That's one crazy cat
At least 150 people posed for pictures with sophomore Jenny Vala at October's Homecoming football game. And she shook hands with or gave high-fives to hundreds more. Then there were the hugs -- she had lots of them for young and old alike.
The secret to Vala's stardom? Her alter ego.
Vala's preparations for Homecoming began the day before the big game, when she started downing "a ton of water and Gatorade" to help her weather the hot suit. On Saturday, she dressed in the lightest clothing she could find -- except for the tall, thick athletic socks that protect her shins from chafing in the Bobcat boots. In a closet in the Convocation Center, the Bobcat suit was airing out from its most recent appearance. First she put on the "fat ring," which gives the Bobcat its girth, then the furry suit, then the green Attack Cat T-shirt, then the paws and, finally, the cat's head.
Some alumni may say Vala has it easy. Today's Bobcat costume is much more wearer-friendly than the first, purchased in 1960 by residents of Lincoln Hall. Thomas Schantz, BFA '64, who designed the Bobcat, sent patterns to France to have its head made of papier-mache and to companies in Philadelphia to sew its sweater and furry body. It was redesigned after its 21st birthday (because it was worse for all the wear) and again in the late '90s (because of some unfortunate incidents when it was mistaken for, well, a mouse). The tradition that a male student portray the Bobcat ended in 1995, when a female student won the tryouts. So now it's called "Bobcat" instead of "Mr. Bobcat."
"You can imagine being down there on the field and cavorting around in 80-, 85-degree temperatures with all that on. It was very warm," he remembers. "I bet I lost 15, 20 pounds every game."
Nichols actually got to wear the costume by default: He had to pinch-hit for another Lincoln Hall resident who sprained an ankle. A sophomore when he first played the Bobcat, Nichols didn't relinquish the suit until the middle of his senior year.
"We were a very forward group of men in Lincoln that came in there for the first year. We really wanted to start tradition and make ourselves known," says Nichols, now dean of students at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron.
The second Mr. Bobcat, Alan Weinberg, BBA '64, lives in Atlanta and is a principal with the business consulting firm of Ernst & Young. He recalls another tradition: The student portraying the Bobcat was to remain anonymous.
"My wife remembers," he says, laughing. "I usually never took the head off, and really nobody knew who the Bobcat was. We played the first football game in 1963 at home, and it was extremely hot. I was getting ready to faint. So I took the head off, and she was very disappointed."
Around 1980, the men of Lincoln Hall realized the Bobcat costume was really beat. They decided to hold a 21st birthday celebration in 1981 as a fundraiser for a new costume. The men collected more than $1,000, and the athletics department paid the balance of the nearly $2,000 cost.
"It was a tough decision," says Patrick Donadio, BSC '80 and MBA '81, who played the Bobcat and later served as the program's adviser while he was a resident director in grad school. "A lot of people didn't want to change the Bobcat."
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