Her oversized maroon bow fluttering, a girl hardly older than 5 hustled down the bleachers at TCF Bank Stadium. At the end of the steps, Goldy Gopher reduced her to fairylike giggles with a tap on the nose.
Moments later, zooming down the end zone on a scooter, the high-fiving, fist-bumping mascot commanded the attention of the rowdy student section.
At the University of Minnesota homecoming football face-off, the larger-than-life gopher spent nearly all of the game’s 191 minutes entertaining the crowd and its individual members — a high-octane activity reflective of what it takes to be one of the nation’s best mascots.
“The general public does not understand the hours that go into it,” said Adam DeVault, a mascot instructor at Universal Cheerleaders Association. “It is a full-time job being a college mascot at a big-time university. You are everywhere.”
A select crew of University students covers around 500 annual Goldy appearances. Despite the strenuous workload of events and behind-the-scenes preparation, those who wear the suit reject personal recognition. Since 1952, a long line of energetic entertainers has promised anonymity to create the image of one real and perpetually grinning bucktoothed gopher.
“Goldy is the mashup of all the personalities that hundreds of people have brought to him,” said Clint Schaff, who served as Goldy from 1996 to 1997. “Goldy is the star of this thing — not any of us.”
Walking the talkless walk
To maintain the mascot’s charm, the students who play his role exercise regularly, spend hours mastering the ins and outs of crowd interaction and practice Goldy’s mannerisms to the point of uniformity.
“The reason you train so much to be Goldy is that he’s Goldy,” said Taylor Hannah, now in his fourth year as the University’s mascot coach. “He’s so much bigger than any one of us. He was here before us; he’s been here for a while, and he’ll be there long after I’m gone.”
Hannah said that during the three-day, school-wide audition process each spring, he scouts for improvisation and miming skills and athleticism among the typical turnout of 12 to 20 candidates vying for a gopher suit.
Those who make the cut attend three-hour practices twice a week and spend an additional five to 10 hours a week building props like giant keys or — when facing the school’s perennial rival Wisconsin — a cheese grater.
DeVault, the Universal Cheerleaders Association instructor, said the University of Minnesota stands among a minority of colleges that keeps up the task of outfitting its mascots beyond a team jersey.
“The better mascots do make props for every game,” DeVault said. “It’s not a necessity, but it’s what separates a great mascot from a good mascot.”
Hannah said each Goldy practice consists of improvisation exercises such as charades and physical activities like push-ups and jogging.
The job’s physical demands also require withstanding intense heat. With the helmet on, the students playing Goldy deal with an added 40 degrees.
“Sometimes you’d go around on the Segway thing in the middle of winter, and you’re still sweating buckets because it’s so warm and there’s no breathing room,” said Jack, who played Goldy in 2011 and 2012 and requested a changed name to honor the anonymous nature of the job.
Each summer, student mascots learn about staying hydrated — along with skit creation, conference regulations and mascot expectations — at one of the nation’s largest mascot training camps.
About 80 students travel to Wisconsin for the dayslong convention hosted by the Universal Cheerleaders Association.
There, mascots also master their characters’ demeanor, a crucial element for schools with multiple student actors, DeVault said.
For University of Minnesota actors, that means strutting so they can feel the costume’s tail slapping against their back, Jack said.
“You had to have a certain bounce in your step,” he said. “As long as you have the walk down, people understand, ‘Oh, it’s Goldy.’”
The students bond over the hours of work and anonymity required to maintain the illusion of a single Goldy, Jack said.
“There really is a camaraderie among everyone because this is something that only you know about and only you have gotten to do, and there are very few of you,” Jack said. “There is this incentive that everyone puts in an insane amount of work to make it as good as it can be.”
Decades of antics
In 1952, an assistant bandmaster for the University’s marching band purchased a gopher suit and assigned clarinetist Jim Anderson to put it on. That football season marked the first live appearance of Goldy Gopher.
Milton Bix, the school’s second mascot, paid $110 for an upgraded suit that he wore in 1954 and 1955.
“It was very informal. I did it because I was asked to do it,” Bix said. “They made me do that to keep me out of trouble.”
Bix channeled his troublemaking spirit into his character, climbing goal posts and running alongside the drum major. He said his instructions were simple: “Don’t embarrass the University.”
Over decades, students have cultivated and maintained a persona for Goldy that pushes the limits of crowd entertainment while also making time to play peek-a-boo and sign autographs.
“I used to do a lot of dancing out in the field, and the crowds got a big kick out of that,” Bix said.
A single band student played the role of Goldy each year until 1990, though other band members occasionally helped cover the character’s increasingly busy schedule.
“Nobody ever turned down the chance to be Goldy,” said Kristin Lyerly, who occupied the furry suit in 1989 and 1990. She said the previous Goldy would train in the successor each year.
“It was just a very private thing of honor,” Lyerly said.
In 1990, Gopher athletics took over the endeavor and held school-wide auditions for the first time. Five years later, the department hired its first mascot coach.
In the meantime, from about 1992 to 2005, University Relations purchased its own suit and hired students to appear as Goldy at nonathletic events.
During that time, the athletics department continued to host try-outs for its longstanding, anonymous prankster.
Quick thinking has become an enduring requirement for Goldy, who has to juggle challenges like frightened children and obnoxious drunk adults, several former mascots said.
After the homecoming football game, a toddler’s drawing proclaiming her love for the furry character joined a bulletin board covered with pictures, photos and notes to Goldy, Hannah said.
“You meet so many great people, even when they don’t know who you are. You brighten their day, and they brighten yours,” Jack said.
After a round of photos and high-fives with the same young artist and her family, the gopher swiftly switched gears when the student section began to chant, “Spin your head!”
With a few dramatic tugs of the costumed head, the mascot happily obliged.
“It’s just energy all the time,” Jack said. “[Goldy] takes any situation and makes it into something bigger.”
At almost every football game, Goldy spins his head and performs push-ups for each point. Both rituals — established more than 20 years ago — highlight the mascot’s rambunctious reputation.
“Once that mask is on, once that head is over your head, you have license to do almost anything you want and have nobody know who you are,” said Kevin Kurtt, a Goldy from 1996 to 1999.
Kurtt recalled stunts like hanging from rafters, crowd surfing and sledding down the concrete steps at Mariucci Arena.
“We had just a cheap plastic sled you could buy at Target,” Kurtt said. “The crowd just went wild.”
In one elaborate prank, an off-duty Goldy dressed as a Badgers fan and theatrically failed during a mid-game hockey shoot-out, Kurtt said.
“He was terrible, couldn’t make a shot to save his life,” Kurtt said. “He walked over to where the Wisconsin fans sit … and started banging on the glass. Meanwhile, Goldy had a big bucket, and he poured out what appeared to be hockey pucks, and [Goldy] just started firing at him.”
The mascot was just shooting soft floor hockey pucks, but fans from both teams erupted in roars.
“That was what we were supposed to do,” said Drew Kersten, who played Goldy between 1997 and 1998. “You weren’t to go over the line, but you were supposed to push the line.”
Outside of their own squads, mascots collaborate and compete with other schools’ costumed performers.
When Lyerly played Goldy in 1989 and 1990, she wrote letters to opposing schools’ mascots prior to big events to preplan antics, she said.
“I don’t think I met any mascots who were not interested in working together or doing something funny,” she said.
Jack recalled a high school robotics event where he wordlessly challenged a puma mascot to an impromptu cat-and-mouse game.
“That was really memorable,” he said. “This guy and I had never met before … but we were able to make the entire crowd laugh because we were both in costume.”
Beyond athletics events, mascots have duked it out at the annual Universal Cheerleaders Association’s national competition since 1990.
Mascots submit videos demonstrating strong personality and involvement with their school and community. Out of a continually rising number of applicants — DeVault said they received about 75 last year — judges select the top 15 to perform at the competition in Florida.
There, the top mascots perform a skit and are judged on qualities like creativity and crowd engagement.
Having placed in the top five since 2000, Goldy has established a reputation as one of the nation’s best mascots. In 2015, Goldy placed third, and the mascot was the competition’s champion in 2013 and 2011.
When Goldy won in 2011, DeVault said, the University team broke the norm of using numerous props, instead focusing on a giant island with moving parts and a detailed miming routine.
“It was very risky at the time, but now it’s something mascots emulate,” DeVault said.
Coach Hannah said the Goldy crew starts preparing their skit a month prior to the competition and spend hours a day for two weeks of winter break to build the props.
“Their skits are always amazing — very creative. They take it very seriously,” DeVault said.
The sometimes-grueling job has unified generations of Goldys, who say it’s well worth the countless hours of dedication.
After doing push-ups in front of thousands and regularly interacting with strangers, Goldys say they walked away from the suit with more than the satisfaction of well-executed antics.
“It’s so hard to really explain the sense of joy and privilege you feel of having this opportunity,” Jack said. “You wouldn’t give it up for anything.”
For some former Goldys, the position kick-started careers as professional mascots or led to other athletic jobs. Others credited Goldy for eradicating fears of public speaking and opening their mind to spontaneity.
“The experience of being in costume and being surrounded by thousands of people and being able to raise your left or right arm and have the entire crowd cheer for you — it’s pretty awesome,” Jack said. “I can’t explain it in any other terms.”
Editor's note: This piece was originally published in the Oct. 15, 2015 issue of the Minnesota Daily.