Becoming Herky


Ryan Miller/The Daily Iowan
Herky works out his wings while learning to walk and entertain with the help of Bridget, a member of the Herky security squad during mascot tryouts on March 2 in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
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With a head weighing between 10 and 25 pounds, Herky the Hawk’s costume can leave students underneath smelly, sweaty, and tired.

Nonetheless University of Iowa junior Bridget, a member of the Iowa Spirit Squad, said the experience is a rush. The UI does not allow those who become Herky to be identified.

Only six students of the UI’s 20,000 undergrads will find themselves in the suit each year, looking up into the bright lights of Kinnick Stadium and Carver-Hawkeye Arena and leading the crowds into a Hawkeye frenzy. This year, 15 students are competing for the honor.

After removing the heavy costume from her shoulders, sophomore tryout Jessica said she has wanted to be a mascot for as long as she can remember. Before tryouts, she said, she could envision herself as Herky.

“I’m a goofball, I can do that — walk around, strut my stuff,” she said.

And strut they did. At a clinic last week, Herky wannabes donned the costume and practiced ball-handling skills, the unique Herky walk, climbing the steep Carver stairs, and improvisational skills.
“Herky is the big bird on campus — literally,” said Bridget, as she watched a potential new Herky practice his strut around the perimeter of the Carver-Hawkeye basketball court.

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Tryouts will prove especially important this year, as the squad strives to earn Herky a spot as one of the top-five collegiate mascots nationwide. In January’s Universal Cheerleading Association’s national competition, Herky placed 10th. The rankings were determined based on a submitted video and a skit performed at the competition.

Spirit Squad Captain Brandon said the top squads are distinguished by their solidarity, with the same mannerisms regardless of who is in costume. Various spirit squad members don the black and gold suit over the course of the competition.

“We really need everyone marching to the same beat,” he said, noting that he embraces a cartoon-like mindset.

While the UI squad already shoots for uniformity, the members said they hope to improve with new recruits.

“You have six people on squad, but there’s only one Herky,” Bridget said.

Spirit coordinator Gregg Niemiec said Herky’s character is one of the key things to learn at the tryout clinics.

Some mascots are goofy, and others are stoic and mean-looking, he said.

“We’re kind of in-between,” he said. “Herky’s going to have fun with everybody, but he’s not going to be silly, bopping around all the time.”

Herky was created in 1948 when then-UI journalism instructor Richard Spencer III conceived the bird, a cross between a bald eagle and Woody the Woodpecker. His name is a shortened form of the Greek figure Hercules.

Demonstrating an enthusiastic fist pump to a potential squad member, Bridget advised: “Everything’s big.” Niemiec called out to another attempting Herky’s walk: “More arms, more arms!”

At the tryout, squad members asked the students to improvise with brooms, elastic cords, and towels. One participant used a broom as a barbell, while another had a bungee cord spring off Herky’s enhanced muscles.

“Probably one of the biggest things for Herky is their creativity on the fly,” Niemiec said.

At next week’s clinics, the squad will ask students to create a skit that utilizes music and crowd involvement before making their final decisions.

After the final cuts, students will begin their roles as Herky. Throughout the year, the beloved bird is visible all over campus: basketball games, football games, tailgates, Dance Marathon, the UI Hospital and Clinics, and even local weddings.

And though a new set of students will take on the role of the iconic UI figure, Herky’s presence and character will remain the same.

“It’s not really me in suit — it’s Herky,” said Bridget.

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