The Devil To Play

Writer: 
August 1, 2004
Devil’s delight: dancing at fund-raising celebration

 Devil’s delight: dancing at fund-raising celebration. Photo: Les Todd

 

You're on the beach, and you've just realized you're naked!" This was among the scenarios given to each of the seven contestants--six men and one woman--in the mascot tryouts held in the dance studio of the Wilson Recreation Center in April. The first would-be Blue Devil to try out--in shoulder pads and the Blue Devil head--was Ben Wolinsky, a junior.

Wolinsky had been Eddie the Eagle in high school and Mr. Goodbear at a children's hospital in Winnipeg, his hometown, and the experience showed. Wolinsky was a crafty devil. Upon finding himself in the nude, he covered his crotch with both hands, crouched down, and scurried across the room. Then he stopped. He looked around. And slowly he straightened.

Wolinsky's beach, he decided, was a nude beach! Yes, French or Italian, it appeared. And suddenly, Wolinsky was at ease. Indeed, a survey of the land (hand above the eyes to block the sunlight) revealed that Wolinsky was not the only naked person around. His enormous horned head, devilishly grinning and eternally wide-eyed, turned to gaze at beautiful nudes walking past him in the sand.

While Wolinsky played Blue Devil, the Mascot Evaluation Committee, an assortment of cheerleaders, veteran mascots, and cheerleading coach Teresa Ward, played Cameron Crazies, prompting and reacting and, at the sight of Wolinsky, bursting into laughter. Naked as the day he was born, he arched his back proudly, put his hands behind his head, and strutted off.

Since mascot tryouts don't happen every year (usually every two or three years, whenever a Blue Devil graduates), they have something of a World Cup quality to them, a special significance bestowed by their rarity. When tryouts do happen, they attract some of the best improvisers on campus, students with oversized mascot rÈsumÈs and a passion for pleasing crowds. Just as many Duke students were valedictorians and top musicians and star athletes at their high schools, others were the War Eagles and Panthers and Kangaroos cheering them on, the furry embodiment of school spirit known to all and, yet, to no one.

"On the one hand, you're the center of attention. You're alone on the stage. You feel like everybody is looking at you," says Charlie Suwankosai, a sophomore from Texas, who was a mascot in high school and tried out for the Blue Devil. "But at the same time, you're anonymous, so you can do anything you want. You could, like, high-five Nan or something." Suwankosai is small in stature, five feet four or so, and speaks with a resigned softness, as though he expects you to interrupt and wouldn't mind much if you did. But Suwankosai is drawn to the loud and expressive.

In high school, he played the trombone with its big slide and heroic sound that magnified his voice (he plays at Duke, too). In his senior year, Suwankosai became the Elkins High Knight, defender of the "Castle of Champions."

Suwankosai, it turned out, was a natural Knight. He did so well, in fact, that at the National Cheerleading Association Tournament in Houston, where he mimed baking cookies laced with "Knight spirit," he placed fourth overall. Afterwards, the Baylor Bear approached him--not menacingly but with an offer. The bear was the N.C.A. head mascot, and he asked Suwankosai to coach high-school mascots at the N.C.A. camp.

Suwankosai has taught mascot camp every summer since. He teaches big gestures (place hands over ears and twist torso for "disbelief") and little tricks (make the facial expressions inside the head; it actually helps you convey them outside). The first thing any mascot--animal, object, or other--learns, he says, is silence. "Never, ever talk. That's the golden rule." The rule doesn't just apply to talking. A mascot cannot make any noise at all, no matter what the occasion.

Before the Blue Devil tryouts, judges warned contestants about the golden rule. "No talking inside the head," said Mac Conforti, a junior mascot, who was calling out the scenarios. But when it started, Conforti applied the pressure, yelling out things that would make almost anyone cry out in ecstasy. "Blue Devil," he shouted, "J.J. Redick just set a new school record for three-pointers!" Passersby on a walking tour of campus pressed amused faces up against the glass. Fortunately, though, no children witnessed the event. "Children get kinda' freaked out when they see the Blue Devil without his head on," says Conforti.

When the head isn't being occupied, it's carried in a gray felt drum case. It weighs ten pounds, and is made mostly of fiberglass and foam. Looking at it, you would probably never guess that it's almost thirty years old, and that's because every couple of years it gets sent back to the shop in Cincinnati that made it (StageCraft Inc.) for a nose job or a new ear or a fuller goatee.

At the end of the day, the head had a new brain. The winner was later notified by e-mail. But his (or her) name would not be re-vealed in public. "No names," said Ward, the cheerleading coach. "The Blue Devil is the Blue Devil."