Tami Payne says flying through the air dressed as Baby Jay at Kansas University is better than tumbling as Miss Kitty for the Barton County Community College Cougars.
The Baby Jay costume improves the view, she said, "and it's a lot more exciting."
Payne, one of three KU students who take turns as the Baby Jay mascot for KU basketball and football games, is the first Baby Jay in the school's history to tumble and become airborne with the cheerleading squad.
"I started tumbling when I was 5 . . . and I've learned to tumble blindfolded, so it's not too hard," she said.
Payne, a KU junior from Topeka, was tumbling as a cougar mascot for Barton County Community College in Great Bend last year when she was spotted by KU Spirit Squad coordinator Elaine Brady during a national competition in Dallas.
"We always wanted to have a Baby Jay that could tumble, but none of them were tumblers," Brady said. "When I saw Tami, I tried to get her to come to KU."
SHE DID, and KU's Big Jay mascot now has a tumbling sidekick.
Through tryouts in the spring, three men usually are chosen from 10 to 15 applicants to don the large Jayhawk costume. Those costumes, weighing about 35 pounds, are heavier than the Baby Jay costumes and are made for taller people, Brady said.
Three women usually are chosen from about 25 applicants at tryouts to be Baby Jay mascots, she said.
One Big Jay and a Baby Jay appear at each game, with the men and women taking turns with mascot duty.
As the first tumbling Baby Jay, Payne said she had to modify the mascot's costume, which weighs about 15 pounds.
"I had to take out all the wiring on the inside . . . and take out some of the padding," she said. "The suit has a lot more mobility."
IN ADDITION, instead of small boots worn by the other Baby Jays, Payne wears blue tennis shoes better footwear for flipping and tumbling.
During halftime or timeouts at basketball games, Payne is tossed in the air by four male cheerleaders in a "basket toss."
"I do a full, twisting layout," she said.
Payne, a 20-year-old business communications major, says she thinks the tumbling has been a crowd-pleaser.
"It was really hard at first because I wasn't sure how the alumni and the audience would respond (to a tumbling Baby Jay) they're so set in tradition," she said.
"But people were real responsive to it."
Payne, who is 5-foot-3, says her view of the action comes through the costume's eyes and beak.
"THE HARDEST part is watching out for the kids and watching for Big Jay," after being tossed in the air and landing, she said. "You just have to make sure everybody's out of the way."
Payne practices several hours a week with the KU cheerleading squad, and she went with the squad to Dallas this month for the National Cheerleading Assn. collegiate championships. The the team placed fifth.
Along with Payne, this year's other Baby Jays are Laura Paige, 21, Topeka; and Kimberly Matthews, 20, Salina.
DAVID PLATT, director of Joseph R. Pearson residence hall, is the Baby Jays' coach. He said he has weekly meetings with them to discuss their performances at games and to plan for upcoming appearances.
"The main thing Elaine (Brady) and I encourage them to do is be as visible as possible and to be as animated as possible," said Platt, who was a Big Jay mascot from 1985 to 1988.
"We want the Baby Jay to be moving around a lot . . . and doing the things a kid would do because it's supposed to be a child."
Platt said the Baby Jays are developing a skit that will be performed during the halftime show of KU's game with Kansas State University on Feb. 3 in Lawrence.
Paige, a senior majoring in graphic design and art history, said this is her second year as Baby Jay.
"I just always thought the Baby Jay was really cute," she said.
AS PART of the "normal" Baby Jay duties, all three women make special appearances, and spend time signing autographs and having their pictures taken with children.
"I think it's hard when (young) kids are afraid of you and the parents want the kids to like you," Paige said. "You have to try to be nice without scaring the kids or making the parents mad," she said.
Matthews said fans and mascots of opposing teams who "push the Baby Jay around" sometimes forget that there's a person inside the outfit.
"Sometimes I have kids that get a little rough," she said, adding that children will sometimes run and tackle her while attempting to give a big hug to Baby Jay. "I just have to tell them, `No, don't hurt Baby Jay,'" she said.
Matthews, a senior, said she became interested in becoming a Baby Jay while she was a member of the KU marching band last year.
"I was watching the (football) games, but I got bored and started watching the Baby Jay," Matthews said. "I think the Jayhawks (mascots) represent everything about KU, all wrapped up into one thing."