About an hour before kickoff on a fall football Saturday at the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Falcons Stadium, one of the most popular people is the one clad in electric blue with giant shoes and a yellow beak.
The Bird attracts attention in an environment with the most rabid fans sporting face paint and wearing their own costumes. Almost everyone wants to share either a photo or a high-five with the Academy mascot.
“If you’re cool with The Bird, you’re cool with me,” Cadet 1st Class Brendan Maestas tells a visitor at the cadet security entrance to the Tailgate Tent.
The Bird performs with Academy cheerleaders and the Drum and Bugle Corps as kickoff time approaches.
“The ultimate goal when I’m (playing) The Bird is to just be as crazy and wild as possible,” said Cadet 2nd Class Ben Deschane. “At the end, I shouldn’t have any energy left, so I should use very bit of my energy during the game.”
As kickoff time draws closer, The Bird uses his pregame energy for performances and clowning in photos with fans. He high-fives cadets,
playfully steals fans’ toboggan hats just before the camera clicks, and finds other humorous ways to build spirit among cadets and fans throughout the stadium.
The Academy’s Bird Team, led by Cadet 1st Class Dave Anderson, meet in the Bird’s Nest in the south end zone to get into costume.
Some games are easier to keep the fan spirit going. This year’s game against the U.S. Military Academy was an example of the difference between performing as The Bird when the Falcons are winning and when the game’s not going like the fans hope. The game was a tale of two halves for The Bird, which mirrored how the game played out for the Falcons and their fans.
Deschane was The Bird in the first half when the Falcons trailed 14-0, and most of the 80,000 people in the stands had little to cheer about.
“Our job is to feed off the crowd,” Deschane said. “If they’re excited, we’re excited. “If it’s a good game, it’s really exciting. When there are breaks, it’s easier to go off and do your own thing like flips, cartwheels and just horsing around. People are more into the game, so if you do something, it’s even more funny because everybody’s already excited.
“But when we were down 14-0, the crowd just shut down. No one was really excited.”
During the game, The Bird is on the sidelines with the cheerleaders and the microphone man, Cadet 1st Class Bryan Stigall. The Bird spells out the cheers with his arms, jumps up and down and does everything he can think of to keep fans excited. When the Academy scores, he accompanies the cadets to the end zone for the traditional pushups matching the score. Deschane didn’t get a chance for extracurricular physical fitness with the offense shut out in the first two quarters.
Fortunately for the Falcons and The Bird, fortune and fans’ spirits changed dramatically in the third quarter. Air Force scored 24 unanswered points, mostly in the action-packed third quarter, when the Falcons’ defense forced several turnovers and the offense scored two touchdowns and a couple of field goals.
“Going into the second half when we were already down, it was kind of nerve-racking,” said Cadet 3rd Class Kyle Frayling, who played The Bird for that part of the game. “We’re more or less the icing on the cake, as far as feeding energy from the cheer team and the crowd. I did my best to come out with a fresh start, and when good things started happening, I just tried to build off the momentum. The crowd started getting excited, and that just got me even more excited. It was a heckuva time in the second half, the complete opposite of what happened in the first half.”
Frayling admitted that he got a little carried away once the Falcons put the game away in the fourth quarter. When he saw Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, walking the sideline with Lt. Gen. Michael C. Gould, Academy commandant, he thought it would be funny to prank the general, not realizing which general he was. Frayling playfully took Dempsey’s hat while they shook hands.
“I knew he was a four-star general, but I wasn’t quite sure who he was,” Frayling said. “So I took his hat, and his aide immediately turned around and pulled out another hat.
“That’s what we love the most, interacting with people one on one. When other people see that and find it funny, it’s easier to go off that energy.”
When the final seconds ticked off, all the energy in Falcons Stadium converged on the field as the fans poured out of the stands to celebrate the Academy’s win. The Bird was right in the middle of it, with fans hollering his name and giving him a friendly smack when they spotted him in the crowd.
“It was pretty exhilarating,” Frayling said. “I got slapped on the head so many times, I probably have a concussion. But everybody was really excited. They were yelling, ‘Bird.’”
In the celebration of another Air Force victory, everybody wearing Air Force blue was cool with The Bird.