The spirit and pride teams – marching band, dance team, cheerleaders, color guard – take the field for the halftime show, and he is the central focus. At six foot eight inches tall, he towers above his neighbors. However, it is not his height that distinguishes him from the group. Instead it’s his wool paws, wagging tail sticking out of his basketball shorts and oversized red SB hat that attract people.
Then the music starts, “Thriller” by Michael Jackson. Surrounded by more than 125 marching band and dance team members of Stony Brook University, he begins moving. His arms flail, his head nods and his legs glide, always in rhythm with the song, always in unison with the dance team, always entertaining. To see anyone maneuver like that, let alone someone in a Seawolf costume wearing a 20-pound wool coat on his chest, is impressive. He does it for nearly a minute. The music ends.
All but 16 of the spirit and pride members remain on the field – four from dance team, two from cheerleading, two from color guard and eight from band. These are the senior members of their respective squads. Since today’s football game – the final game of the season – is senior day, these 16 people are to be honored in front of the nearly 4,000-person crowd inside Kenneth P. LaValle stadium. As the public address announcer prepares to read off each person’s name, the Seawolf slips unnoticed into the background.
He inhales trying to catch his breath from the routine that took him three weeks to learn. Though he has a backup mascot waiting in the entrance tunnel, he wants to remain on the field, especially for this. Each senior is announced and the crowd applauds them for their service to the university, perhaps none more deserving of praise than the one in the mascot uniform off to the side. Once all the names are finished, he returns to take a picture with the seniors. A memento of the time they’ve spent on this field. Another round of applause erupts from the stadium.
What the crowd doesn’t know is that he’s a senior too.
The crowd can’t know he’s a senior. They can’t know about the three years he’s devoted himself to transforming the university’s mascot from a mere character into a symbol. They can’t know about the debate members of the Stony Brook University athletics department had over whether he should be honored with the rest of the seniors. They can’t know about his refusal to perform at all on his senior day if it was decided that he should take his head off.
For him, that’s what it means to hold 25,000 students in the palm of his paw, to be the representative of an entire university.
For him, that’s what it means to be Wolfie.
He put on the suit for the first time in fall 2007, his sophomore year at Stony Brook. His roommate at the time had been Wolfie during the previous year, but had to step down from the position because of an internship he’d received with athletics. At this point, the university needed only one Wolfie.
“He turned to me one day and asked if I wanted a job in athletics.”
“I said, ‘Sure. What is it?’”
“You’re gonna be Wolfie. Go be Wolfie,” the roommate said with a half-serious, half-joking smile.
“A few days later I was Wolfie,” said “Conall” as he will be known throughout this story to preserve his anonymity. While he grew up in Floral Park, his family’s roots can be traced back to Ireland and Scotland. In both of these cultures, the word “Conall” translates as “strong wolf.”
The name Seawolves had been associated with Stony Brook University for 13 years before he first put on the suit. During the 1994-95 academic year, Dr. John H. Marburger III, then the university’s president, made the Seawolf the school’s official mascot. This was the fourth mascot in the university’s history, following the Soundmen, the Warriors, and the Patriots. During these first 13 years, Wolfie was far removed from the “Thriller” dancing, chest pounding, summersault-rolling mascot the Stony Brook community sees today.
“Wolfie was always a cute character,” said Jeffrey Barnett, the assistant dean of students at Stony Brook, who graduated from the school in 2000 with a Bachelor of Science in psychology. “And he still is. He’s still an attraction for young children.” Barnett added that Conall “in particular has helped the image of Wolfie evolve from that cute character into a symbol of pride for the university.”
The next step after his roommate got him the Wolfie job was to get into the uniform. On the outside, Wolfie embodies Stony Brook University. He’s a walking red zone. The suit is blanketed with red attire, from his hat and sneakers to his shorts and t-shirt. His mouth is always open, allowing fans a glimpse of his 12 teeth – eight regular and four fangs – and of course, his red tongue. Even his eyes are red.
Inside the suit, the only thing that’s usually red is Conall’s face. He put the body on first, which is a one-piece with a zipper in the back. Then he strapped on the head, which is a baseball style helmet with a chinstrap that keeps it from moving out of position or falling off. Once secured, he was engulfed by wool. He immediately felt exhausted from the suit’s temperature, which is rumored to be around 125 degrees Fahrenheit. If true, that means the inside of the suit would be hotter than the hottest day ever recorded in all but three states – Arizona, California, and Nevada.
Regardless of the exact temperature, the desert-like heat is caused by the suit’s design, which has very little ventilation other than the net screen of Wolfie’s mouth. Besides being the only opening in the uniform when it’s fully on, the shape of the mouth permits only a faint tunnel for Conall to see out of and navigate his way around sidelines, bleachers and half-time shows. At first, he tripped and stumbled constantly. The dimensions of the suit were awkward and stairs became a tough challenge. Over the years, the suit has been involved in hundreds of football and basketball games and the lack of ventilation has stamped it with its own distinct aroma. Even though the suit is frequently washed, the aroma was difficult for him to get used to.
“That’s your basic Wolfie environment,” says Conall, a senior biology student. “It’s like wearing the heaviest, thickest wool coat you could imagine as a one-zee.”
Conall ultimately mastered a flight of stairs and grew accustomed to the narrowed vision and unique scent. He also learned that in the costume he has to exaggerate every body movement, including the way he walks and how he waves hello. This is because the first of the 10 mascot commandments is “do not speak when in costume.” If the voice behind the mask is heard, it effectively ruins the mascot’s magic.
Anonymity is vital.
With this and the other mascot commandments in mind, Conall was ready for his first live performance, a home football game during the 2007 season. He checked to make sure his Wolfie head was strapped on and then ran out of the tunnel, followed by more than 80 football players. While Conall doesn’t remember the exact game in which he debuted, he certainly remembers how he felt.
“I was nervous and timid and pretty much shocked by the whole experience,” says Conall, who played goalie for his high school’s roller hockey team. “But after the first few minutes I reminded myself that nobody knew who I was, so I should just have fun. After that, each minute that went by I became more comfortable in the suit. I made the fans laugh and clap and I thought ‘okay, I can do this.’ I’m at the point now where I’m almost more comfortable in the suit then I am out of it.”
Outside of the wool ensemble, Conall is aspiring to become either a New York City police officer or a high school science teacher after he graduates from Stony Brook in May. The appeal of the former comes from his family. His grandfather and two of his uncles are New York City firefighters and his grandfather’s two brothers were respectively a lieutenant and a captain with the NYPD. Conall attributes the latter career possibility to the science teachers he had in high school. “Because of them, science meant more to me than just two plus two equals four. I love learning about the world we live in and how it works.” If this is the path he decides upon, Stony Brook might have his mascot services for another few semesters.
Andrea Lebedinski, the coordinator of merchandise and branding for the department of athletics, said she’d love to see Conall go to graduate school at Stony Brook. “He’s helped develop a lot of the moves – the strut, the chest-pounding, the point to the crowd – that people now associate with Wolfie.”
One of the talents Conall has brought to his job as the Stony Brook mascot is his feel for music. He plays five different instruments – guitar, bass, drums, trumpet and violin. His favorite instrument is the guitar, which he taught himself to play nine years ago. “It’s kind of my therapy,” Conall says referring to playing the instrument after an exhausting day of school, performing as Wolfie or both. As Wolfie, he played the drums at almost every home basketball game during the 2009-10 season.
Besides playing drums, Conall’s added a dancing element to Wolfie’s repertoire. Each time he executes dance moves that were trademarked by the king of pop – either from “Thriller” or the newly added “Smooth Criminal,” half of the crowd explodes in wild cheers and the other half is stunned by the fluidity of his movements. But, when asked about the routine and whether he considers himself a skilled dancer, Conall replied with a resounding “No, no, no. Not at all!”
Other than his moonwalk, which he admits is decent, Conall gives all of the credit for pulling off the routines to the university’s dance team. He learned each routine over a three or four-week period in which he practiced with the dance team twice each week for two or three hours. The dance team captain, a blonde, five foot four inch native of Chicago, recalls that Conall’s major challenge was not learning the actual steps, but remembering the order in which to perform the steps. “The first time we do it perfectly is usually live at the game,” Conall says.
This perfection does not solely come from practice. It is also fueled by the off-court personal relationship between Conall and one of the dance team’s leaders. The two first met in 2007 – her freshman year – when Conall was wearing his Wolfie costume. She told him her name, and, through a third party, he was introduced to her as Wolfie.
More than two years have passed since they met, and over the last several months the two have become romantically involved. When Conall is outside the costume, the two enjoy New York Ranger games and salmon dinners. When he’s inside the costume, the two feel that their relationship adds an extra element of trust to the routine.
“I know that I can trust him in more ways than just the dance,” said the dance team member, a junior health sciences major who grew up in outside of Chicago. “Because we have that relationship off the court, the chemistry between the two of us on the court is more true than it would be otherwise.”
While some of Wolfie’s increased flare and recognition can be attributed to Conall’s perseverance, personal relationships and skill set, Lebedinski has also played a major role in promoting the name beyond the three-mile radius of Circle Road. After graduating from Stony Brook with a degree in business management in May 2008, she became a full-time member of the university’s faculty. Since that time, she’s taken over the responsibility of spreading Stony Brook’s name to the Long Island community. She determined early on that the best way to do this was by marketing Wolfie.
“Wolfie is the best way to physically represent our university,” Lebedinski said. “He’s just a likeable character and we can use him as a focal point for spirit and pride.”
In less than two years, Lebedinski built and nurtured Wolfie’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Blogger accounts. She’s also created a Wolfie business card – complete with a telephone and fax number and an email address – and a Wolfie contact sheet that interested parties can use to hire the mascot for an event. Over the last two years the number of events Wolfie has participated in has grown from around 50 in 2007-08, most of which were football and basketball games, to more than 115 in 2008-09, to more than 150 during the current academic year.
“It shows you how his image and name have grown over the last two years,” Lebedinski said. “Two years ago we asked most of the venues if we could attend. Now we’re so booked that when people want to reserve Wolfie, I have to check my schedule to make sure we can fit it in.”
Her colleagues around the university have deemed her “Wolfie’s mother,” which isn’t far from the truth. At most of the more than 250 events that Wolfie has been a part of since the 2008 summer, the five foot three inch Lebedinski, carrying a digital camera and dressed in red attire, isn’t trailing far behind.
Between Lebedinski’s networking and his entertainment, the university now has three Wolfie costumes and three students, including him, who are willing and able to perform as the mascot. The additional two “Wolfies” were selected last summer during a tryout session, which featured four students. Another tryout is being hosted this April 28, with the intention of finding someone else to replace Conall.
With the number of students who earn the right to dress-up as the university’s mascot increasing, keeping Wolfie’s identity a secret will be an even greater challenge in the coming semesters.
“Imagine you see a really good magic trick and you have no idea how it’s done,” Conall said. “Then all of a sudden you find out how it happens. You learn the secret and the experience is ruined. That’s what it is with Wolfie. He’s a character, he’s a symbol. If you find out who he is it ruins it all.”
For the young man with the wool tail wagging out of his basketball shorts, that’s what it is to be Wolfie.