In a moment of defeat, Bucky Badger put his hands on his knees and started dry heaving.
It was New Year’s Day, 2006. Troy Maragos, brother of current Seattle Seahawks safety Chris Maragos, woke up that morning more excited than ever to start a new year.
That’s because Maragos was Bucky Badger, one of the most iconic mascots in the Big Ten and all of college football. Wisconsin would play Auburn in the Capital One Bowl on January 2, and on New Year’s Day, he and the marching band would represent Badger Nation in the Orlando Citrus Parade, one of the largest parades in the country.
Maragos was fulfilling a dream he had since he was in middle school, when he was at a Wisconsin football game and saw Bucky grab Goldy Gopher from the University of Minnesota, slap Goldy on a table, climb the marching band’s ladder, and unleash the biggest body slam he’d ever seen—shattering the table, igniting an 85,000-person crowd, and turning Goldy into something that attracts flies and vultures.
“That was the exact moment I said, ‘I want to be Bucky,’” Maragos says.
And here he was, eight or nine years later, the face of Wisconsin, at the 2006 Citrus Bowl parade, his fur flying in the Florida air. He was living his dream.
It takes a surprising amount of physical strength and drive to be a mascot. There’s a reason why only 6-7 students are chosen every year to be Bucky—it’s not easy to do. Try doing pushups for every Wisconsin point in a 63-17 game with a 30-pound Badger mask on your head and a raucous student section counting every repetition. Maragos says there were times he felt like his chest was going to explode.
The 2006 Citrus Parade was another one of those times, but in this case, it was his stomach. Halfway through the parade, Maragos started to feel as if he had digested a badger. What happened next shouldn’t be written about (although that’s never stopped me before). It should only be forgotten.
Maragos, as if slowly dying, put his hands on his knees. Then he did the unthinkable. He blew chunks. Maragos blew chunks inside the Bucky mask.
To the parade, it looked as if Bucky was dry heaving. But to Maragos, it looked much worse—oranges and muffins, to be exact, his breakfast, dripping from the inside of his mask like sewage leaking from a busted pipe.
“It was fairly acidic in there,” Maragos recalls.
It was the Citrus Bowl, after all.
Desperate, Maragos turned to a friend, one of his teammates who rotates with him as Bucky, and broke one of the biggest rules in mascoting—he talked.
“I just threw up in this suit!” he yelled over the marching band, looking at his friend through Bucky’s limited peripheral vision, a five-inch by three-inch plastic mouth.
“What?” asked his friend, surprised he was talking.
“I just PUKED in this suit!”
His friend comprehended it, then looked back up at Maragos and slapped him on the butt, as if to say, “Get back out there!,” and repeated a slogan of theirs. “If the fur ain’t flyin,’” his friend said, “you ain’t tryin.’”
Maragos completed the parade, somehow, dancing in the Florida heat for another three miles, the fur flyin,’ and the puke drippin.’
“I’m pretty sure I’m the only Bucky in the history of all the Buckys to have ever thrown up inside the suit,” Maragos says proudly yet sheepishly.
Maragos learned a lot being Bucky. One of them was to never puke in an enclosed area. Another was to always pay attention to your surroundings when shooting half-court shots at halftime of a basketball game—unless you want your knee to meet a little boy’s cheek bone and listen to him yell, “Get away from me, Bucky Badger!,” as you try to apologize in front of an astonished crowd.
Embarrassing moments for a mascot, however, are like incompletions for a quarterback. They’re bound to happen.
His most meaningful lesson was one of his first Bucky appearances, when he surprised a group of kids at a grade school. He remembers changing into the Bucky suit, walking into the classroom, and feeling like a superhero. The kids treated him like a god.
When he changed out of the Bucky suit and left the school, he walked by some of the same kids who had adored him just moments before. But without the Bucky suit on, the kids didn’t care. He was invisible. He realized early on that it was never about him—it was never about Troy Maragos—it was about Bucky.
Now, Maragos is a pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, where well-known teacher and author James MacDonald serves as the founder and senior pastor.
MacDonald had a profound impact on Maragos’ faith at Wisconsin, where Maragos listened to MacDonald’s podcasts multiple times a week and decided that God was calling him into full-time ministry. They had never even met. Maragos had never even been to church at Harvest Bible.
So, like Bucky, working at Harvest Bible Chapel feels like some sort of a dream. And, like Bucky, he’s reminded that his job is never about him.
“I realized that my walk with Christ was similar to being a mascot,” Maragos says. “Scripture talks about being clothed with Christ and how we need to live our lives with Christ in view of the world to see. For me, whenever I was in the Bucky suit, everyone saw Bucky, but they didn’t see me. And I hope it’s the same way in my walk with the Lord.”
Maragos is still a mascot, in a way. But now, it’s even better.
There’s no suit to throw up in.
This story was published in the September 2012 Sports Spectrum DigiMag. Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine. His column tackles sports and faith from another angle, whether it’s humorous, personal or controversial. Follow him on Twitter-@steve_copeland or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.