By Molly Horak
Gripping the black trash bag with his life, Alex started the trek down to his dormitory’s laundry room.
He peered around the corner, making sure no one was watching, then darted inside. Walking up to an open washing machine, he scrutinized the interior, making sure nothing looked awry.
No color residue. No visible signs of damage. Hopefully, it would get the job done.
Carefully, he opened the bag, making sure no one saw the tangle of fur, yellow horns and stitched-on black eyebrows, placed along a furrowed brow, producing an angry stare. Setting the machine on delicate, he sat down to wait.
No one could know he was washing the Rameses suit. No one could find out about his secret identity as a school mascot.
Alex isn’t his real name. He asked to remain anonymous to honor the contract he signed to become a mascot at UNC-Chapel Hill, one that requires confidentiality about his position until his graduation. When Alex receives his degree in biology next spring, he’ll tell everyone the truth.
But for now, he lives a double life. His friends know him as a fun-loving flag football player working part time in a sea turtle lab. Fans across the country knows him as Rameses, the ferocious school mascot.
“Every time I’m in the suit, I get to do what I love and have had so many experiences I never imagined,” he said. “You get to see things, quite literally, from a different perspective.”
‘It’s fun in the purest form’
Alex was halfway through dinner at Chase Dining Hall when he felt his phone buzz. His tryout results were in.
“I remember seeing the subject line of the email and being so excited and so nervous and full of all these emotions, but I had to sit there and pretend like nothing was happening. I couldn’t tell my friends anything.”
Alex had first seen Rameses only months before. Like any sports-loving first-year, he remembers standing with a group of friends at the front of the student section at a football game watching Rameses play his air guitar solo. As an athlete his entire life, he wanted some way to get more involved in UNC sports. He said Rameses looked like so much fun.
Nothing came of his desire until the following spring semester. One day during his outdoor sports fitness class, he overheard some classmates talking about mascot tryouts. The more he thought about it, the more he wanted to be the ram.
The tryouts were rigorous. Each year, only two students are selected to join the mascot team, one Rameses and one Rameses Junior, better known as RJ.
Passion is often what sets the successful mascots apart, said Emily, a senior who plays RJ. (Emily is not her real name either. She signed the same contract preventing her from revealing her identity.)
“Our team is always cracking jokes, and they’re all super passionate about what they’re doing,” she said. “It’s cool to see all those passions come together for one thing, being the best mascots we can.”
At first, Alex said it didn’t feel natural to wear the suit. The shoes were clunky and felt too big, and it was hard to see out of the mesh-covered eyes. As he was walking to his in-suit audition, Alex tripped and fell down a flight of stairs.
But game after game, life in the suit became second nature. The nerves subsided. Alex grew comfortable mingling with crowds. Drawing back on his high school acting days, he embodied the persona of a “big, buff macho ram with all this swagger.”
“You’re dancing, you’re jumping, you’re getting the crowd pumped up. And no one knows it’s you, so you can be your ultimate self without being embarrassed,” Alex said. “I can be goofy, I can joke around, I can do anything. It’s fun in the purest form.”
‘It’s a huge commitment’
It’s game day. And Alex, Emily and the rest of the mascot crew have been mingling with fans for hours before kickoff.
People tend to disregard the unpaid time commitment, Alex said. Everything takes longer. For every two hours that a student attends an event, Rameses is there for four.
Even getting dressed is a surprisingly long process, involving lots of sweatbands, clipping things in place and making sure everything is tucked in correctly. Once inside the suit, Alex describes it as hot and smelly.
“My clothes are always drenched with sweat after a game even if I’ve barely moved,” he said. “When we’re up and dancing, it’s even worse, but you get used to it.”
The mascots attend every home football and basketball game, all Carolina Fever events, most big matches against major rivals and ACC and NCAA tournament games said Brown Walters, director of UNC spirit programs. Rameses and RJ also regularly attend fundraisers, campus events and weddings, totaling anywhere from 30 to 40 events a month, Alex said.
“Rameses is easily the most recognizable figure of UNC sports and symbolizes the athletics department as a whole,” said Cole Barnhill, who works in the UNC athletic communications office.
In the world of Rameses, everything revolves around seniority. The oldest members of the “Ram Fam,” as they call themselves, are the ones that get to travel to tournaments, film commercials and perform at the Duke basketball games.
It’s an incredible feeling to stand in the end zone as a football game goes into overtime, Emily said. But visits to places like a hurricane relief shelter or the UNC Children’s Hospital makes her realize the mascot’s larger meaning.
“Rameses is an incredible ambassador, not just to the fans but to the community,” Walters said. “The mascots give so much of their time to charity. It’s a huge commitment, and so much goes unseen.”
‘It’s a one-of-a-kind experience’
“Alex, I think Rameses sort of walks like you,” one of his friends commented.
“He walks like me? What does that even mean?”
“You have a similar walk.”
“No, you’re crazy. Must be some other guy.”
It’s been nearly two years since Alex first donned the Rameses suit. And yet, only his family, his roommates and his closest friends know the truth about how he spends his time.
The closer he gets to graduating, the more people have started putting the pieces together, he said. Questions usually arise when friends want to go to games together and he has to make excuses for why they can’t go together. He’s cited everything from taking photos to shadowing an athletic trainer to purchasing courtside tickets, he said with a laugh.
“I think the best way to describe the reaction when people find out is dumbfounded. Like, there is no way they can believe that I’m telling the truth,” Alex said. “When I told my roommate, who is one of my best friends, he was baffled. He was like, ‘How did you hide this for so long? You really do this?’”
His roommate, Evan, was more shocked that Alex managed to keep his secret hidden for three months living in a tiny room than he was to learn that Alex was a mascot. His personality suits the job, Evan said.
The lies and secrecy are a small price to pay for the endless happiness the mascot has brought to fans, Alex said. It’s the little things — like seeing the joy in a child’s eyes after getting a high-five or watching the students screaming as loud as they can in a close game — that make the mascot experience special, he said.
It has become his identity — even if no one knows it.
Alex said, “It’s a one-of-a-kind experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world.”
Edited by Joseph Held.