Fur Real

Rocky remains top dog -- or whatever -- as other mascots snap for scraps.

"This is Howler," Miles says. "He's gonna ride down with us. Dinger's got a game today, but Rocky will be there."

We head south in the Miles Mobile. The 2002 GMC Van -- donated by John Elway, natch -- is brightly painted, festooned with advertising. Pictures of an aggressive but grinning two-legged cartoon bronco bursts out of the side. It has tinted windows and a built-in television with video-game capability. There's a bench seat in the back. The captain's chairs have been removed so that there's plenty of room to change from street clothes into, say, a stallion outfit.

In short, a sweet ride for a Muppet. Even an NFL one like Miles, the Broncos' recently minted mascot.

Mark Poutenis

"Do you have a van?" I ask Howler.

"I'm workin' on it," he says, frantically fingering the video game.

Howler, who appears to be a non-threatening snowman with extremely poor dental hygiene, bills himself as the "Fastest Mascot in the NHL." But even with the impressive handle, getting official wheels has been a chore. Avalanche GM Pierre LaCroix, he says, "originally hated Howler. When I first came, they would only let me out on the concourse. Of course, the old Howler had got in some trouble, which was bad. He got into a fight with a Chicago fan. Just about killed him. The media was all over it."

Now, after having proved himself a dependable pacifist and generally wholesome representative of the defending Stanley Cup champs, the wild-haired snowman is permitted to go just about anywhere in the Pepsi Center -- although the nature of the job is somewhat self-limiting. "It's hard to get in the bowl and be mobile and show what you can do," he says.

Miles nods. "That's why Rocky is so successful," the horse says of the Denver Nuggets' mascot. "He's so visible." He pauses. "Of all the mascots," he adds sympathetically, "Howler's got the hardest job."

"People and the media are always saying that Rocky is the best," Howler notes. "But they don't see the positive. Like during the All-Star Game this year -- we had a mascot game, and I scored two goals. I mean, a lot of the NHL mascots are just learning to skate."

Still, both have no illusions; they know the towering presence they're up against. "In this town, Rocky's got it pretty tapped," Miles says. "It's an uphill battle against him. He's always gonna be above and beyond because of what he is. He's the lifeblood of the team. He's as important as any one of those players."

When life inside a claustrophobic monkey suit -- or Yeti, or horse, or whatever it is that Dinger is -- climbs to 130 degrees and some freaked kid is running at your kneecaps, however, it's helpful to remember the perks of dressing up as a life-sized stuffy. "For some reason," Howler says, "chicks dig mascots. It's the teddy-bear syndrome, I guess."

"Every character I've ever done, it's like that," Miles adds. "Chicks are attracted to big, furry objects. Of course, there's often a big disappointment when the costume comes off. I guess they're looking for a football player underneath or something."

Not always, though. "There was the time with the stripper," Howler remembers. "She was trying to take me in the stairwell. She was like, 'How do I get these pants off?' I said no."

Most NFL teams have mascots these days. Those that do not are generally the more tradition-bound clubs -- the ones that believe that football is football and Muppets are Muppets, and never the twain shall meet. The Raiders are mascot-less. Green Bay, too, has never hired a mascot. (Perhaps management is unclear as to what critter might represent a team called the Packers. "A butcher," Miles suggests. "Jumping around with a big bloody knife.")

Still, enough teams have mascots that the sports furbies have procured that universal sign of arrival: their own annual convention. The NFL mascots' gathering was held recently in New York. One topic: How to connect with 75,000 fans when to the majority of them, you are literally a fuzzy speck on the side of the field. "Nobody had any answers," Miles says, "so we gave up."

Miles's game-day job, of course, is to jump around during the competition and entertain fans -- at least those who can see him. Most mascots have a handful of signature moves or skits, which they freely swipe from other mascots. "Half of our ideas come from cartoons," Miles admits. "I got a bunch of friends from around the league, that's all they'll do all day -- sit around and watch cartoons, getting ideas."

But acting goofy on the field is not a mascot's mission. More than simply a furry cheerleader, a mascot is an important third-tier representative of the team, a sort of deputy assistant undersecretary of state, dispatched to community functions at which a team presence is demanded -- but which players, coaches, even cheerleaders, can't seem to make.

Today's gig is at Rock Bottom Brewery. Billed as "Dinner With the Pros," it's a charity event to raise money for the Denver Rescue Mission. Miles and Howler's big entrance is delayed while they get lost driving around Park Meadows, cruising a handful of packed parking lots before eventually landing in the right spot. After only nine months of living in Denver, Miles is still finding his way around.

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