Sycamore Sam: UNMASKED
Senior leaves legacy of raising student morale
Published: Thursday, March 18, 2010
Updated: Thursday, March 18, 2010 22:03
At football and basketball games, students, alumni and Terre Haute locals alike recognize the fuzzy blue and white creature running around Memorial Stadium or Hulman Center as Sycamore Sam.
But many people may not know the man behind the mask—or oversized mascot head.
Kaleb Kerans, a senior recreation and sport management major, has portrayed Sycamore Sam since August 2006. He was no stranger to being a mascot, as he was his high school's mascot, a golden bear, for his entire high school career.
When Kerans was getting ready to graduate, he was originally looking for a Big 10 school to mascot for, but they didn't suit his ends.
"A school like Purdue has a different person in the suit each quarter of a football game," Kerans said. "That wasn't what I was looking for."
A former high school teacher of Kerans told him that he was an alumnus cross-country runner for ISU and suggested ISU. Kerans tried out and got the job in his freshman year.
"A tryout for a mascot consists of 30-45 second skits where I was put into certain situations, such as kids punching the suit and having to act out my reaction," Kerans said. "I also had to do some non-choreographed dancing for the ISU Spirit Squad."
Kerans was ready to represent ISU as the school's newest mascot. Since Dec. 5, 1995, Sycamore Sam has been the school's choice to get everyone excited at basketball and football games and community events around Terre Haute.
Since 1922, ISU has been known as the Sycamores, when a 1921 contest was announced to change the name from the "Fighting Teachers," according to ISU Archives.
For years, ISU bounced around different mascots. In 1969, Chief Quabachi was chosen to represent the school. There was even a backstory to create some kind of history about him.
However, in 1989, ISU removed the chief as the mascot, due to a variety of objections of the caricature of him. Between 1989 and 1995, ISU threw around a few ideas and even provided a sketch of a tree because ISU is known as the "Fighting Trees."
There are no guidelines that a mascot has to maintain, but there are rules that, as a student athlete, Kerans has to abide by. The Missouri Valley Conference dictates certain rules that mascots do have to follow, such as not being on the floor or field during the game or giving any type of noisemakers to the fans.
"I unfortunately found out these rules the hard way by getting in trouble for them," Kerans said.
Kerans said there are certain methods for how to be Sycamore Sam that he has perfected over the past four years.
"I always try to be consistent, like in every way I walk or act," Kerans said. "Sam is a character that needs to be portrayed in various ways."
For example, with kids, he has to be fun loving, but with the older fans, he has to act like the animal and be somewhat ferocious, he said. Kerans always tries to keep moving because someone is always watching.
Even putting on the costume and preparing for a game has become a science. He shows up one hour and 15 minutes before a basketball game, and a little earlier for football games. He'll set up all of his props methodically in the places he'll need them for the game and then does some light stretching and tumbling with the cheerleaders for stunts.
About 10 to 15 minutes is then spent "mingling" with alumni and ISU supporters.
Finally at exactly 26 minutes before the game starts, Kerans sneaks away to go change into his alter ego, Sam.
"I put on the body suit first, then strap the tail to the suit, which always seemed weird to me," Kerans said. "Then I put Sam's clothes and shoes on. Latex gloves go on underneath Sam's hands that connect to the arms of the suit, so that no skin is showing.
"For pre-game events, I wear a black warm-up suit about 10 minutes, so I put that on. Finally, I'll ask someone to put on the head to complete the suit. Inside the head is actually a baseball helmet that sits on my head, and it snaps to the body suit so it doesn't fall off."
For events during the game, Kerans says it gets hot in the suit, but it doesn't really affect him. One of the newest activities Kerans has integrated into his performance is Surfin' Sam, in which Sam attempts to surf across the basketball court while the "ocean" of seven or eight pep band members roll to move him along.
"I saw it done at about two other schools," Kerans said. "An alumni picked up the surfboard while he was in Florida and another ISU supporter got it detailed for me."
As Kerans gets ready to hang up his suit, he takes away four years filled with memories, but one stands out to him.
"I'll never forget when Doug Keiser, the associate director of bands, asked me to conduct ‘The Wabash Cannonball' for the pep band," Kerans said. "That really meant a lot to me, and I always get so much from working with the marching and pep bands."
Being the mascot has opened up many opportunities for Kerans.
"Without being Sam, I wouldn't have been able to be present at the presidential selection meetings or be a member of freshman council," he said.
Kerans was also approached in the Sam outfit by Brian Dorsett of Dorsett Mitsubishi and offered a job to be a car salesman upon graduation, which he gladly accepted.
Besides leaving behind the legacy of being Sycamore Sam, Kerans would like to give back to ISU. In the next few weeks, he is going to meet with John Sherman, senior assistant director of athletics, and will try to build a program that would raise funds for whomever the next Sam might be.
"They shouldn't have to pay for that one pair of shoes or any other props they may need," Kerans said. "That's not what it's about."
As of right now, there are two candidates for next year, but a decision has not been made.
The names of the candidates would not be disclosed because anonymity is a big part of being a mascot, Kerans said.