Decked out in a hard hat with a giant wooden “W,” fourth-year John Saxton has riled opposing fans, coaches, fans, and referees in an effort to build student support for the men’s basketball team. We sat down with Saxton to talk about the art of heckling, tailgating on the quad, and the Wheaton Thunder.
How did the idea for the W-Head come about and why did you pick Brandon Woodhead in particular?
Well, Brandon Woodhead and I go way back to our days in Alper House. Nothing happened with it first year, but I met Brandon first year and we played Halo together. So it really started out as Brandon Woodhead worshipping me as a Halo player and then I sort of returned the favor in terns of basketball. And Brandon’s such a sweetheart.
So second year was really when it started, and I sort of had this inspiration when I was driving, back home in Indiana, that something just really needed to happen, and that this was sort of the arena to do it. Because my first year was kind of boring, and I know everybody says the same thing, but I was kind of bored with the whole college thing and I just wanted something more. I was expecting so much from college and I realized I wasn’t gonna get it if I didn’t do something about it. So this is… my baby.
How long did it take to actually make the W-heads themselves?
I did it in one day before the game. The one that I wear has the UChicago seal on it; it’s from the GSB—the new GSB being built or something like that—and I found that at my work on campus. And so I just got some wood at Ace and then I got the second hat there as well and then I just put it together. So it took maybe, at most, like, four hours for the two of them.
Has there ever been a mishap where the helmet falls off and breaks?
Oh, yeah. They fall off sometimes... Actually, last weekend when I was getting ready for the tailgate, I dropped the hat that I wear and one of the limbs broke off and I thought it was gonna be a bad omen… but it wasn’t because they scored a hundred points that game.
How much preparation goes into each game, in terms of preparing the heckling? Does it vary from team to team?
Some teams are richer than others in terms of things you can do. And that’s why non-conference opponents are usually more interesting. Like the best two non-conference games this year were Coast Guard and Wheaton. Clearly, both are rife with possibilities, but Wheaton was a particularly good one because no other school will give you as much to work with as…God.
So yeah, it does depend on the school. The conference [teams] are usually less exciting because you play them every year. So a lot of [the preparation] depends on how busy I am. If I have a lot of free time I won’t do anything else.
Do you ever travel to road games?
I guess I’ve only been to one. My roommate and I went to the Kalamazoo game. It was break of last quarter. We got there at halftime, because it took way too long to get there, and I’m there and Jesse Meyer walks out and he’s like ‘oh shit, oh shit!’
What type of relationship do you have with opposing fans? Do they ever just walk over and tell you to shut up?
Oh god, there are so many fucking stories about those. One Case Western game—I think it was our second year—some guy from behind the Case Western bench comes over and sits behind me and starts to heckle me. So at that point I had to heckle him. I was pulling double duty. But after that it was really nice because the guy and I shook hands and we had this really nice understanding, you know. No hard feelings, it’s all about the heckling; it’s all in good fun.
And then last year—this was against Emory—some kid’s mom came over and sat next to us. And she started off really… nice, I guess. She was asking us what we were doing, and if we played basketball too. And then she got really mean, and was saying that we were a bunch of losers, and that the guys on their team try really hard and we have no respect, and there’s a reason that we’re sitting over here and we’re not in the game. That was really weird, and that guy’s gonna get a whole lot more shit this year because of it.
Has there ever been a game where you feel like you might have crossed a line with your heckling?
(laughs) Yeah, yeah. And I can’t take full responsibility for this one, but the Wheaton game earlier this year. See, I like to think there are clearly certain boundaries, like race and sexuality. Those ones are kind of untouchable. I always say there are two things a person can do if he doesn’t want to get heckled. One is to look as ordinary as possible and two is not to acknowledge. And so if you look eccentric and you acknowledge me, like, you’re going to get heckled.
So at the Wheaton game, there were a few key chants that I thought were really good. One was ‘virgin’ because during the free throws it would go ‘vir-gin, vir-gin’ or ‘ev-o-lu-tion’ because they can’t teach evolution there and they sign this community covenant of no smoking, no drinking, no sex, and they recently allowed dancing so that one’s game.
But there was also—and this one I didn’t start, but I was part of it—there was this kid, and he had this facial tic, like his eye had this little twitch, so we chanted ‘fa-cial tic.’ So I understand that that one crossed the line, because there’s nothing he can do about that.
Have you ever been thrown out of the game, and if not what’s the closest you’ve come?
The closest I’ve come was first year. It was one of the early games, against UW–Stevens Point, whose nickname is the “Pointers.”…So I wrote on my sign: “I’ve got your pointer right here,” and I held it up and I held my crotch. Some of the parents from the other side—one of the dads—held up this little inch sign with his fingers and then there was this really intense interaction going on between them and me. Then I think at one point I yelled at them, like, ‘how’s your Viagra’ or something like that, because they were saying things to me. And so [Athletic Director] Tom Weingartner comes over and looks at my signs and he didn’t really put it together, because of the pointer thing. And then when he walks away and he’s turned his back to me, I did it again and I stood up and I held my crotch with the sign and then he came back over and he took the sign and he took me outside and he told me that if I kept doing it or whatever, he would throw me out and send me to [Dean of Students] Susan Art, or something like that. So that was probably the closest. He actually took me out and we were in the lobby of Ratner for that one. And it was really, like, heartwarming, when I came back in and people were applauding.
Do the refs usually talk to you or do they just ignore you?
Yeah, [they do], because most of the refs are regulars. Actually, before this last Sunday game, at the 12 o’clock game I got up at 11:45 because I was at my friend’s keg race the night before. So I got there a little late and I wasn’t dressed up right and I didn’t have my hat. And so one of the refs goes up to me and says, “Aren’t you that guy?” And I say “yeah.” And so he says, “well, where’s the hat? I miss the hat. It’s not the same without the hat and the heckling. Are you gonna be quiet the whole game?” and I was like “yeah, I’m trying to grow up.” Or something like that.
This season you’ve been handing out “Vote for Woody” t-shirts for free at the games. Where did you get the money to make the shirts?
I do have a source. I’m not at privilege to discuss. (laughs) It was an anonymous supporter of the cause.
You’ve been bringing the “Woodhead/Obama ‘08” sign to almost every game. Now that Obama has actually joined the presidential race, have you given any thought to replacing him on the ticket?
Well, I think Woodhead/Obama sounds better, but Woodhead is more of a Vice President kind of guy. I think the sign goes nicely with the t-shirts.
How does Brandon feel about your antics? Does he ever ask you to settle down?
I think he loves it. I’ve told him before that if ever I’m more of a distraction than I am beneficial, to let me know. There was one time after the Wheaton game, where the guys said, “yeah, you guys are really intense.” It was sort of congratulatory. I mean, Nate Hainje has said that the reason we won that game was us, because we were particularly cantankerous and there was this one time that they got in a fast break and the ref got in the way and prevented Wheaton from scoring. So no, I think it’s always appreciated.
You’ve been organizing tailgates on the Bartlett quad to try and get more students to go to games. How successful have those events been, and do you feel like you’re winning over any new fans?
I think so. I mean, we had some leftover shirts the first time I did it—we’ve done it twice with the third time being tomorrow. We got rid of all the shirts, which is like 50, and the first time we had 72 hot dogs and we went through all of them. And the last time we had 72 as well but we only did it for an hour and a half and they were all gone at the end. And it’s a whole bunch of people that I’ve never seen before; a whole bunch of random people. I shout at them to pretend they’re in college and “support basketball awareness.” I treat it like it’s some sort of disease-awareness thing, which it kinda is. It’s like, apathy, or cyncism, or a lack of excitement; it’s really sort of a disease that I’m targeting… I don’t know if it’s exactly translating into greater attendance at the games. My second year I told Woodhead at one point that we’d have one quarter of the student body there—that goal has yet to be realized, but there’s still a few more home games.
Do you try to incorporate the typical U of C nerdiness into your heckling at all, or is it more the type of stuff you were doing against Stevens Point?
Well, you kinda have to adapt to your audience, I think. So some of the heckles can be really cumbersome and awkward but they’re really funny, and long-winded too. So like, a really good one from the Coast Guard game was “Hey Grant, your institution is a misnomer; you can’t guard shit!” Or I heckle other players who are getting in foul trouble or refs for overzealous officiating. It’s just not something that you would get at a normal sporting event, so I think it’s unique to the University of Chicago.
Do you have any words of advice for Brandeis and NYU this weekend?
Well, I heard that—see, Woodhead is really friendly with lots of the guys from the other teams—so he said that Jason Boone of NYU gave him a call and so he wants to go out afterwards—after the game—to celebrate, and I told Woodhead to bring him by the tailgate. Maybe I’ll try to slip something into his hot dog or something. But really, they don’t have a chance. There’s really no advice I can give them. We’re on a roll and we’re not gonna stop.