Feathring Herky's Nest

Sept. 23, 2005

Editor’s Note: The following was written by Anne Remington and appeared in the Fall 2005 edition of the University of Iowa’s publication, “Spectator.”

Any young Hawkeye fan can tell you there’s just one Herky, the beloved black-and-gold feathered mascot for the University of Iowa’s intercollegiate athletic teams. Herky always gives high fives and hugs. Herky signs autographs. Herky can shoot a basket but can’t quite dunk.

Herky is the same Herky at every UI athletic contest and other public events. How can one bird do it all? Like all of us, he gets a little help from his friends.

“Herky is not one person. Herky is Herky.”
Gregg Niemec, coordinator of UI spirit squads

“Herky is not one person,” explains Gregg Niemiec, coordinator of the UI spirit squads (cheerleaders, dance teams, and mascots). “Herky is Herky”

Or to be more accurate, Herky is a popular guy who gets a little support from about six UI students each year. These students, whose identities are revealed on a “need to know” basis, have the chance to show their “true feathers” during a thorough audition process each spring. The auditions are relatively new–from 1962 until 1999, Herky was helped by members of a fraternity, but the athletic department took over Herky’s nest when the fraternity lost its charter. The tryouts are a process Niemiec and the Herky team take seriously.

Plumage and Personality Rule

Given the high stakes, prospective Herky helpers are carefully screened for their dedication to the Hawkeyes and their performance ability. They don the fiberglass Herky the first night of the three-session audition schedule while the veteran Herky helpers share war stories involved with wearing the head, the heaviest mascot head in the NCAA–tales of bruising and slipping, advice about wearing hats to keep the costume secure.

And then there’s the aroma.

“It smells like everyone who has ever worn it,” observes one prospective helper. Once the head is balanced, the rest of the body has to play along. “Herky has high knees,” says Niemiec. “He’s got a bit of a strut to him. Everything is big and exaggerated. He has to have the same consistent walk because he is the same character.”

Striking a balance between maintaining that consistency and being creative is all part of the Herky magic . “I hit on a lot of girls,” says Herky helper Carrie, who’s trading in her feathers for scrubs as she leaves the Herky nest to finish her nursing degree.

Learning the Herky moves–the high fives, the basketball shots, the autograph–is only part of convincing the Hawkeye tykes that Herky is the “real thing.”

“It’s the personality, says Brett, a returning Herky helper. “Herky’s the best, he’s number one. It’s more about having a presence.”

Even if Herky has a general aura about him, his helpers need to make sure they don’t accidentally bite off more than the entire team can chew. If one Herky helper goes up for a slam dunk, then the others better brush up on their dunking skills, too, because young fans will expect to see that trick every time Herky takes the court.

Herky helper candidates also undergo a personal interview with Niemiec. The purpose of the thorough audition process is two-fold: the candidates need to demonstrate that they have the spirit and leadership skills to bring a crowd of 77,000 fans to their feet, and Niemiec needs to make sure the candidates understand the significant time commitment that comes with the privilege of being part of Herky’s flock.

“School is first, Herky is second,” Niemiec tells the would-be mascots. Each home game requires four Herky helpers, each basketball game takes two. (The costume is so heavy and hot that it’s hard for one helper to make it through all four quarters or two periods without dropping.) Add in volleyball, wrestling, field hockey, and other Iowa sports, home and away–and then community and university events on the side–and there goes Herky’s free time.

Herky also has weekly practices and meetings and he goes to camp each August to learn new skills. Herky’s gang also helps Perky, a fuzzy chick who serves as UI Hospitals and Clinics’ mascot. (“[Kids in the hospital] are scared to death of Herky but they love Perky,” Niemiec explains.)

It’s not hard for the prospective Herky helpers to show their spirit. “My energy level is way beyond crazy,” says one. “I’ve wanted to be the Herky mascot since my freshman year in high school,” says Erin, whose aunt is an Iowa alumna. “The first time I came to campus and saw Herky, I screamed.”

Day two of the audition process brings more physical challenges. Herky must be able to run with large Iowa flags across the football field. “See how both arms are locked?” says Carrie to a novice. “It’s easier if you keep one arm closer to the body.”

While the veteran Herky helpers coach the prospects, experienced Herky helper Celia claps while the dance team tryouts wrap up. All members of the spirit squads must try out every year to ensure the continued quality of each team.

Herky Takes Flight

The moment of truth for Herky comes on a Saturday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Each prospective helper prepares a skit to demonstrate their ability to entertain the crowd, and then Niemiec has them respond to typical scenarios Herky faces.

Erin assembles her props, explaining that she used her stuffed animals as her audience when she practiced in her residence hall room. Brett drafts a handful of people to participate in his audition skit. Carrie positions Celia’s props for her. And then Herky takes the stage.

Herky hops to hip-hop and “Splish, Splash, I was taking a bath.” He falls on the ground and giggles with glee when asked what he would do when the Hawks win the Rose Bowl. He waggles a finger at a little kid who has been bopping him on the head. He plays a gentle game of peek-a-boo with a youngster who’s scared of him.

And in the end, Herky is Herky and Brett, Celia, Erin, and Ryan are his helpers. Unless you’re their roommates or parents, you probably won’t recognize them on campus. They don’t strut as much without the fiberglass head.