Fur Real

Mark Poutenis

"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.

"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.

As was the case with Howler, the idea of an oversized furball representing a proud, championship NFL team was underappreciated by Broncos management at first. "Broncos fans are very traditional," Miles says. "Having another distraction is maybe not what they want. But the team is trying to attract a younger demographic." Besides, he adds, "They tell me the cheerleaders weren't received well when they got here, either."

The marketers eventually won out, and two seasons ago, the Broncos held an e-mail contest to name a mascot. The team received 7,000 entries. A few -- "Blow-job" and "Fag," to name just two -- were identified as unworkable. About forty entrants agreed that "Miles" was good enough, and so the name was selected. A Canadian company specializing in mascot manufacturing designed a hydrocephalic-headed horse with an orange tail bursting out of his butt, and Miles was born. He made his debut at the first regular-season Broncos game of 2001.

Mascots are very strict about maintaining the integrity of their characters, insisting that when they are in costume, they be called only by their mascot names. When out of the suit, they speak of their alter egos in the third person and claim that only a handful of their closest friends know their true identity. In short, they are method Muppets.

Twenty-three-year-old Joel Darby is not Miles, so don't even think that he is. He is the Broncos' "mascot coordinator." Before coming to Denver at approximately the same time as Miles, however, he did do some work as Aubie, the tiger-shaped representative of Alabama's Auburn University.

"Aubie was a character that was really well-received," he recalls. "The guys who did him were nutcases. He was arrested a couple of times. The university respected that, though; they knew part of the reason he was so popular was because he did so many wild things. They'd get after him, of course, but usually he only got a slap on the wrist."

The university's casual enforcement policy acknowledged an essential truth about mascots: All of the best ones walk a fine line between fantasy and the real world. Mascots must be entertaining and, generally speaking, harmless. But their real appeal is that they are the fans' evil twin, a slightly psycho team supporter who gets away with things the fan would probably never dare try -- patting a cheerleader's butt, tackling an opposing team's mascot, making insulting faces at the opposition.

At the same time, a mascot can't go too far. A reputation as a wild mascot is good; a reputation as an offensive one tends to get management's attention, which is bad. A couple of years ago, Aubie wore a shirt that read "Aubie 3:16" -- a mockery of the Scripture passage, John 3:16, that Christian fans enjoy displaying for the TV cameras. Many Alabama viewers were appalled by his godlessness. Darby, who may or may not have been Aubie at the time, took full responsibility for the goof-up, offering a public apology.

More recently, in Denver, there was a close call when Miles appeared on a local sports show. Comments were made about the horse mascot being hung like a horse. Beer was spilled. Management was not amused.

The downside to acting like a maniac is that occasionally fans themselves become inspired. And, while being silent has its advantages (mascots never vocalize), showing restraint can be tough. Mascots encounter problems specific to the trade, most of them related to assault. For complicated reasons best understood by teddy-bear stress-testers, lots of otherwise calm, normal, sensitive people -- and, in particular, children -- feel free to kick, punch and otherwise maul a person dressed as a furry animal.

Mascots trade suggestions for effective responses to such molestations like chefs trade recipes. "If I find it's an adult pulling my tail," suggests one mascot on a Web site dedicated to the biz, "I either pull their tucked-in shirt out or give them a wedgie."

"Here's a great comeback/mini-skit I use," another mascot weighs in. "When someone decides to stick their hand down my throat, I retaliate by grabbing their chin and trying without much avail to stick my huge paw down their mouth."  

Miles takes a more cautious approach. "It's best just to walk away," he says. "As soon as you approach a guy, he's gonna beat the crap out of you, because for starters, he's got two good eyes and you don't. [Miles sees out of his mouth; his teeth are made of gauze.] About the only person I could beat up is a kid or a chick, and that wouldn't be good."

And even when mascots have the best intentions, things don't always work out. "You run into stuff -- kids, mostly," Howler explains. "I ran over four kids the other day. I was refereeing a hockey game once, and I just plowed over them 'cause I couldn't even see them."

Generally speaking, a humble mascot will be forgiven most transgressions. Yet it is helpful to keep in mind that what a mascot can get away with is directly related to his popularity. You bust up the stage after your set at the local coffeehouse open-mike night and you're a hooligan. If you're Pete Townshend, though, you're an awesome act.

Same with mascots. "Like Rocky," says Miles. "He can get away with stuff because he's so popular. Like that time during a game, playing musical chairs. He took the kid's chair away and, when [the kid] began to cry, pushed him down. I couldn't get away with that. Not at this point."

It turns out that the "Dinner With the Pros" is slightly misleading. There are legitimate pros at Rock Bottom Brewery -- Chris Henderson of the Rapids, for example. But Courtney Zablocki, the Olympic luger, is -- in theory, anyway -- an amateur. And who knows about Miss Denver, another guest. The bigger-name pros who are in attendance are all formers.

"There's John Elway!" ex-Bronco Reggie Rivers shouts at one point. Everyone turns. "Aaaaah, made you look," he says. "It's actually my mother. They kind of look the same. Both got big teeth."

The celebrities and guests pour in. Miles and Howler, out of costume, sit on the VIP patio and sip water incognito. "Who are you?" a waitress asks -- friendly, but with a slight why-are-you-here edge. "I'm a Bronco," Miles replies. "I play front line." The waitress laughs uncomfortably and walks away.

Unlike Miles and Howler, Rocky travels to gigs with a personal assistant. His name is Scott. Dressed in shirt and tie, he sits down at our table. "We were just in Lithuania," he says casually, adding that the Nuggets' mascot also has gigs in Greece and Turkey lined up in the not-so-distant future.

At some point, the most popular mascots in professional sports find they can step a small distance away from their team's fortunes and grow into their own separate personalities, becoming celebrities in their own right. The Kansas City Chiefs' KC Wolf and the Phoenix Suns' dunking gorilla earn handsome incomes from their gigs. Rocky is close to joining this elite company.

Last year, Rocky signed a contract reportedly worth $150,000 -- not including appearance fees at corporate functions and birthday parties. That's about five times the salaries of Denver's other mascots. (In addition to his van, Miles has managed to negotiate a scooter/advertisement exchange, as well as a Harley rental deal from Blue Sky Motorcycle.) Plus, unlike Denver's lesser mascots, Rocky rarely is burdened with laying his own promotional groundwork.

"He doesn't have to line anything up," Howler says. "They just call him."

"Amazing," says Miles. "Just amazing. Someday, Howler, someday."

The two gaze out into the parking lot, daring Rocky to show. "He'll pull up with sirens going, pumping," Howler predicts.

"I should pull my van right in front of him," Miles adds. After discussing the relative merits of simply blocking Rocky's van versus an actual T-bone-type ramming operation, the two head back to the Miles Mobile to get into costume.

"I'm thinking of wearing my full fur today," Miles says once inside the van. He inspects his giant head. "Are my teeth banged up? People hit you all the time. But," he adds, pointing to a slight red smudge on the horse's long nose, "see that? That's lipstick. Nice, huh?"

Howler pulls out his snowman head and begins brushing the white tangle of hair. "Hey," says Miles. "Let me borrow the brush."

Outside the van, Rocky bounces by, tailed by Scott. He bestows high fives on everyone he passes.

The change takes about ten minutes. Miles and Howler give their costumes a last-minute once-over. "Let's go, donkey," Howler says, and the mascots pile out of the van.  

The two immediately fall into character. Howler starts walking in a side-to-side, dum-de-dum goofball strut. Miles does what he calls a "wet-noodle" walk, a sort of butt-out-chest-up pimp stroll inspired by George Jefferson, wisecracking patriarch of the 1970s sitcom The Jeffersons.

The two split up to work the room. Miles walks into the brewery first, heading immediately for a group of kids, mussing their hair, gathering them into a hug. Howler takes a detour to the waitress station, delivering hugs and hairy kisses to each of the young women.

"Thanks!" one of them says. "Will you sign my shirt?" Howler massages her back and shoulders. Miles begins striking his standard pose -- left arm crooked, thumb up, right arm around whomever -- for photo ops.

Rocky strides around on the opposite side of the party; the mascots seldom cross paths. He pats everyone he passes on the shoulder, working the crowd. Every so often, he leaps up on a wall or table, then jumps down. (Miles and Howler stay earthbound.) He pinches the butt of a former Bronco. Scott follows at a respectful, invisible distance, holding photos for autograph opportunities. "Go out on the [VIP] porch," he directs Rocky at one point, sotto voce.

At 5 p.m., after working the crowd for exactly thirty minutes, Rocky and Scott bolt. Miles and Howler continue to circulate until, about ten minutes later, Howler sidles up next to me. "The keys," he says in a strained voice, and I hand them over. Back in the van, he quickly strips down and rubs his back; bending down to interact with some kids, he was hit with a muscle spasm -- another autograph-related injury.

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