116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Before the opening pitch at the first baseball game of the season on April 8, Cedar Rapids Kernels mascot Mr. Shucks prepared in the locker room with some stretches and warm-ups.
Looking backward by bending over through the legs? Check. Moving limbs and joints with surprising dexterity under the weight of a layered suit? Check.
After putting on his pants one leg at a time, the larger-than-life character proceeded with some vocal preparations.
Raspberry noise? Ready to go. Cartoonish giggle? Mandatory for every game. Wolf whistle coming from a literal baseball head? Wouldn’t be a baseball game without it.
In three words, Mr. Shucks is “over the top,” said Noah Layne, whose official title is Mr. Shucks’ coach. Layne, starting his first season with the team, has previous experience working as Hornsby the Bull for the Tulsa Drillers in Oklahoma.
Favorite part of the job: Making people smile.
Least favorite part of the job: Getting warm under all the layers he has to wear. Mr. Shucks, currently about 175 pounds, can lose up to 8 pounds of water weight during a game in warm weather.
At 15, Layne started working for the Drillers after his mom saw an ad for the job.
“I didn’t even know what it was, I just came and fell in love with it,” he said. “I was always the class clown and loved to have fun, so it was just a perfect fit.”
Now 20, Mr. Shucks’ coach does everything for the Kernels mascot — shooting videos, teaching him how to dance, booking all of his events and making sure he gets to the door of each one.
“When people think of a mascot, they think of a high school kid in a suit, but really, it’s a full-time job,” Layne said.
“Being a mascot is all about being a real-life cartoon character,” said Alex Kern, a third-year coach for Herky and previous Herky mascot for the University of Iowa. “A good way to think of it is you’re an actor, you’re playing a character. Your job is to go out there, be exciting and make fans happy.”
Like Layne, he stumbled into being a mascot at the suggestion of a roommate.
And like any good actor, there’s no breaking character on the job. Those who play Herky prepare with improvisation exercises to work through unexpected situations — because no two games or social functions are alike.
Favorite part of job: Cheering on the Hawkeyes.
Least favorite part of job: Watching the Hawkeyes lose.
Staying in character is a big part of maintaining the mystery of mascots, which is taken very seriously by Mr. Shucks and Herky. Revealing who is behind the mask is done on a strict, need-to-know basis to a limited number of people. No photos showing skin are allowed, and social media reveals are off limits for those who play Mr. Shucks and Herky.
“When you go to Disney World, you want to see Mickey Mouse, not some guy in a Mickey Mouse costume,” Kern said.
But here are some burning questions mascots and their associates can answer:
- Do they smile when posing for photos behind the mask? Yes, Layne said.
- Is it hard to manage the continuity of mascots working multiple games? “There’s only one Herky, so Herky can only be in one place at a time, anyway,” Kern said. But the hardest part of the job is making all of the Hawks’ games, he conceded. “It can be tough when you have a football game in Maryland and a basketball game in Iowa City an hour later.”
Not just fun and games
Mr. Shucks and Herky attend games, school programs, weddings and hospitals to keep spirits high. But sometimes, mascots have to navigate tricky situations.
While playing Hornsby once, Layne had to hide in downtown Tulsa, Okla., for a scavenger hunt. The organizers gave him the wrong location, and before long, the sun had gone down — leaving him abandoned in the dark.
“Hornsby just ended up riding around on his quad in downtown Tulsa at night with no headlights,” Layne said.
Naturally, a giant bull mascot riding in the dark got the attention of a nearby police officer. But keeping the mystery behind the mask is just as important to many fans as it is the mascots.
“I’m not going to ask Hornsby to talk or anything,” the officer said to the silent bull. “Just please, for the love of God, stay off the road.”
Other requests demonstrate the depth of character mascots have on the job, like going to a funeral — one of the hardest things Herky has had to do.
“At those situations … someone’s a huge Hawkeyes fan and Herky is there to celebrate (life) with them,” Kern said. “It’s difficult because Herky is forever an optimist. You have to read people’s body language and play it by ear.”
With a physically limited field of vision, that skill is something that comes with experience.
Why they do it
The smiles mascots draw out make the inconveniences of being a mascot a small price to pay. For them, it’s the little things that matter — throwing popcorn in someone’s face, posing for photos and becoming the devotion of a child’s attention after a hug.
“All the big skits are cool, but what matters are those small intimate moments,” Layne said. “(Mr. Shucks is) obviously a mascot of the team, but more than that, we want him to be a mascot of Cedar Rapids.”
Even when Mr. Shucks is having a bad day, Layne said he’ll make sure the baseball head with a permanently fixed tongue is the happiest presence on the field, “because the world needs to be a little bit nicer.”
And while Kern can’t confirm if Herky is smiling behind the mask while posing for photos, he can confirm that Herky gets joy out of making others happy.
“If you can bring a little bit of joy to their time there, it just means everything,” Kern said.
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