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November 28, 2006

The Uncommon Interview: Paul Kremsky- Phoenix

Each Saturday morning, as the football players suit up in their helmets and pads, fourth-year Paul Kremsky puts on a bird suit and heads over to Stagg Field to pump up the crowd. A former member of the wrestling team, Kremsky has played the Phoenix mascot at football games since his first year. With the end of his mascot career approaching, Paul discussed fond sports memories, alternative uses for the bird costume, and how “glamorous” life can be for the U of C Phoenix.

Chicago Maroon: Explain the mascot situation: Are we the Maroons or the Phoenixes?

Paul Kremsky: The mascot is the phoenix, which is a confusing point for a lot of people, especially away teams—but also Chicago people. If you look on the seal in the Reynolds Club, it’s in there. Our school logo has it. It’s hard because the phoenix can’t talk, so people will ask me what I am. There’s no way to mime a phoenix. Usually I just point to myself. I’ve been mistaken for a lot of things, especially a chicken.

CM: Can you put “Phoenix” on your resume when you graduate?

PK: It actually is on my resume. For some jobs, I took it off if I thought the employer wouldn’t think it was funny. It’s always a good conversation starter. I originally wanted to have a picture of it, but my adviser didn’t think that was a good idea, so I took it off.

CM: Sometimes on TV, the mascot gets a hard time. Any bad experiences?

PK: Well, there was once. I got head-butted once. It was a bald guy, and as a joke I rubbed his head like I was shining it, and he head-butted me. I don’t know what his problem was. The helmet is pretty hard, though, so it probably hurt him more than me.

CM: Ever fought another mascot?

PK: Other teams never bring their mascots. They know it’s dangerous to come to my house. Last game, there was the groundbreaking [to install new turf and lights at Stagg Field], and Chicago had just won the game, and the athletic director wanted me to come on the field for the groundbreaking, and I had to walk by the other team who had just got beaten, so they were pretty steamed. I was a little worried, but no one touched me.

The guys on the wrestling team used to come wrestle the Phoenix, though. I’m undefeated as the Phoenix. I’m a much better wrestler as the Phoenix than in real life. I’ve taken on most of the guys on the team; no one’s been able to take me down. Spencer Burns, this guy on the team, he’s pretty good—keeps on trying, but he can’t stop me. I also have a longstanding rivalry with the wrestling coach, Coach Kocher. He was at a football game once, and I thought I would wrestle him, but I forgot that he doesn’t joke around when it comes to wrestling. He pulled some fast moves on me and ended up ripping part of my wing.

CM: If you could take on any other school’s mascot, which would it be?

PK: I think I could take on the Yale Bulldog. He doesn’t look too tough. Plus, I think that’s also the only other mascot I know.

CM: Ever worn the suit outside a sporting event?

PK: Once, after a game, I went to my friend’s apartment and surprised him. It would be a good Halloween costume. In fact, I don’t know why I didn’t wear it as a Halloween costume this year; I was Flavor Flav instead. Somebody else dressed up as the same thing at the party I went to—kind of ruined it. There were not any other phoenixes. I would’ve been the only one.

CM: When you’re on a date, do you let the girl in on your alias?

PK: Well, I’ve been dating my girlfriend for over two years, and she still doesn’t know.

CM: Really?

PK: No. But I do tell her not to come to the games, because it’s kind of embarrassing.

CM: Some games start pretty early on the weekends. Any hungover Phoenix experiences?

PK: Yeah, it’s really rough actually. It’s about the most unpleasant thing you could ever do with yourself. Eleven o’clock seems pretty early when you’ve been out late the night before. Sometimes I regret agreeing to do it. The guy who did it before me—he was a senior when I was a freshman—told me he threw up in the suit once, which is maybe why the suit still smells. I haven’t had it that bad yet, but I have wanted to.

CM: What would it take for U of C athletics to get more recognition?

PK: Mascot bowl: Mascots all over the city play a football game at halftime. I don’t think I know anyone who wouldn’t show up for that. And also, let me play quarterback.

CM: Does it get hot and itchy in the suit?

PK: It gets hot at the beginning of the season, but by the time it starts snowing and being Chicago weather, I’m usually more comfortable than the people sitting at the games. It doesn’t get itchy, but it has started to smell, as people have commented when I’ve walked past them from time to time. But other than that, it’s pretty comfortable. It’s like a big suit of pajamas.

CM: Would you be willing to play the mascot at a school with a huge sports program? How would it be different?

PK: Yeah, definitely, that’s the big time. It would be totally different. For one thing, I probably wouldn’t go into the stands as much. I’d probably stay on the field. It’d be a lot easier to get the crowd going. That’s definitely the toughest part of being the mascot: getting them to cheer. That wouldn’t be trouble at all at a big school—that’d be awesome. Plus, I think the mascots get scholarships at DI schools.

CM: You’ve wrestled in prior years, so does someone else dress up as the mascot for wrestling matches?

PK: Not yet, maybe someday. I’m not wrestling this year, so maybe [I’ll do it] this year. It would be a problem because one of the guys on the team—Brandan Tillman—he’s scared of birds, so every time he sees the mascot he can’t perform, so it might actually cost the team some points. He’s terrified. He’s scared of water too, can’t get in pool. This is all going in there, right?

CM: Ever work with the U of C cheerleaders?

PK: They go in and out of hiding. They disappear for a couple months and then just show up again, but that’s always fun, too, when they do show up. I think they like to do the basketball games more because it’s inside. I always try to collaborate with them, but by the time I show up at the game, I’m in my costume, so we can’t really have a drawn-out conversation. I’ve always wanted to be on top of a pyramid, but they haven’t gone for it yet.

CM: What’s the best game you’ve been to?

PK: A pretty good one was about a month ago. We were up seven points—the other team scored a touchdown. That really took the wind out of my sails; it really knocked me down. But all of a sudden the crowd started cheering “block that kick” and I got really excited and started pumping up the crowd some more. We ended up blocking the kick and winning by a point. That was pretty exciting. It was inspiring, actually.

CM: Hardest part about playing the Phoenix?

PK: Sometimes there are really young kids at the game who are scared of me. Usually I stay away from their whole section of the bleachers, so that’s an added dimension. Some kids…can’t get enough of the mascot. They keep walking right up to me, and because of the suit, I have limited vision. I’m always really worried I’m going to bowl a kid over. Maybe I have, actually. It’s totally possible.

CM: Who’s going to take your place when you graduate, and do you think they’ll be able to fill your shoes?

PK: I don’t know—they’re pretty big shoes. It’s not that hard a job. I get paid now, which is cool, because I didn’t get paid freshman year. And everyone wants to do it. It’s pretty much the most glamorous thing you can do with your life. Being the mascot is like being a rock star.

CM: If you got to choose our mascot, what would you choose?

PK: Since we’re the Maroons, I think we should just be a big maroon ball. Just the color somehow.

CM: Any final words?

PK: Yeah. Recently, my feelings were a little hurt. Last week in the RedEye there was a feature of like 20 different Chicago mascots and I was not even invited. They had Chicago State, so they did have colleges. So, I’ve stopped reading the RedEye.

—Sara Jerome