Ned Mulendyke was completely spent. He lay on the football field,
saturated with sweat and on the cusp of nausea. Encased in the
claustrophobic costume, his eyes were blinking to futilely shed the
perspiration caused by a brutal combination of the final hours of
physical and mental effort wrapped up with a nice healthy fear of
failure. Ned was a soon-to-be sophomore and this summer was attempting
to ascend to the heady plateau of becoming the team mascot for Broward
High School Fighting Tarpon.
He and the other two finalists lay resting on the football field, awaiting the results of the week-long competition. All the scores were tabulated so the normal protocol of keeping your costume pristine was suspended. As part of the week-long assessment, Ned was always checking his costume with a compact mirror originally designed to check under cars for bombs; built with a telescoping wand, Ned was able to easily pull out the mirror during mandatory water breaks to take complete inventory of his costume. Once satisfied, he would retract the handle and put it away in a hidden pocket secreted between his front dorsal fins. Several times, he noticed a grass stain or some debris hanging from his costume which he then cleaned or wiped away before a judge noticed the same thing and dock him a point or two for miscellaneous sloppiness.
His costume, both angular and cylindrical, allowed for his extremities to be free for stunts and meeting fans while his competition struggled with unforgiving reinforced foam sleeves. The fish’s head however, was another story and even with his modifications, the overall length of the Tarpon head bordered on zoological heresy. An actual tarpon has a snubbier nose, as most rough fishes, but snubbier noses do not photograph well so the costume designers borrowed liberally from other species. Upon review of the earlier designs of the costume, one would notice that several evolutionary and quite unscientific changes resulted in a more sailfish-type head, with a longer and more menacing jaw line and an outstanding look for both newspaper articles and marketing brochures.
The three finalists were all attempting to replace a legend at Broward: Katie Phillips. Katie was a four year mascot that was a freakish combination of vaudeville veteran and Chinese gymnastic troupe. Katie surprised the whole school four years ago by arriving on the first day of school with the tarpon head casually tucked underneath her arm. During her one week tryout prior to school opening, she had bested the reigning Tarpon plus his entire school of backups. As an eighth grader, Katie had seen that the Tarpon had grown complacent and realized it was her duty to get the mascot into true fighting shape. When she had arrived at the tryouts, the competing students did not notice her generally due to their arrogance. Once the week was over, she had ascended to the top of the food chain and was named the new mascot before she had spent one day at Broward High School as a student.
Initially, the student body was taken aback and this attitude was being fueled by the deposed Tarpon who had implied to anyone that had listened to him, that the judges had been compromised. These rumors were put to rest within five minutes of the first football game when Katie arrived on the scene in a fish tank and proceeded to be shot out of the tank during the end of the national anthem. Propelled by an unseen springboard, she rose from the water, mimicking the tarpon’s ability to break the water’s surface, landing squarely on her feet, complete with an elegant and awe-inspiring one and a half rotation flip. Coined by the local paper as the "flip and release," Katie silenced all critics with her complete mascot repertoire. She spent her evening in the three major mascot areas: meeting and greeting small children, entertaining the crowd during established timeouts and by enhancing the species per the Broward High School Mascot Code of Ethics [#1].
During her tenure in which she successfully defended each summer, Katie Phillips set new standards for all central Floridian mascots. She consistently graded out each performance with unheard of perfect scores and even demanded higher levels of perfection of herself. Separately critiquing her performance through a third-party film crew, she would retire to her changing room, known for years as "the tank" to review tapes and dutifully record her notes into her large production manual that captured the venue [#2]details. Her efforts did not go unnoticed as she accepted a full four-year scholarship at the University of California- Santa Barbara as their exclusive athletic spirit mascot.
Now, in the post-Katie Phillips era, the assembled mascot wannabes were not only fighting each other but had to take on the legacy of arguably the finest cheer and spirit generating legend in all of high school sports. Katie had done it all and left a standard that few could even imagine approaching. Ned knew Katie socially and made a point to pick her brain about becoming a mascot. He realized that she was constantly being asked the secret of her success but he wanted to get past all the standard, pat answers of hard work and dedication.
"Katie, I am thinking about trying out for the Tarpon this summer."
"That would be super! You would be GREAT as the new Tarpon!"
"What advice can you give me?"
"You gotta wanna! You have to be true to your school!"
Ned, still determined for some unique insight, took her hand in a friendly manner and leaned in and said quietly, "Give me some real advice, just for me."
She looked at him with her large, round eyes that appeared to be slowly growing away from the bridge of her nose and whispered back quietly, "Be the fish!"
Ned, smallish but energetically coordinated, knew his future needed to be an "alternative" sport or activity due to his size. He could credibly compete for perhaps another year but he would never achieve any type of social success unless he took a chance and the notoriety and high profile nature of the mascot was perfect. He knew that his athleticism would help but he needed to out think his competition. The group striving to be the new mascot would be coming from three traditional groups: the ex-gymnasts, the ex-cheerleaders and the clinically crazy. He would be viewed as the dark horse because of his gender and his fairly well-established social stability. He was as loyal of a school booster as the next guy but he saw the mascot gig as his ticket to greater goals: social ascension and a free ride at some division one school.
The first thing Ned did to prepare was to fully understand the rules and the scoring criteria in which he would be judged. A study of the rules showed that the mascot was a multi-dimensional entertainer as well as the senior envoy of school spirit. The applicants would be judged in four categories: overall mascot showmanship, demonstrated ability to work within a choreographed routine, ability to fill small children with wonderment and a written examination that would cover all miscellaneous areas including general Broward High School history, Tarpon facts and cheer etiquette.
He had two months to prepare for the tryouts and realized that the summer would have to be exclusively dedicated to achieving his goal: the new Tarpon for Broward High School. He began immediately by building a prototype costume to wear while training because he realized that a cartwheel in his backyard was far different when a wearing constricting and poorly ventilated rhinestone tube suit, complete with large restrictive foam fins. He spent the weekend practicing rudimentary tumbling exercises and started to supplement the exercises with first, a bucket with eye holes to simulate the jutting, prehistoric head of the Tarpon and later, with a large PVC cylinder, complete with a back hinge to replicate the Tarpon body. He lined the tube with towels to absorb sweat and to minimize the chafing of the ensemble.
His first week was an abject failure: the suit, cruelly constricting and completely unforgiving, caused Ned to begin to re-learn almost all the skills that he thought he already possessed. The tube was bulky and with the bucket helmet attached, almost a completely enclosed casket with limited vision and almost no real air flow. It seemed that wherever Ned looked, he was continually surrounded by a miasma of perspiration making his vision significantly impaired. Needing assistance, Ned enlisted his friend Raymond "the Hawk" Hawken to start making structural changes to facilitate both air circulation and improved sightlines without taking away from the general Tarpon silhouette. The young men realized that the suit worn by Ned in the tryouts would be lighter and more flexible so the skills learned with this prototype suit would be easily honed for the competition. Not unlike a batter who places an iron doughnut on the end of a bat prior to facing live pitching, their homemade suit should be worth all the anguish when showtime finally arrived.
Week two would add some new functionality; the exercises and tumbling would be supplemented by some assistance from a classmate concentrating on theater arts. Mascots are slightly above mimes in the hardwood food chain but the offer of free tickets and the bragging rights about being the person behind the fish was too great of an offer to pass on. Ned’s entourage also included a biology lab assistant on phone retainer who would be counted on to provide both practical and theoretical knowledge about the fish itself.
Valerie Slate came to visit Ned in his backyard and watched him conclude his regimen of basic tumbling and dance moves. It had taken a week for Ned to successfully master a passable cartwheel and round off and it was obvious that he was very close to wrapping up the somersault and front flip. Those would be considered achieving the minimal acceptable tumbling standards and he felt that just getting by those obstacles would be triumph enough. If there was more time prior to the competition, he may go back and add one or two more tumbling tricks, but his strengths lay in the soft side of Mascot theater: stage presence.
Valerie came complete with a notebook of ten scenarios that Ned had to master prior to any judging. These scenarios were her best estimate of what would be thrown at him during the judging and he had to concentrate on delivering these vignettes without conscious thought: they had to be instinctive and genuine.
When Valerie arrived in the backyard, both Ned (in costume) and Raymond came over to greet her.
"Thanks for coming, Valerie," said Ned in a muffled but sincere tone within the costume.
"I like your look," said Valerie, "is it hot in there?"
"I have lost ten pounds in six days," sighed Ned from within the costume. "I have to drink about a quart of water every hour or I am going to pass out. And the last thing I am thinking about is a bathroom."
"Make a note, Raymond," said Raymond into a small tape recorder. "Get Ned ready for the heat by having him learn how to manage his water intake. Look into some portable catheters."
"I have written up several scenarios for us to review today," said Valerie. "If we can get through three or four today, I would be pleased."
"Bring it on," said Ned in a muffled voice. "I can’t wait to start on these."
"Okay," said Valerie, "but these aren’t tricks, they are unique circumstances and your ability to excel at these situations, should separate you from your competition."
"The first one is dealing with little children. These are children in the toddler age range that will be brave enough to give you a passive high five if they are in their parent’s arms but are a bit reticent to do it without prompting"
Valerie continued, "The most important thing to remember when dealing with kids to not to have them cry. They may be shy but there can be no tears. If the kid cries, you have failed."
"What can I do?" asked Ned. "If the kid doesn’t like me, I can’t help it."
"You are completely wrong," rebutted Valerie. "You, as the Broward High School Tarpon Mascot, are the only life form who can charm the children of any age, just as you are the only life form able to cause them fear. You must be incredibly careful when dealing with children. One screaming kid and you will be banished to shaking a cowbell at a bunch of JV Harriers. Understand?"
"So, what can I do?" repeated Ned.
"It is three parts of my "three s" strategy: surprise no one, stay low, and shhh."
"What was the last one?" asked Raymond as he was scribbling down the instructions.
"Shhh. Be quiet"
"Remember, you are an eight foot high rhinestone studded sport fish with a protruding nose and bright scaly gills. If you aren’t ready, you can scare the crap out of someone. We have to worry about the kids but if you come up too fast on someone’s great grandmother, you could send her out of the stadium toes first."
"I see your point but it seems pretty specific."
"Just wait for the time that you lean down and think some little kid is going to love the idea of giving your fin a tug. What is going to happen is going to be a bit different. You are standing there, with all the good intentions you can muster, and the kid is going to look at you and scream bloody murder."
"That might steal some of my thunder."
"Exactly. Treat the kids with care; unless you can show that you made every effort to mitigate the three foot tail or your pointy nose with some well-placed caution, you will be a pariah."
Valerie went through the other ten scenarios, describing the factors and the likely consequences of each of them. The other scenarios included a close game, inebriated/rowdy/aggressive fans, rain, natural turf versus Astroturf, band/cheerleader communication, general flag corps coping strategies, photographers, the opponent’s mascot and injuries. The mascot has to at best, make things better and at worst, do no harm and the dynamics that are generated by being a living embodiment of an identity-rich ideal is sobering enough to force the weak-hearted mascot candidates off the judge’s list. Katie Phillip’s strategy was more of a scorched-Earth policy and as a one of a kind entertainer; she just had to rely on herself and her stage presence. Ned was far more limited with his skill sets so Valerie felt that she could make him more effective by teaching him some ancillary attributes to make him the best candidate.
The weeks went on and Raymond was adding value by getting quality intelligence on the interview process, the likely list of candidates and photographs of the new costume. Each year the style evolved and the Tarpon was turning slowly into a hybrid barracuda-tarpon-marlin concoction to allow for more fish-related features. As the costume prototypes were coming together, the team readied their own improvements based on where the final costume was landing.
Each day, Ned’s skills were being sharpened and with two weeks to go, he was in solid physical and mental shape. Valerie drilled in numerous, changing scenarios while Raymond would scream out specific cheer support roles and crowd-enticing suggestions. Broward’s fight song was lifted, as many schools did from Michigan’s "Hail to the Victor’s," and there is a firm protocol for the mascot’s choreography. As the song would rise to proclaim "Broward," (read: ‘Victors’) the mascot had to raise both of its little flippers outward and up.
Upon his sign that he was ready, one of his entourage would begin playing some song and Ned would have to jump into the song with one of his established dance steps and arm waves. The fight song would be in mid-chorus and Valerie would scream crowd situations in mid-music.
"Fight on, Broward Tarpon"
Valerie screamed, "Rain, Homecoming"
Ned would proclaim on "Broward" with a slightly more reverent manner, looking upward to slightly off to the side to discourage rain draining into his fish head.
The music switched suddenly and the classic tune was Steam’s, "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." And Valerie screamed, "Their mascot is coming towards you from your left."
Ned did a handy little box step to buy time and then waved his left flipper when the words "Goodbye" would be sung.
"Perfect!" Valerie screamed, and then she screamed louder "Here come some kids."
Ned hit his knees and reached out with his little flippers. He had cut hand grips into his fins and reached out. Valerie noticed that Ned had replaced the hard, structured fins with softer, sponge fins. As he reached out, the tarpon’s face slightly smiled up and he bent the fins inward in an inviting and non-threatening manner. Then after a few moments of beckoning the imaginary children to come closer, he pulled out little Tarpon squeeze toys from a hidden armpit pouch to offer as a final option for the reluctant and wary.
"Perfect! You can lay out for a few minutes."
For the first time in an hour, Ned was allowed to remove the fish head. He had fashioned some new subtle improvements, including cool water packs and a small, battery operated fan in the lower jaw of the head. He was hot but his amenities made the fish head and costume far more reasonable to work in. He had wondered how anyone could do this without real training. He was ready for the competition and as he began stripping down, Raymond said, "Formal scientific name for the tarpon."
Sweaty, spent and complete, Ned looked at Raymond coolly and said, "Megalops Atlanticus."
The last two weeks was also dedicated to repeating his dance steps, committing his movements to muscle memory, and clearing his mind for the mental sparring that would happen between the candidates. The day before the competition, the list was posted and it was exactly the same one that Raymond had acquired the week before. The three studied each of the candidates and realized that the wide range of candidates worked to his advantage as the wild card of clinically crazy people were an extremely small minority of the candidates. Katie Phillips had placed an entire generation of mascots out of business due to her four completely dominating years and as a result, no younger candidates were in the background with any valid claim on the prize. Her prolific nature had diminished the importance of understudies; Katie had performed at every venue and never, ever missed a show. The list was full of the three categories and Ned’s addition was strangely uncategorized and the sheer volume was almost exclusively nimble ex-cheerleaders.
That trend encouraged the trio; there were only a few gymnasts to excel in advanced tumbling so the battle was going to be won in the trenches: show presentation and a nimble mind. Ned had made a strategic decision to achieve basic proficiency in tumbling and concentrated his ability to make people happy. His initial interview was in the last third of the day and he realized the interview could only hurt him by their decision to not pass him on to the field competition. He had to score well on the examination and get by the first interviewer. He knew that if he peaked early, he wouldn’t have anything left for the main show.
The morning of day one, he arrived at the school for the orientation and a surprise guest speaker, the newly anointed mascot queen of Santa Barbara , Katie Phillips. The auditorium easily held the approximately thirty candidates and each one was carefully sizing up the competition when Katie’s voice snapped heads forward.
"FIRE UP BROWARD!" she screamed. Ned noticed that her arms moved in tight little semi-circles, unconsciously mimicking a forward swimming motion. She would have to change that move before she put on the pinstripes for UCSB.
"I said, FIRE UP BRO-WARD!" screamed Katie one more time. This time she let the first syllable drag out, creating tension, and resolved that tension with the booming second syllable.
The group began to scream and clap their hands. Ned realized that even this was part of the assessment because he noticed several people with clipboards, stealthily taking notes and checking boxes as Katie continued to work the group. Realizing this, Ned was the first one to jump to his feet, and started a strong, rhythmic clap. The clap was soon picked up by the room and concluded with Katie’s fishy yelp of final appreciation.
Katie made her comments short and sweet. She was leaving that day for the big time and wanted to let all the potential candidates know how proud she was of all her "tarpon brethren and sisterian [sic.]." She encouraged and challenged the group and gave the room one more wave and promptly left the building. Katie was followed by the faculty adviser with the standard time schedule and general orientation tips. The group was alphabetically broken up into three groups and sent to three different parts of the school. Ned had the written test first and realized that the second day would be his tough one as he was assessed in general athleticism and showmanship. His goal was to make the final three to go gill to gill with the others on the last day.
The test went fine. He finished quickly and realized that thanks to his preparation, he likely scored a perfect 100 and was slightly surprised that "Megalops Atlanticus" was actually on the examination. Ned also knew that his score would push him to early prominence with the other candidates so his goal of relative anonymity would be lost earlier than he expected. But he was ready to get to the big time.
The next day was a tough one. He performed well on the standard tasks and excelled on the costume-related challenges. He hadn’t seen the final costume but the six weeks in the PVC pipe body armor made him light-footed when he put on the generic fabric and foam rubber torso suit. Many of his group struggled when they were affected by missteps and delays because no one else appeared to have factored in the costume variable. The general athletics went fine, he had achieved all passing scores and the non-costume showmanship challenges went better than planned with his nifty improvisational work with some of the props thrown to him by judges. Most of the ex-gymnasts fell away early due to the never-ending demands of them; they appeared to be unable to tie the dozens of routines together into one, continuous performance. And the clinically crazy applicants were just ground down due to the unyielding reality. When the day was over, he stood safely in the top spot with his strengths still to come: it was Ned and two ex-cheerleaders.
The other two candidates were worthy opponents but both had underestimated the grind of the tasks put in front of them. Ned wasn’t sure if they had realized that they would be outfitted in Tarpon costumes for the whole day but he was prepared for whatever happened. At the second day debriefing at Raymond’s house, he intently listened to his coaches as the strategy of the third and final day was laid out.
"What is your confidence level on the final costume?" asked Valerie.
"I have high confidence," said Raymond. "I have confirmed sightings and a change sheet from last year’s costume. You will see some interesting changes."
Raymond handed out some artist’s sketches and the three looked at the confirmed changes in the costume. The most important one was the necessary masculinazation of the Tarpon. Katie Phillips was a legend but her lack of height and feminine mannerisms almost neutered the fish into a friendlier, gentler pan fish. The costume changes were obvious and long overdue attempts to toughen up the tarpon. The colors were a bit brighter, the cut of the jaw line was aggressive and for the first time, the Tarpon was outfitted with a football jersey with "BROWARD" sewn across the back. The Tarpon had no formal first name, but the constant use of the article made the fish similar to "The Baltimore Oriole" as the goal of any true mascot was to transcend other life forms to entertain and enlighten.
As the last test, each of the three finalists would be issued a costume in which they could make small customizations. Customizing the costumes was a two-edged sword: make an innovative change, you would be rewarded. But make a change that diminishes the nobility [#3] of the tarpon, you could suffer demerits for taking too much of a chance. Ned had specific improvements in mind and the troika had debated the entire list and settled on two specific improvements. Ned wanted to change the fish head but that move was considered too risky so Valerie contracted with two key theater seamstresses to make the changes during the time between receiving the costume and starting the competition the following morning.
The next day, Ned got to the field a few moments before the other two competitors and had a moment to talk to the judges. He was humble and appreciative of his chance and even though he was the top surprise in this year’s competition, he was taking no chances. Once all three had arrived, a few measurements were taken and all three were given a fully functional costumes and fish heads. This was a solemn ceremony and all three finalists behaved accordingly. Once they all had their costumes and fish heads, the rules for the final day were detailed. These rules included the basic treatment of the costume including the customization standards, the importance of maintaining as a pristine of a costume as possible, remaining open to any situations the judges may present and finally, maintaining the mascot character no matter what occurs. The final day would start eight o’clock in the morning, no matter the weather, and would conclude at the discretion of the judges.
Ned gathered up his costume and raced home for a meeting with Team Mulendyke. The costume was inspected thoroughly and it was almost identical to the sketches harvested by Raymond. The changes were already discussed and prioritized and the decision was to make two significant alterations to the legendary costume. The first was to stitch arm holes behind the front fins, allowing the Tarpon opportunity to use the arms to meet children and manipulate props. The arm sleeves would be colored the exact tone of the Tarpon’s underbelly and could be folded up into a hidden zippered compartment. The arm sleeves would give the option to use with a pair of silvery gloves, complete with the Broward school logo or a pair of football receiver gloves to be used as needed. The second and more subtle improvement was use of nylon knit ribbed fabric for all appendages. The ribbed material allowed for a smoother opening and would reduce the chance of having some material catch on fences, bleachers and miscellaneous equipment. It allowed Ned to have a far more aerodynamic look and after critically reviewed by the team, they were all comfortable with the changes.
The next morning came early and Ned brought the costume, including significant amounts of water, headbands and salt supplements to the field. He entered the boy’s lavatory and made every effort to become the Tarpon. Once he put the fish head on his shoulders, he mentally locked down his persona into himself and concentrated on the goal that he had been striving for during each hot and humid summer day.
He walked out of the bathroom and a judge walked by and said, "Hello, Ned."
Ned said nothing and continued moving as nobly as possible. He was already safely inside the Tarpon’s personality and the judge’s attempt to have him break character almost seemed too simple, almost insulting. He continued to walk towards the judge’s table and stood at attention directly at the front of the table. This allowed the judges to take a good look at the trunk holes retrofitted with the ribbed fabric and looking through the eye holes, he knew he had jumped ahead of the other contestants. Neither of the remaining contestants had made improvements so he was already ahead of the others and for a moment, he debated whether or not to present the armhole improvement. However, when the judges told each Tarpon to come over and shake hands with each judge, Ned allowed the first two seemingly ersatz Tarpons to go first and clumsily attempt to shake hands. Ned went over to the judge’s table and elegantly offered a fin to the first one, and then he slipped his arm through the silvery arm sleeve and offered his gloved hand to the second judge. He heard an audible gasp from the judge and he knew that he hit another home run. As he went to the third judge, who was still gazing admirably to the enhanced arm system, he extended his hand again and showed the football glove option. Again, a gasp went up from the table and he turned smartly at the end of the table and returned to line.
The day went well and Ned’s training was paying huge dividends. He was far more agile than the judges had expected and he was picking up high amounts of points for his showmanship and charming fishlike mannerisms. The day broke at lunch and Ned retired to the boy’s bathroom and locked the door behind him. No one could see him with his fish head removed and he made a conscious effort to secure his rest area. He composed himself during his time alone, replenishing his fluids, eating and reviewing his efforts to date. His costume was bold, his mannerisms perfect and he was, as Katie suggested, becoming the fish.
He unlocked the door and returned to the judges table. The time was growing closer and both his competitors were flagging but Ned seemed to be gaining power and confidence. The judges had them run through a series of small scenarios while at the same time snapping off orders to check reaction time as well as their overall improv skills. Surprisingly, this challenge only took about forty-five minutes when the order came from the judges "to stop." The judges spent a considerable time in a very furtive and fast-paced discussion when suddenly; the head judge told the three that they had all they needed to make their decision. Ned was steadfast and remained motionless until the judges formally instructed them to stand down.
Ned Mulendyke was completely spent. He lay on the football field, saturated with sweat and on the cusp of nausea. Encased in the claustrophobic costume, his eyes were blinking to futilely shed the perspiration caused by a brutal combination of the final hours of physical and mental effort wrapped up with a nice healthy fear of failure. Ned was a soon-to-be sophomore and this summer was attempting to ascend to the heady plateau of becoming the team mascot for Broward High School Fighting Tarpon.
The judges returned and promptly announced the winner, and to no one's surprise: it was Ned.
He nodded towards his two combatants and shook the hands of the judges. He retired to the bathroom and peeled off his costume. He packed it up and walked out to the bright light of day and into the legacy of great Tarpons before him. He, however, was going to be different.
The first game of the season was his first formal performance and Team Mulendyke stayed up late each night preceding the game. Ned wanted the Tarpon to supersede standard Tarpon hi-jinks and activities and ascend into almost a theater performance. When the evening started, Ned stood at the main gate and worked the crowd, having pictures taken (at reasonable rates) with anyone desiring momentary celebrity. The game saw him all over the stadium: scooting around on his aqua-colored Vespa, dancing with the cheerleaders, leading the band, walking through the bleachers while shaking hands and kissing small children with his foam snout. This was a whole new Tarpon, accessible and understanding, and the crowds loved it. He showed comedic timing by surprising a line judge wearing a lab coat and a Seeing Eye chart immediately after a questionable penalty. He showed impressive dramatic range by weeping actual Tarpon tears when the team heartbreakingly lost the game on a last second field goal attempt. The next day, both the print and radio reviews of his performance, were glowing.
The season was wildly successful and Ned advanced the mascot role past the traditional cheer instigator into more on athletic field theater. Usually claiming a theme designed specifically for that week’s opponent, the Tarpon showed up wearing a King Arthur outfit when he jousted with the Hialeah Black Knights, he showed up with a pith helmet when he captured the Lincoln High School Lion.
During his lion-hunting skit, Ned stealthily pulled out a Taser and brought the Lion down in a heap directly in front of the opposing team’s bench by placing the barrel on the right knee of the Lion during a playful and pre-approved struggle. The Taser was hidden in his front dorsal was passed to Raymond immediately upon leaving the field. Momentarily detained by the security guard, he was vindicated once the search failed to turn up any type of weapon. After the game at a hastily-called press conference, he stated (via pantomime and a interpreter) that he was not only innocent but he had actually volunteered to be interviewed before being approached by the authorities. The Lincoln High administration screamed for an investigation but their outrage fell onto deaf ears once the guard sheepishly admitted on the local news that there was nothing but "wet foam rubber within the costume" and that the "big fish was very cooperative, but did not speak."
With the football season and Lincoln High controversy behind him, Ned made it a point to show up at all other athletic events, much to the pure joy of the spectators. Katie Philips only played the main fall and winter venues of football and men’s basketball but Ned brought the Tarpon to the sparsely-attended Cross Country meets and Lacrosse matches as well as all other minor fall, winter and spring sports and became a fixture on the awards dinner circuit and fund raising car wash events. When the last out was made in the Girls Softball District Championships and it was painfully evident that no Broward team was left to compete, Ned and the rest of Team Mulendyke reluctantly folded up their photo team tent and took a few weeks off before plotting their next year’s strategy. By this time, Ned and Valerie were a couple and Raymond, thanks to his sheer proximity to the Tarpon, was a regular young man about town with invitations to all the elite high school parties. They had achieved all their goals but all three seemed strangely unfulfilled with their accomplishments.
After the sabbatical, the three got together to decide what they wanted to do. They all had costume ideas and began pitching story lines for the new Tarpon.
"A large hook and line visual has been foremost in my mind," said Ned. "The tarpon gets reeled in by different groups such as the flag corps or the cheerleaders."
"Just think about this image," posed Valerie. "A tarpon with a telescoping nose for both aerial cartwheels and a possible salute to Pinocchio if we do a Disney thing but let’s think longer term. Also, it would be nice if you could make a real difference next year."
Ned replied, "Possible hydraulic issues but it would be a crowd pleaser."
"Nice," said Raymond. "How about a Matrix®-influenced halftime show? We could strobe light it with some bungee cords and jogging tramps? Or how about something from Crash?"
"I was thinking the Tarpon should concentrate more on cultural messages," said Valerie. "A ‘Stay in School’ message with schools of small marlins following you to a paper mâche schoolhouse. Or perhaps a "Say No to Drugs" theme with the DARE parents starring as Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones in a "Traffic" themed show. And you know, Mr. Moten, the Band Conductor looks a lot like Benicio Del Toro."
Raymond was putting these ideas on the board, looking for common themes and decided they were onto something. Last year, Team Mulendyke grossed a little over fifty thousand dollars with the Tarpon photographs, Tarpon autographs and the appearance fees in Broward. They had downplayed the fee structures but were very pleased with the first year’s revenue and were spending large amounts of time with the next year’s collection and proposed Tarpon itinerary. The new themes were exciting; they pushed the performance envelope away from rote call and responses of inane programmed cheers and rightfully placed the mascot as a socially responsible emcee to the masses. The new material was powerful and thought-provoking but the question that could not be answered yet is whether or not the masses were ready for a thinking, feeling mascot change agent.
One item that troubled the group was looming ironically just six weeks from now: the new tryouts. Ned was almost assured of being chosen again but the idea of going back into a full-scale physical regimen troubled him. He was evolving the Tarpon into a more cerebral, more subtle artist that the French enjoyed and viewed the more physical broad comedy as almost demeaning for the noble fish. He was struggling with the whole purpose behind the mascot and to abandon this type of self-introspection for an extremely brutal physical challenge seemed backward and not necessary.
"The tarpon has become more of a social commentator," summarized Ned. "He is needed to demonstrate a love for the human condition and send a message that everyone has worth. Plus, we can make more money that way."
"What about cheering on the football team to victory?
"Well, that too, but it has become passé. The tarpon needs to broaden its message. I am amazed that Katie never evolved the character. I am seeing an image of the Tarpon, all tangled up in a volleyball net with a sign that says, "Stop drift line fishing practices."
"I see that image…very powerful," said Raymond. "Very bold, very Greenpeace."
"I would also like to do something with the bombing of Vieques Island, bio-diesel and Teen Literacy. It is time to make the mascot more socially aware and get out of this cheerleading stuff. There is no future in that."
Valerie caused the discussions to cease but interjected the brutal truth of what that the proposed change in role would do to the Ned’s chances of getting the gig.
"You can’t tell the judges your ideas. You stretched the character far enough this year. Someone is going to push back."
"But it is for their own good. They can’t ignore their social responsibilities and wallow in rote repetition of old, tired cheers which were created over fifty years ago."
"We need to gain an upper hand. We need to educate more than entertain."
"Not if they think the Tarpon is going to transfer somewhere," said Raymond.
"Where would I go?" asked Ned.
"That doesn’t matter," said Valerie. "It is the fear of you leaving that can get you an iron-clad deal."
So, early the next day, Raymond visited a few of his moles in the school administration to drop some troubling news that the Miami Dade Conquistadors were actively and aggressively recruiting Ned. Valerie called the local television studio with a complete and categorical denial of any such events.
The news of the recruitment was also vehemently denied by Miami Dade officials but the Broward administration was taking no chances and called for an immediate board meeting. They enjoyed four solid years with Katie Phillips and felt this new Tarpon had no limits of where he could bring the school’s prominence. Demanding and receiving all necessary authority to seal a deal with Ned, the School Board Chairman and the District Administrator went directly to his door, literally with hats in hand. Ned smiled pleasantly as he opened the door.
"Hello, Mr. Segal. Hello, Dr. Clancey. What can I do for you?"
"Ned, are your folks home?" asked Bill Segal, the Chairman of the School Board.
"Good, may we come in?"
The three huddled in the kitchen to discuss the concerns of Ned’s feared departure to one of Broward’s most hated rivals. Ned passively denied he was going anywhere but the assurances were convincing. There was a pregnant pause and Ned, looking in their wide, rounded eyes, knew he had them.
"Ned, what is it going to take to keep you as the Tarpon?" asked both of them simultaneously.
"I have nothing to complain about. I am beginning to prepare myself to win the Tarpon job again; I am looking forward to the competition," lied Ned. "However, I am considering other options but I can't go into detail about that right now."
"Is there anything at all that we can do for you? Is there anything we can do to have you ignore all other options?"
"Well, if you put it that way, I suppose I have a few demands…I mean requests."
"I want a no-cut contract. No more tryouts and I have complete creative control through graduation."
"I want to keep exclusive ancillary marketing rights to all non-school sponsored events. In other words, I keep the picture and Chumcorn® concession, the t-shirt line, the Tarpon sweatbands and Tarpon-in-a-box royalties. I will surrender royalties to the school over a five year period after graduation and I, and two of my designees will pick the Tarpon two years from now."
"I want to choose my own stand-in this year and direct all their activities. I see them doing the smaller venues: girl’s sports, junior high stuff, hospitals, mascot races and DARE events. Also, you have to send me to BigCheer for national exposure next year."
"That is a little rich for us."
"Can you give us something to take back? Something to wet our beaks?"
Ned paused and said, "This is my final offer: I will accelerate the five year sundown period to three years, I will attend the main fall and winter sports award banquets, give the school rights to market both my fin gloves and athletic gloves and will make the school 20/80 partners on the website and trademarks, all after my expenses. But I will retain 51% of voting shares for ten years."
The two looked at each other and nodded. "Yes. We have a deal," they said in unison.
"Great. Write this up and I will come down and we can sign it tomorrow."
The next day, Ned went down to the High School to meet again. He was pleased to see the Tarpon try-outs were canceled and no details or options were provided for the affected parties. It was a done deal and it felt good to be doing something for society.
Ned walked in and scanned the contract. He was pleased with the complete creative control and all the agreed-upon addendums. In fact, it appeared that the no-cut clause in the contract also guaranteed his graduation but he didn’t comment on that until his attorney and agent reviewed it later that day. He took the pen and signed his name with a silvery flourish.
"So, Ned," asked the Superintendent, "are you looking forward to the football season?"
"Absolutely, without question, Ma’am. I got some great ideas." When he said that, he demonstrated two thumbs up, with his new foam "Finthumbs Up®" fins. He took them off, autographed them both for the duo and gathered up his copies of the contract and walked confidently out the door.
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