Mascots perform in sweltering suits just to see the smiles on Jayhawk fans' faces.
It's not easy being a Jay -- it's hot, sweaty work under the smiling bird's head.
"It's like wearing a fur coat in the summer," said Le-Thu Tuttle, the Kansas University mascot coach.
But the men and women inside the Big Jay and Baby Jay costumes say the reactions from fans make it bearable.
"I just love little kids running up to you," said Josh Cox, a Big Jay. "They'll run up to you with a big grin."
Six KU students trade off filling the shoes of KU's Big Jay and Baby Jay. They work long hours, sometimes 20 hours a week, to root for the Jayhawks at sporting events and to cover the 250 outside appearances a year the mascots make at events like weddings and birthday parties.
The students don't get paid for their appearances at sporting events, but they do get a stipend for outside appearances.
Becoming a mascot
Mascots, all full-time KU students, go through tryouts in the spring. They perform impromptu skits, learn the Rock Chalk chant and perform some basic stunts. Tuttle said that along with some degree of physical fitness, she looks for expressive movements and a certain height.
To be Baby Jay, a person can be no taller than 5-foot-2; Big Jays need to be between 5-foot-11 and 6-foot-2. Most Baby Jays are women and Big Jays are men because of the height limitations of the costumes.
The costumes are bulky and heavy: Baby Jay's costume weighs between 15 and 20 pounds, while Big Jay's duds and head weigh 25 to 30 pounds.
"The suit is kind of like a 30-pound carpet hanging on you," Big Jay Brian Carpenter said.
Once chosen as a mascot, students go to camp to learn how to be good Jays.
"You can be a mascot and be shy, but once you're in that suit" it's a different matter, Tuttle said.
There is also a certain etiquette to be followed.
"Birds don't talk," Tuttle said.
Mascots also don't show any skin and they don't get out of costume in public. During a hot basketball or football game, the Jays sneak off to take breaks.
For Carpenter, that can mean ducking into a concession stand or even an Allen Fieldhouse broom closet. Once out of the public's view, he takes Big Jay's head off and guzzles water.
"I cramp up if I haven't been drinking enough water during the game," he said.
Wearing the costume, it's easy to dehydrate. There is no way to avoid sweating at a basketball or football game for the Jays, they say.
"I've heard of people losing 5 to 10 pounds during a game," Cox said. "I just hope someone opens the door (of Allen Fieldhouse) once in a while and I stick my beak into the breeze."
Making it memorable
Carpenter said he always wanted to be a mascot.
"When I was a little kid ... we went to a Royals game and the San Diego Chicken played with my sister's pigtails," he said.
His mother still tells the story of that experience, and that inspires Carpenter.
"Every time I go out on the court, I try and make it a story for someone," he said.
The birds' antics include rubbing people's heads with their wings, tickling children and shaking hands. The Jays also gets lots of hugs, "and it's not just from kids," Carpenter said.
Cox says he likes to direct the band and joke with the cheerleaders.
Carpenter says he finds his "gags" through trial and error.
"It's if it's funny, I keep doing it," he said. "... You kind of have to be a little goofy. ... I can even just go up in front of someone and stare at them and they'll start laughing."
While Big Jay has to act tough, Baby Jay gets to have more fun, Baby Jay Tabby Anderson said.
"We can hide behind Big Jay, act frightened, act bashful, act flattered," she said. Because the costume is more maneuverable, she even does some cartwheels.
Behind the head
It's hard to tell who is who in costume; only little character quirks like their walks give them away to those who know them well. The anonymity gives the mascots freedom.
"It's just a lot easier to be silly," Anderson said. "It's Halloween, but we do it all year long."
Big Jay and Baby Jay get to be silly together, but they also tangle with other mascots, particularly at football games.
Cox said he had a run in with Iowa State's mascot. It bonked him on the beak, so he chased after it.
"It's not like we're the most graceful creatures in the world when we're trying to run," he said.
Eventually, the Iowa State dance squad grabbed him and ran him into the goal post.
"My yell leaders came and saved me," he said.
While it is mostly fun and games, Tuttle said some antics leave the students bruised and sore. Wearing the Jays' heads leaves many necks sore.
After a game is finished, most of the people inside the birds want the same thing -- a shower.
"I'm nasty. Every part of me smells," Cox said.
For Anderson, the post-game need is simple: She just wants fresh air.
"It takes a little getting used to, after you take the suit off," Cox said.
Out of costume, the Jays go from being the beloved icons of thousands to college students in sweat-soaked clothes. Cox said that as he walks out of the Allen Fieldhouse, he feels strange -- no children run up to him. But the sweaty hours are worth it.
"Just the opportunity to be on the basketball court during a game. ... We get to be in the middle of that," Cox said.
The mascot squad also includes Big Jay Mark McLean, Baby Jay Mandy Pitler, and Baby Jay Lori Bachtel.
Any students interested in spring tryouts can call the KU Spirit Squad Office at (785) 864-3002.
-- Felicia Haynes' phone message number is 832-7173. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.