Big Red changes from joke to icon

Hollan Holm

Western graduate Ralph Carey still gets tickled when he sees his alma mater’s mascot, Big Red. After all, the genderless, ageless pile of red fur that has become an ESPN SportsCenter icon was his idea.

“It’s my fault,” Carey said, adding a laugh.

Before Carey created Big Red, a string of other mascots failed.

Mountain Man, a man dressed in a coonskin cap carrying a rifle, and Mr. Hilltopper, a man dressed in a red top hat and jacket with long tails, received a “ho-hum” reaction from the crowd.

“I thought surely we could come up with a better idea than that,” Carey said.

Carey had heard from one of his Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers that Western was searching for a new mascot.

In late October 1979, Carey met with Gary Ransdell, assistant director of Alumni Relations, and Ron Beck, then assistant dean of Student Activities.

As they brainstormed, Carey began sketching a new mascot on a sheet of notebook paper.

He turned the page toward Beck and Ransdell 30 minutes later.

It was a rough picture of a red, furry mascot that looked like a finger puppet. It had a gaping black mouth capable of swallowing entire basketballs.

They called the creature “Big Red.”

Carey was allotted $300 to build his monster.

It took over a month to glue and hand sew the suit. He made the first costume using red costume fur, air conditioner filter foam, plastic tubing, aluminum, a plastic construction worker’s helmet and a couple of gallons of industrial glue.

Birth of Big Red

Carey stood in an 8-foot box as cheerleaders wheeled him to center court in Diddle Arena.

It was halftime during the 1979 season opener against Rollins College. Big Red’s debut was scheduled for the game before Christmas break so that if Big Red flopped, fans would forget about him.

The box reached center court and Carey prepared for his first appearance.

“(I thought) ‘There’s no turning back at this point,'” Carey said.

From the seats in Diddle, the fans could only see a huge white gift box with a red bow.

Carey burst through the side of the box stepping into the limelight for the first time. The crowd roared.

“We knew instantly that we had hit on the right concept,” Ransdell said.

Big Red was born.

Carey’s successor, Mark Greer, quickly realized there was a problem with the original Big Red suit. But it wasn’t the concept.

It was the odor.

“It smelled like the inside of a locker room, a cheap hotel and a bad Lysol job,” said Greer, who played Big Red for three years after Carey.

The original costume had accumulated two semesters of sweat, and the costume couldn’t be washed. Spray disinfectants were Greer’s only savior.

Greer said a new “washable” suit was created, giving Big Red its first makeover.

Since then, Big Red has been through a few face-lifts and tummy tucks.

Originally it looked like a red blob with two feet hanging from the bottom. The fur looked like red brushed out cotton balls.

Now, the costume is more pear-shaped and the fur is much shorter. Last year, Big Red was tattooed with “WKU.”

But one thing has never changed. It instills the same, if not better, mobility that Carey intended when he first designed the costume. The suit needed to have movable arms, and the person inside had to be able to see well.

Big Red also had to be able to defend himself.

Carey would be tested during his first encounter with the University of Louisville’s Cardinal at a basketball game in Freedom Hall.

“It was like Ali and Sonny Liston in the ring,” Carey said of his play-boxing with the slow and partially blind Cardinal. “Big Red can just dance around him.”

Wade Raymer walks into a room with a red sack slung over his shoulder. He looks like a black-haired, underweight Santa Claus.

He loosens the string on the bag and removes the flat puddle of red fur, socks and gloves.

He lays the suit on the ground, stretching it out to full size. Its rib cage and belly of hoops coil up like a Slinky during travel.

Raymer, a Beaver Dam senior, slides his legs into the suit and pulls it up over his chest and arms.

He slips on white tennis shoes, and then the gloves that make Big Red’s hands. He asks for some help snapping the chin strap that holds the mascot’s bowl-shaped head piece in place.

With a little jiggle of fur and foam fat, Raymer’s personality has left. He has become Big Red.

It’s part of the every day routine for Raymer, who took over the suit three years ago. He dresses up as Big Red about 200 times a year.

Raymer knows the challenges that come with being the furry blob.

He said wearing the suit, no matter how many makeovers it’s had, is still hot.

“I can take my t-shirt off . and wring it out with sweat,” Raymer said.

Lots of children want to get Big Red’s autograph, but scrawling “Big Red” can be challenging with four gigantic furry fingers.

And then there’s the silence. Raymer can’t talk to friends while he’s in costume.

“I’ll have to wait ’til after the game to say something,” Raymer said.

Something magic happens when Raymer hoists on the suit. He forgets the silence and the smoldering temperature inside the suit.

For Raymer, it turns him – a relatively tame person – into a creature with no inhibitions.

“I like to see little kids’ faces light up when they see Big Red,” Raymer said.

He likes the interaction, especially with other mascots.

During a game against North Texas, Raymer said the school’s Eagle walked up and sucker punched him from behind. The Eagle made his way back to mid-court before Big Red brought him down with a football season-style tackle.

“I didn’t start it, but I finished it,” Raymer said.

Sometimes being Big Red has allowed Raymer to rub shoulders with some media big shots.

Over the summer, Raymer traveled to Bristol, Conn., to act in ESPN’s promotions for SportsCenter’s 25,000th episode. In between taping, he got to hang with ESPN personalities like Trey Wingo.

“As soon as you see him, he immediately brings a smile to your face,” said ESPN Communications Director Mike Soltys. “That was what we were trying to do with the 25,000th spot.”

Carey saw his prodigy in an ESPN commercial during a business trip in California. As he chatted with a co-worker, the bright red visage of the mascot popped up on screen.

“It’s sort of like the Twilight Zone,” Carey said. “It makes me chuckle because it started with a scribble on a piece of paper.”