Documentary filmmaker Josh Greenbaum gives us a fascinating glimpse into the world of sports mascots in Behind the Mask, a Hulu Original Series that begins streaming today. Three of the 10 episodes are available now, with each of the remaining seven premiering on successive Tuesdays.
Who are these guys in the costumes, and why do they do what they do? Their answers are as varied as their public personas, and Greenbaum has drawn four guys from different venues – high school, college, minor league and professional sports – to share their insights.
Each has a compelling story in his own right, but let’s start with the one most viewers are sure to find the most compelling. He’s 16-year-old Michael Hostetter, the sports mascot at Pennsylvania’s Lebanon High School, a facility with virtually no victories in any sport. Michael is one of those geeky (his word) misfits who tend to fly under the social radar yet somehow become magnets for bullies. He lives with his divorced mom in this run-down blue-collar steel town that has seen better days, but despite all the strikes he seems to have against him, there’s an unquenchable fire burning inside Michael, a determination to cheer on his teams to a win – any win, in any sport – and help his local neighbors feel better about themselves.
At the end of his freshman year, Michael auditioned for and won the gig as school mascot, but here’s the thing: The LHS mascot isn’t a cool, fierce animal or a formidable warrior. He’s a cedar tree. Named Rooty. See photo above if you think I am making that up. It’s arguably the lamest concept for a sports mascot in the history of mascot-dom, yet Michael – who cannot dance a lick, I might add – glows with pride and determination whenever he dons what is, let’s be honest, an absolutely ridiculous-looking costume.
As the series unfolds, Michael searches for a prospective girlfriend, but the only girls at the school he has anything in a common with are the cheerleaders. They’re crazy about Rooty. Michael? Maybe not so much.
Watching this kid sucking it up every day to take on whatever life wants to throw at him is one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen on TV in a long time. I’m pretty sure you’ll feel the same way.
As I said, however, the other three guys have interesting stories of their own.
Jon “Jersey” Goldman is very popular at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where he’s the guy behind Hey Reb, the big-hatted, mustachioed mountain-man mascot who’s got a Yosemite Sam vibe going on. Goldman, a communications major, absolutely loves the college experience, especially since he’s on a full scholarship for being the school mascot. He’s not so crazy about going to classes, which helps explain why he’s currently in his sixth year at the school.
Now, however, the clock is finally ticking down to his graduation, and Goldman is battling severe separation anxiety at the thought of giving up the Hey Reb costume and stepping out into the world as himself.
Up in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., California native Chad Spencer, who grew up in Canada, is living paycheck to paycheck with his job as Tux the Penguin, mascot of an AHL semi-pro team, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Spencer loves working as a mascot, but he’s not getting any younger, and he’s feverishly pursuing his dream of landing a mascot job with an NHL pro team so he can afford to spend more time with his little boy, who lives in Canada with his ex-wife.
Moving up to the big leagues, Kevin Vanderkolk is a genuine celebrity from his wild stunts as Bango, the mascot for the Milwaukee Bucks. Vanderkolk, who has received multiple national honors from the NBA, is best known for his signature move, a backflip dunk off a 20-foot ladder. While he is a risk-taking madman on the courts, however, at home Vanderkolk is a doting dad to his five kids with wife Colleen, a neurologist. Vanderkolk makes a point of looking for opportunities to let his kids perform with him, but he spends a fair share of his time undergoing physical therapy for the multiple injuries he inflicts upon himself regularly.
I’ve screened the first three episodes currently available, which are very family-friendly and suitable for all ages (younger viewers will love Vanderkolk’s high-energy brood). I particularly would urge parents of any tween or teen who is having social anxiety to spend some time watching young Michael Hostetter. While he probably would be astonished at the suggestion, this humble yet defiantly resilient kid is a role model in the making.