Books: Wednesday, August 31, 2005
‘Mascot Mania: Spirit of Texas High Schools’\r\nEdited by Sabrina Barlow, Betty Burdett, Damien Carey, Urania Fung, Patricia Healy, Tamara Hill, Amanda Huffer, Kelly Rowan, Christina Tonan, and Gary Wilkens.\r\nTexas Review Press\r\n$16.95\r\n147 pps.
Go, Skeeters!

Texas authors peer into the wide, wild world of high school mascots.


In any given autumn weekend in this country, the streets in many neighborhoods fall silent as legions of armchair quarterbacks abandon outdoor afternoon activities to view eight to 10 hours of televised college and professional football. But no amount of cathode rays can compare to the bright lights of Friday night in Texas, when high school players burst onto fields through homemade banners of butcher paper and tempera paint. High school football is a heady cocktail of marching band music, hormonal teen-agers, emotional spectators, and old rivalries that elevates the concept of “friendly competition” to something like a tent revival on acid. In a state where football is approached with a reverence usually reserved for religion, nothing can turn a sacred pigskin moment into a Twilight Zone episode quicker than the sight of a student dressed in a giant raccoon suit — the mascot — doing the Macarena on the 50-yard line.

Mascot Mania: Spirit of Texas High Schools represents the combined efforts of 10 young editors under the supervision of Dr. Paul Ruffin, editor of the biannual literary journal The Texas Review, who also teaches a course on editing and publishing at Sam Houston State University. The book is an attempt to outline the history and symbolism behind mascots as well as to explain how some schools wind up with lame monikers, such as the Killer Daisies of Hockaday High, the Pied Pipers of Hamlin High School, or the Ricebirds of El Campo. For the most part, Mascot Mania delivers what it promises: an interesting — if not terribly comprehensive — look at how and when institutions of learning began adopting animals, insects, mythical creatures, and the odd maritime criminal (pirates) to represent the desire for gridiron victory. While mascots are intended to represent entire student bodies and all of their sporting groups, the football teams usually get the lion’s share of focus and funds. Mascot Mania puts 90 percent of its focus on football. (A lot of schools, regrettably, attempt to feminize those same, masculine symbols for girls’ teams, resulting in such oddities as the Rangerettes, Pantherettes, or — my personal favorite — the Lady Bulls. These types of mascots are not discussed in the book.)

Sabrina Barlow and the publication’s other contributors trace the use of the word “mascot” back to 19th-century France and an opera, La Mascotte, about a farm girl who brought good luck to whomever possessed her. A few pages are devoted to symbolism as it applied to various ancient cultures and the particular relevance of the eagle in wartime or spiritual pursuits. So it’s a revelation to learn that in 1888 the owner of a Cleveland baseball team came up with the name “the Spiders” after his players’ spindly physiques and pathetic fielding abilities. The detail is interesting, but it does nothing to bolster the book’s initial theory that teams look for strong names to make players feel confident. Yet the detail does set the stage for the various ways in which high schools of the Lone Star State have — whether by intent or default — become the not-too-intimidating-sounding Yoe Yoemen or the Mesquite Skeeters.

Collecting data like this is undoubtedly an overwhelming task, which probably explains the need for the posse of editors. Scattered throughout the book are what appear to be the personal viewpoints of one or more writers, especially with regard to mascot name changes. One passage suggests that such changes are an attempt to rewrite history rather than acknowledge it. The term “political correctness” is used with such tiresome frequency that the reader may be inclined to wonder why the writers couldn’t simply acknowledge the changes without gassing on about them. If the group had spent less time editorializing over the political correctness of Rebels becoming Raiders, someone might have figured out that, despite what this book says, there are no Central High School Lightning Bolts to be found in the Fort Worth Independent School District. (They’re in Keller.)

What makes Mascot Mania worth reading are the tidbits of arcana, sometimes obscured by the less-original but always plentiful and enjoyable stories of teams who appear blissfully unaware that they’re not the first to be the Eagles (77 schools ) or the Bulldogs (81). The Austin High School Maroons are represented by a furry smiling creature resembling a hairball sporting a beanie-style hat. This incarnation came about in the 1950s after years of nothing but the color itself as school symbol.

Another interesting tale involves two schools and a particular breed of serpent. St. Mary’s and Central Catholic used to be one school, but when they split in 1932, St. Mary’s retained the original mascot name, the Rattlers, while Central became the Buttons, in homage to the noisy segments of a rattlesnake’s tail. Lest strangers think the name referred to the devices used to fasten clothing, a logo was designed depicting a snake with a word bubble proclaiming, “These are the buttons! I am a Rattler!” Of course, if you have to explain it ...

Equally intriguing, New Braunfels High wanted a lion for its mascot, but during the creation of the school’s first class ring, part of the image was cut incorrectly and the one-eared result became the state’s only use of the unicorn. Perhaps one of the briefest and, sadly, most uninspired naming stories took place in Austin in 1915, when a circus train traveling through lost one of its passengers — a hippo who was later found in a creek near Hutto. Can’t you just hear the morning announcements? “Students of Hutto High, meet your new mascot. We found him in a ditch.”

Most fascinating are the schools whose mascots’ legends remain unexplained. Some of these student bodies have no representative symbols of any kind, and worse, only a school building number rather than a name. What would happen if the Serenity High “no-names” faced off against the students from something called High School #3? Who thought calling a team the Van Vandals was a good idea? Will the Sandra Day O’Connor Panthers ever battle the Thurgood Marshall Buffalo? These are the details that a reading public deserves to know. Mascot Mania: Spirit of Texas High Schools is a quick and worthwhile read, but its slender proportions only hint at the stories left to be told.

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