By Audrey Selley
Three hours before the game. Six miles from the doors to Kenan Memorial Stadium, Otis is swarmed by family and friends in a frenzy to get him polished and prepped for his awaited appearance, first at the UNC Bell Tower for pictures and autographs, then on the field at the stadium.
Every UNC student knows Otis, but they don’t know they do. The 3-year-old, 225-lb hunk of wool could easily pass as any other sheep — except for the handmade, monogrammed blanket wrapped around him and the paint on his horns (which sticks on for months like fingernail polish), both Carolina blue.
As soon as Otis barrels out of the stadium’s tunnel and onto the field, he transforms into Rameses. The booming from the cannon, fans screaming and the band’s fight song are so loud they vibrate the field underneath him, the same field his predecessors have run across for one hundred years.
Behind it all is the Hogan family, with roots in Orange County stronger than Otis’ horns. Henry Hogan began Carolina’s live mascot tradition back in the 1920s as a way to emulate the star quarterback of the UNC Football team, Jack Merritt, who was known as the “battering ram.”
Back then, the Lake Hogan Farm was the name of his dairy farm and not a real estate development. There were more than 50 family farms in the area instead of the handful left today, and store-bought food, not farm-grown food, was a luxury.
Otis made his debut as Rameses XXII during the 2021 football season, following in the steps of Rameses XXI, who spent a decade on the throne.
Out of earshot from the Bell Tower and away from the hustle and bustle of UNC’s campus, Otis enjoys his tranquil reprieve at Hogan’s Magnolia View Farm in Carrboro, where the sounds of cicadas and wind provide a welcome solace from the 50,000 screaming people and stadium fireworks.
Until it was sold in the mid-1990s, every Rameses lived on Lake Hogan Farm along with a hodgepodge of cows, horses, pigs, chickens and dogs. Hogan’s Magnolia View Farm was initially where the Hogans grew food for the animals at Lake Hogan Farm, but now it’s where the few remaining farm animals, including Otis, live.
Chris Hogan, Henry’s grandson and one of the fourth-generation caretakers of Rameses, grew up on Lake Hogan Farm. Chris remembers loading up Rameses in a pick-up truck on every Saturday home game and driving to the stadium, holding him steady in the back alongside Chris’ cousins and siblings.
“It’s always fun when we take him slowly through Carrboro and then down Main Street and Franklin Street with all the blowing horns, and everybody’s just hooting and hollering and having a good time,” Chris said.
Times were less strict then. Anyone who managed to place a hand on Rameses while he ran through the tunnel was allowed to stay with him on the field, and now only four people are allowed.
To the Hogan family, it’s a family tradition more than a UNC tradition. To this day, flocks of family and friends gather at the farm hours before the game. Everyone takes a turn to paint his horns (endearingly now deemed “Hogan Blue” by the local hardware store).
At the Bell Tower, a line quickly forms where little kids jump up and down waiting for their turn to touch Otis and get a picture like he’s Santa Claus.
“I don’t care if you’re two or 92, the first thing you do when you see him is smile,” Chris said.
Straying from the pack
Instead of hailing from the farm lineage like previous Rameses, Otis is from a breeder in Virginia. He’s one of the few horned dorset sheep left in the U.S., because more and more wool breeders remove the sheep’s horns.
While fans are used to the golden-retriever-like friendliness of Otis, past mascots haven’t all been as fluffy and warm as their wool. Horned dorset sheep are known to be an aggressive breed.
Hugging and petting Rameses and getting photographs with him wasn’t even a thing for earlier mascots. Some who were so belligerent they had to be chained up during games.
The key to Otis’ congenial, easygoing nature? He grew up without other male dorset sheep around. This was intentional, because male dorsets can be competitive and aggressive with each other.
“While they are domesticated, they’re not pets. Otis has done wonderful, but he knows exactly what those horns are for. It doesn’t take but a flick of his head to hurt somebody,” Chris said.
Anytime he’s invited to alumni events, fraternity houses or parties, his appearance unleashes an electric energy in the room, as kids, students, and alumni of all ages become one, brought together by an unspoken connection to Otis.
The tension in traditions
But being in the spotlight also draws some unwanted attention.
As kids, Chris and his cousins would sleep in the barn before rival home games, hide themselves in the hay and keep quiet. They propped their BB guns up on the hay barrels for a good aim if they caught any potential ram-nappers.
One time, a group of Duke fraternity brothers successfully stole Rameses and spray-painted ‘Duke’ on his wool before a football game (thankfully the blanket covered it up).
Another time, some students from an out-of-state school tried to sneak up on Rameses in broad daylight. But Chris, laughing, said he snuck up on them first.
“It was all in good spirit. And that’s what all this is about and why we do it, just team spirit and having fun,” Chris said. “It’s just always a wholesome event, where people of all ages can touch and hug him and get pictures with him.”
Continuing the Rameses tradition is also a way for the Hogan family to expose an increasingly urbanized and developed Orange County to the small part of family farming that remains.
“There’s a real disconnect with the agriculture community and the urban community, and that’s all part of what this is about too, keeping that connection,” Chris said. “It’s really very important. My family is a perfect example of it. I mean, there’s nobody that’s going to go back into farming. It’s just not feasible financially to do it.”
Since it began, the Rameses tradition has stayed constant for the Hogan family — a reminder that some things never change, and you always have your home to fall back on.
Like the paint on Otis’ horns, some things just stay the same.
Edited by Emily Gajda and Annie Gibson