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Seven feet tall, furry, orange, and rotund, he’s the belle of the ball, his googly eyes darting around in every direction. As he zipped around the Wells Fargo Center on a hoverboard, he shook his big ass, flanked on each side by stoic men in crisp black suits and dark glasses; behind them were the dancers for the Flyers, Philadelphia’s hockey team. It was a parade of sorts. The girls gyrated to pop hits from 10 years ago, while the guys waved orange-and-black flags. His face is permanently contorted into an enthusiastic grin, with a menacing pink tongue; his beard, like the rest of his fur, is a bright orange, but much longer and almost filthy. As he approached clusters of fans, they screamed, “Gritty! Gritty!” and begged for pictures, settling for high-fives. One fan got on his knees and bowed down to him, the god that he is. In moments like these, Gritty is the biggest celebrity in the world, and not only does he know it, he can’t get enough of it.
My arms flailed and I panted as I raced to keep up with all the excitement. This beloved orange monster is somehow the epitome of both grace and chaos, and I was smiling and laughing so much that the experience began to feel spiritual—I was one with this strange, beautiful community of worshippers. Face-to-face with the most popular sports mascot of the 21st century, I felt comically starstruck. Gritty offered me his four-fingered hand, which squeaked clownishly; unsure of what to do, I gave it a little kiss. He shot me one last leer, then abruptly turned away and continued his dance.
A human being walking around in a giant suit that resembles an anthropomorphized animal or other creature should be terrifying, but mascots remain universally cherished. Gritty offers a perfect example of the power these strange creatures wield in our modern society. He was introduced to the world on September 24, 2018, and slipped on the ice during his debut performance; despite (or perhaps because of) this, he became a sensation immediately. Sarah Schwab, the Flyers’ senior director of communications, told me that the team braced for a negative reaction initially, since “mascot adoptions typically take from three weeks to three months.” A writer from the Guardian described him as “a horrifying bearded man-Muppet hybrid whose eyes are permanently rolling in their sockets, presumably from years of drug use… toxic masculinity incarnate.” Responding to his debut tweet—“It me. #Gritty”—the rival Pennsylvania hockey team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, wrote, “lol ok.” But Gritty was able to expertly charm his way into the hearts of Flyers’ fans and beyond, quipping back, “Sleep with one eye open tonight, bird.”
Within days, he had made an appearance on The Tonight Show, chartering a helicopter from New York to Philadelphia to make it back in time for the game. Less than a month after his introduction, The New Yorker observed that “the mark of a knowing user on Twitter was to declare Gritty not just a good sports mascot but the latest version of the best thing ever.” According to his marketing team, he’s been swarmed by TMZ paparazzi on multiple occasions. His ascension from frightening NHL mascot to cultural icon—anti-fascists have co-opted him as one of their own; he appears on posters around Philadelphia telling citizens, “Only you can prevent street harassment”—was so swift that it’s now impossible to fathom that for the majority of my lifetime, I have lived in a world without Gritty.
By all means, Gritty should have been a passing fad, a five-minute sensation that quickly faded into the abyss of the internet, but more than a year after his introduction, he’s more popular than ever; the mascot, generally, seems to be growing in power. Why?
Mascots as we know them, fixtures of culture that they may seem, are a relatively new invention. In 1974, a San Diego radio station hired a college student to wear a chicken suit and do promotion at Padres games. It was a terrible season for the California baseball team, but the man in the chicken suit received great fanfare regardless. Taking note of the chicken’s popularity, the Philadelphia Phillies decided to reimagine their mascots, a pair of 15-foot animatronic twins from the colonial era named Phil and Phillis, into the Phanatic, an obese and happy green monster from the Galápagos Islands. The Phanatic, designed by the same person who dreamed up Miss Piggy, was introduced in 1978. Soon, having a mascot became commonplace in both college-level and professional sports.
Gritty exemplifies many of the mascot trends of the past 40 years, and may represent their logical conclusion, but it takes more than timing and a clever design to truly capture a nation’s imagination. For evidence, we can look to Phang, the mascot of the Philadelphia Union, a Major League Soccer team. Two weeks before the world fell in love with this new giant fuzzy Philadelphia sports icon, Phang hatched out of an egg at the Philadelphia Zoo. (He was not the first mascot to hatch out of an egg, and I imagine he will not be the last.)
Gritty offers a perfect example of the power these strange creatures wield in our modern society.
I met Phang at a Union game on a warm October afternoon, and observed as he enjoyed fanfare similar to Gritty’s, but with a smaller and more constrained operation, and generally less impressive stardom. An anthropomorphized snake, buff and mohawked, Phang is not snake-like at all, not least because he has arms and legs; almost as tall as Gritty, he is respected but not revered and, in many ways, is Gritty’s polar opposite. Gritty is a universally beloved icon of resistance to authoritarian control; Phang is not. Gritty has escaped the narrow uses to which sports marketers might put him, while Phang has not. The most striking difference between the two, though, may be that Phang is ripped, while Gritty has a body type that is more relatable to the average American. (Spokespeople from both teams said that the two are friends.)
Gritty’s largeness is very intentional, and certainly central to why he is so beloved. “If you give a mascot some area around the waist, you give them more ways to convey emotion,” Schwab told me. Phang, despite the arms and legs, is clearly a snake, a familiar creature. (At the Union game, I overheard two children arguing about Phang. “Literally, the Union symbol is a snake,” a girl of maybe 9 or 10 told her friend. “But I think it’s a dragon,” her friend protested. I couldn’t help but interject that yes, he is, in fact, a snake.) Gritty is an abstraction. Noseless, he does not resemble any known creature. This makes him anonymous, something of a blank slate onto which we can project our hopes and desires.
This anonymity seems central not just to the appeal of Gritty—a left-wing icon who can get Flyers fans to the stands for more hot dogs—but that of all mascots. Mascots’ identities are a carefully guarded secret, as part of what I like to call “mascot law.” The Union and the Flyers would not reveal the identity of the people who perform as their mascots—a common practice in professional sports—so as not to spoil the mystique of their team representative or remind the world that there is a very sweaty man inside whatever large stuffed animal we all agree to worship. Silent heroes, mascots are not allowed to speak when they are in the suit.
The Flyers are so secretive about some aspects of Gritty that when I asked what was up with his belly button—something that resembles a neon scrunchie and often changes colors—Schwab tersely said, “We can’t comment on the belly button.” She was effective in keeping all information about the man inside Gritty hidden from me, and when I attempted to peek inside the mask, Gritty ran away from me, disgusted by my transgression. The one small detail I learned: He is tall. In fact, Gritty was originally adapted from a design drawn by Brian Allen of Flyland Designs known internally as “Monster D.” (The “D” does not stand for anything naughty, but rather differentiates it from Monsters A–C.) Monster D rocked a Donald Duck look, but when the performer initially tried on the costume, his height made him look strangely naked, so they gave him pants. “That was a good call,” I told Schwab. “Otherwise, we’d all be wondering about his penis.” Unsurprisingly, Schwab did not have further comment on Gritty’s reproductive organs, but when I mentioned it to Allen, he insisted, “I never designed Gritty’s genitals.”
(There is no easy or obvious place to bring this up, but it’s difficult to talk about the popularity of mascots without talking about furries, a community of people who have a sexual fetish for anthropomorphized animals. Their cultural impact has grown in recent years, particularly online, and brands are paying attention. After sending a glut of sexualized tweets to the cereal mascot Tony the Tiger, furries seemingly drove him off the social media platform. Meanwhile, Chester the Cheetah, the mascot for Cheetos, capitalized on the enthusiasm of these fetishists. Inevitably, the sexualization of these characters, while it remains niche, has become increasingly mainstream.)
Phang, unlike Gritty, was an easy nut to crack. He had one handler, who was, unlike Gritty’s secret service agents, not in character. When he pulled me in for a picture, I whispered to him, “Will I be able to get you to talk?” and he whispered back, “Maybe.” I gasped with delight. When his handler wasn’t paying attention, he told me that he also plays the sidekick to the Phillie Phanatic, and was also a college mascot. Down the throat of the snake costume, he flashed me his piercing green eyes, which sent a chill down my spine. Later on, while he was taking a break from his mascot duties in an office conference room, I sneaked a peek of him out of his suit and saw a young man, soaking in sweat, totally silent, holding his head in his hands, as if he was in deep pain. A couple minutes later, he was back in the suit, continuing his charm offensive around the stadium.
Since mascot law barred me from speaking with the men who embody Gritty and Phang, I turned to my friend Josh Lay, a former New Jersey Devil who went to the University of Tennessee on a full mascot scholarship with books included. Lay has an infectiously upbeat quality to him, and his reviews of mascot life were decidedly mixed. He described his experience as “super hot,” involving wearing a 25-pound suit with no ventilation, constantly dehydrated. Lay became a mascot because he liked sports and was an aspiring actor. When he moved to New York after college to pursue acting, he recalled performing as the Devil to a screaming audience of thousands, only to return to the city later that evening and perform improv for eight drunk people at a small bar. “You’re this instant celebrity,” he told me. “Smokey [the mascot for the University of Tennessee] has been around for 50 years. You’re a celebrity who has never lost celebrity status.”
The growing appeal of mascots almost seems inevitable in our increasingly broken world: They don’t have any of the flaws that make humans so difficult to love. They are what anyone wants them to be, and what everyone wants them to be. The Flyers might lose a hockey game, but Gritty always wins. The New Yorker writer Naomi Fry named Gritty one of the best men of 2018, explaining, “Gritty is magic because he is pure male id, but without any of the menace.” He threatens without doing anything; he is as kind or unkind as you desire.
In a punitive era where anyone can be canceled for a stray word, the mascot is a safe figure to love. Gritty, an otherworldly apparition who doesn’t even have the baggage of looking like a real animal, is the perfect idol. He is ugly and chaotic, and thus relatable, but only exists for the purpose of having fun, of celebrating the strange joy that comes along with existing in a society. He is beautiful and beloved, and has already secured his place in history. His time, this era of anything that can be everything to everyone, is just beginning.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.