a mascot. This was about becoming a Syracuse icon. A figure I’d known about my entire life. For a kid who was kind of lost and trying to find his place, that seemed pretty cool.

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I used the information on Otto’s back to inquire about signing up and that led to an invitation to a secret meeting — on the same night as pep band tryouts. I actually walked to the steps of the Dome to try out for the pep band. It seemed like the more sensible option in a lot of ways. But as soon as I got there, I turned back. I decided to try something new and went to the mascot meeting instead. Good decision.

Trying out for the team was a long process. Prospects were vetted and reduced to a select few by the coach, alumni and the current mascots. The last part of the tryout was putting on the suit to see how it looks. It’s always a tough choice. People can be too tall or too small, and that’s all it takes for us to have to be cut. When I tried on the suit for the first time, it fit right — but it also felt right. Whether I was right was out of my hands.

So after a secret meeting, an interview and a tryout, I was sitting in my house surrounded by my whole family. My grandma had just cut her birthday cake when the doorbell rang.

I got up to walk to the door and … Oh, my God. It was Otto the Orange.

It was a Friday night and we were 20 minutes from campus. But standing there in all his Orange glory, with my whole family looking on, was Otto, and he was holding a card that said simply, YOU’RE IN.

For me? Get. Out.

I had two minutes to pack my bags for a team orientation weekend (while Otto took pictures with my family, of course) and then off we went.

***

The people who find this job in college often stumbled upon it. And for one reason or another it ends up taking hold of them. One reason is the ability to bring joy to people while doing something that unites everybody regardless of race, class or gender. But it’s also the fact that dancing around in suit keeps you young at a time when every class you take implores you that it’s time to grow up. And in a simpler sense, people are just plain happier to see you. That’s pretty great.

It’s funny how little I remember from actually being in suit. My teammates and I all fully commit to the character. I know we aren’t alone in that, anyone who’s ever been a mascot can probably relate. We really become Otto. Sometimes I would catch myself and remember who I was and what I was doing, but those moments were few and far between.

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I was at home in Syracuse during winter break of my sophomore year, and I was pretty bored. I was also pissed about still living at home — and about studying for a degree that I was unsure about. 

So I helped set up an appearance for Otto the Orange at a local children’s hospital. The librarian went all out and bought a bunch of Otto’s ABC’s books and basketballs for the kids, which Otto signed after hanging out with them.

As I mimed through an ABC book, I look around at all those kids and families dealing with what life had thrown at them. Little kids in hospital beds who could barely move. Cancer patients. Families that were broken by what was happening to them. But at that moment, they were smiling. For me, it was incredibly heartbreaking and powerful at the same time.

I’ll never forget when I gave a little girl there a basketball and a book. I was feeling pretty good about myself, right? Otto was on his game.

Then she said, in the saddest, most fighting-to-be-happy voice you ever could ever imagine: “At least we have something that wasn’t destroyed in the fire.” I realized that she was a burn victim, and that she was there with her other sisters and parents. They had lost everything. She couldn’t have been older than six, and this is what life had done to her, and she was trying her best to be happy.

I never expected to have an epiphany while I was drenched in sweat, wearing beat up Nikes and dressed as a giant fruit — but I did. Life hit me like a sack full of bricks.

She was going strong and doing the best with what she had. All the kids in that place were. How could I not try to do the same? And with a smile on my face? I wouldn’t have realized this without Otto. It was a turning point in my life. I’ll remember that forever.

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There is a lot more to this job than just wearing the suit. They don’t just hand you the keys to Otto’s scooter and let you go. A lot of work goes into this.

Mascot teams do a lot of work behind the scenes. Everyone on our squad is considered a student-athlete, albeit a secret one. We worked out several times a week together. We had team meetings to plan Otto’s appearances. We planned our social media strategy, and we trained everyone in the character.

Outside of football and basketball games, we attended a large majority of the rest of the on-campus games for the other teams at Syracuse. And that was on top of all of our community and charity appearances — which was also on top of all the corporate and private events (weddings and parties) that we did.

I remember one February having 40 appearances in 28 days, and man were we tired after that. Generally Otto clocks in around 300 apperances a year, which is a number that gets bigger every year. Thank God for my teammates.

We would drive all over Central New York (and sometimes well beyond), to bring Otto to people who wanted to meet him. It took away from time we could have been spending with our friends, our homework, our significant others, and anything else. You were wearing a suit that probably six other people had sweated in that week. And nobody was allowed to know what you were doing. It was a secret. If word got out, you were off the squad.

Keeping that secret could be tough because some fans really wanted to know who the mascot was. And I’m not just talking about someone’s grandma grabbing you suggestively in the stands to figure out if you’re a boy or girl (which happens).

We lie a lot, but it’s only to preserve our job.

I’m talking about your friends. That kid you know from math class? She’s in the marching band and saw you walking into the players tunnel in the third quarter. She’s going to ask you about that — guaranteed. You can lie, but if people aren’t convinced they won’t let it go, and that can put your whole mascot career in jeopardy.

I’ve gone entire five-day trips hiding my face from the pep band. Sunglasses on, hood up, head down, looking the other way. Whether they knew who I was or not, I sure wasn’t giving them the opportunity to ask. They don’t get to know what I do, because they don’t need to. Everyone you tell a secret to generally wants to tell at least one other person. I tried really hard not to go down that road.

On top of all of this, I had four roommates at the time, and none of them knew what I was up to (and won’t until they read this). I always told them I was going to work a p.r. event.

We lie a lot, but it’s only to preserve our job. I usually told people I worked for the dome, or for the athletic department. It’s like working on footwork for us, just another skill we need to do our job.

We aren’t alone in this. I know most college mascots across the country do the same. And honestly, the secrecy is probably my favorite part of the whole deal. It keeps it pure. 

Otto is bigger than us. When Otto airplanes across the quad, people aren’t supposed to think of someone they know. They’re supposed to think of Otto, and all the orange happiness that comes with him. If they thought about me or any of my teammates, it would take away from the years of tradition put in by the people who played Otto before we did, and the amount of work they put into developing him into the iconic figure he is today. That’s what being the mascot is about.

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It was 10 o’clock on a rainy, cold, Syracuse night last spring, and I had just driven with my coach over to the Carrier Dome from my last team meeting. They turned on a small portion of lights for us in the corner of one end zone, where Otto usually cheers on the team during football games.

That night I threw on a suit, demonstrated some moves to the new kids trying out for the team, and then I said goodbye to my coach before changing back into my street clothes. Before leaving the dome, I decided to go back out onto the field one last time. The lights were still on, but just a few of them.

In that moment, I had visions of my memories as Otto. I saw ghosts of all my former selves. It was my own field of dreams. Cheesy, I know. But there they were, those precious memories, all rushing back to me.

I thought back to when my mom took my picture in front of the scoreboard on accepted students day. She was so proud. I looked up to where I sat in the upper deck with my dad in sixth grade during basketball games.

I felt like the luckiest guy in Syracuse.

I saw me blowing the touchdown horn in the end zone, and running the flag to the center of the field before we played LSU in front of a packed house. And over to the left, there I went with my hood up, shyly waving to my spirit friends (incredible cheerleaders and dancers) before I had to hide from all the kids in the band. The first girl I ever dated (way back in the eighth grade!) was the drum major this year. That took some serious hiding.

Then I went back to when I got kicked off the team my freshman year and was told I had to find myself. And then to when I made my return the year after, after taking a journey to find out who I really was, and what I was really about. To when I had a confrontation with my coach and realized that I had to be a better team player.

I went back to senior night, and visiting with my family after the game. They were so happy. Back to the upperclassmen who took care of me when I had no idea what to do in or out of the suit. Back to when I was a freshman, trying Otto on for the first time, when I wore really thick jeans and couldn’t change out of them and had to run around with my legs wrapped up like the Michelin Man.

Looking back on everything I had experienced and how much I’d grown, I felt like the luckiest guy in Syracuse.

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Mascots have to be willing to accept a lack of recognition, crazy hours and the smell of a three-year old suit that 10 people have worn before them because they wanted to bust a move in front of 60,000 fans on a Saturday afternoon. To us, taking a picture and making a kid’s day was the goal. And the best part was that once an appearance ended, we went right back to being Peter Parker.

During my time with Otto, I grew in ways I never would’ve expected. I got to make people smile, cheer and laugh. I got to embody the spirit of the place I’ve spent most of my life. But the best part was that I got to see how much I could make a difference in the lives of others, by making a difference in how I looked at life myself. And now that I’m finally moving on from Syracuse, I realize that I don’t need a suit anymore to keep doing just that.

That’s what I learned from Otto.

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The Syracuse 8

In the late 1960s, a group of student-athletes sacrificed their college and future pro careers by speaking out against a system of racial discrimination on the Syracuse University football team. They came to be called the "Syracuse 8."

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