As “Enter Sandman” begins to play, the entire New River Valley can hear and feel the pounding of feet at Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium. One set of feet stands out due to its vivid orange hue and distinct three-toe appearance ~ the world famous HokieBird! The HokieBird reigns as the mascot and symbol of Virginia Tech—a welcome presence on a campus of 30,000 students. Outsiders often wonder, “What in the world is a Hokie and why does it look like a turkey?”
Virginia Tech was founded in 1872 as the land-grant institution Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. This name was lengthened to Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute two dozen years later. Since the name is quite a mouthful, students and faculty referred to the college as VPI. Now they needed a new cheer, since the original one used the college’s first title.
To find a new spirited cheer, a competition was held. Student O.M. Stull won the contest, and the $5 prize, for his creative words:
Hoki, Hoki, Hoki, Hy.
Techs, Techs, V.P.I.
Rae, Ri, V.P.I.
This cheer is known as the “Old Hokie,” and even this tradition has undergone a few tweaks. A final “e” grew on “Hoki” and “Team! Team! Team!” was added at the end.
A local youth known as Floyd “Hard Times” Meade entertained crowds at Virginia Tech’s sports games and, in 1907, was officially adopted as the college’s mascot. Meade trained a turkey to pull a cart and began bringing the turkey to games in 1913. Virginia Tech’s president, Joseph Eggleston, thought the cart-pulling was animal cruelty and put an end to it. But Meade was not one to give up easily and continued bringing trained turkeys to games (minus the cart). Meade’s turkey was christened “the Gobbler,” and the name stuck.
The Gobbler continued to make appearances well into the 1950s. In 1962, student Mercer MacPherson realized civilian students (like him) were lacking in school spirit in comparison with the corps of cadets. He was determined to fix this problem by creating a mascot. MacPherson raised $200 for the cause and traveled to Pittsburgh, the location of a mascot suit-making company. After seeing the HokieBird suit in its final form, he claimed, “It was a thing of beauty.” When it arrived just days before the final game of the season, no one wanted to wear it! So MacPherson donned the new outfit and entered the “Military Classic of the South” game: VPI vs. VMI.
Despite initial crowd enjoyment of the new character, the Highty-Tighties disliked the Gobbler’s appearance during their halftime show. One fan called him “a very large pest.” With this negative reaction, MacPherson feared he wouldn’t be able to find a replacement once he graduated. Surprisingly, a dozen students tried out for the job with the requirements that the applicant be “agile, vivacious and interested.” MacPherson’s Gobbler succeeded as a mascot!
The Gobbler has since been a sought-after position, but with its share of dangers and disappointments. In the beginning, fans often plucked feathers right off the suit of the unsuspecting bird. The Gobbler glass ceiling prevented female students from the position for fear of “kidnapping and roughhousing.” In 1968, Pam Gunsten was the first woman to become the Gobbler. When VMI cadets came to grab the Gobbler, Virginia Tech players “closed ranks around” Gunsten and helped her get onto the field safely.
Though the Gobbler resembled a turkey, it wasn’t until 1971 that costume designers really attempted to create a turkey look-alike. At this time, the bird gained a very long neck, making it seven and a half feet tall. Football coach Bill Dooley heard that the “Gobbler” moniker stemmed from players “gobbling” up their food. He wanted the name gone, as well as the turkey sound provided by the scoreboard. The mascot began to be called the “Hokie,” the “Hokie mascot” and the “HokieBird” (with no space before Bird).
Straying away from the turkey image, Virginia Tech’s mascot transformed into a bird that could “move” and “live.” The current HokieBird made its feather-filled entrance in 1987 and has become a symbol of the school and its enduring spirit.
Donning the HokieBird suit is still challenging and can be uncomfortable. One of the worst aspects is the heat inside it. “I started drinking water two days before the game,” says former HokieBird Eric Jacobson. In fact, he often lost six to eight pounds during each football game. Another former HokieBird, Bill Berry, faced 100-degree temperatures his first game and walked away 15 pounds lighter!
Reactions from younger fans definitely make up for any disadvantages. Adam Kendrick, a recent HokieBird, shares that his favorite reactions are “from children, who only want to hug and sit on your lap.” This lovable quality means the HokieBird can promote seatbelts and reading programs for kids.
“Everything the HokieBird does represents good things. Really, for someone who doesn’t speak, the HokieBird is a good spokesperson,” explains Peg Morse, the former director of Internet and computer services for athletics.
The identity of the person inside the suit is a secret while he/she is a student. But look closely at graduation—those who are “retiring” wear giant orange feet to let their fellow classmates know who has been starting cheers and spreading smiles all over campus.
Virginia Tech’s mascot may face some difficulties, but, overall, it’s the best job for a Hokie brimming with school spirit. So let’s give a final cheer to a one-of-a-kind mascot: Hokie, Hokie, Hokie, Hy! And, Go Hokies!
Floyd Meade trained one huge turkey to go on a leash of orange and maroon ribbons. When he tapped it, the turkey would gobble. He paraded the big bird along the sidelines and tapped it for each touchdown or spectacular play. Gobble, gobble, gobble!
By Meg Selby
Photos courtesy of Virginia Tech
Meg Selby is a freelance writer and Virginia Tech grad, class of 2013.♦ End