Rudy Flyer: People behind the UD mascot share their stories

Dayton mascot has had many looks over the years since being introduced in 1980

Matt Hanson wore the McGruff the Crime Dog suit several times at community events in Fredricksburg, Va., where he worked as a cadet for the local sheriff’s office. That was his only qualification when he saw the University of Dayton needed students to play the mascot, Rudy Flyer, in the fall of 2012.

“I said, ‘OK, that sounds good,’” Hanson said. “They said, ‘Meet us on Saturday, and we’ll try you out.’”

Hanson showed up at UD Arena, thinking he was going to interview for the job and instead found himself wearing a Rudy suit 10 minutes before a football game at Welcome Stadium. It was a test of sorts to see how he would do, and he passed with flying colors — red and blue, of course — and in doing so blazed a path that his brothers Tim and Nick would follow in years to come.

From 2012 to 2021, there was a good chance any fan posing for a photo with Rudy was standing next to a Hanson brother, though other students played the mascot during those years as well.

Tim arrived at UD in 2015 and started playing Rudy in his second semester because his brother needed the help.

“It was trial by fire,” Tim said. “Matt just threw me in the suit.”

Nick followed suit, literally, because Tim wanted time off so he could drink beer at the basketball games, he joked.

“You pulled me in right away,” Nick said. “I didn’t have a choice.”

All three brothers — and a number of other former Rudys — talked to the Dayton Daily News in October about what it’s like to be Rudy. One of the rules of playing a mascot is you don’t talk about it while you’re on the job. Rudys don’t mention their special role on social media. Only close friends or family members know they’re Rudy. That’s one reason so many past Rudys jumped at the chance to share their stories before the 2022-23 season. This was their chance to talk about their alter ego.

Here’s what they revealed:

1. The suit is hot: Even now that UD Arena has a climate-control system, the Rudy suit is a sauna. Prior to the three-year renovation project, it was even worse for the people playing Rudy.

“I would sweat so much that I had pools of sweat in the bottom of my feet,” said Sutton Smith, a 2008 graduate who played Rudy from 2005-07, “and my costume would be drenched to the point to where the students section would cheer, ‘Rudy smells,’ when I would go crowd surfing. I had to bring the costume home and put it in the basement because it smelled so bad.”

Todd Smith, who now lives in Centerville, graduated from UD in 1986 and played Rudy as a senior.

“I’d lose five to seven pounds every game,” Smith said.

2. Rudy is 42 years old: Rudy was still a relative newcomer when Todd Smith got the job. The university unveiled the mascot for the first time on Dec. 1, 1980, and then had a contest to determine the name. Students and administrators picked Rudy from more than 600 submissions. Doug Haushild, who was then and still is UD’s sports information and media relations director, said in 1983 the name was picked because the letters “UD” are in the middle and Rudy rhymes with UD.

Rick Cengeri, of Bethlehem, Pa., was the first UD mascot. Jimm Priest, of Winchedon, Mass., and Joe Yokajty, of Pittsburgh, also preceded Smith.

3. Multiple people play Rudy these days: Ryan Phillips, the first student to dress as a pilot in the Red Scare section at UD Arena, now works in the athletic department as assistant director of digital strategy and brand enhancement. He ran the Rudy program earlier in his career.

“When I was in charge of it, we had anywhere from six to eight people as Rudy just because of the amount of events,” Phillips said. “We were trying to get as many people in there as we could so we weren’t overworking anybody.”

In a pinch, Phillips would play Rudy himself, such as when the Flyers traveled to the Bahamas in 2018 for the Battle 4 Atlantis. He walked around the resort in the full costume in the island heat at one point and had never sweated more in his life.

Credit: David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski/Staff

4. There is thinking behind how Rudy performs: Phillips wanted to create a voice and identity for Rudy when he took over the program. The people who made it through the audition process are given instructions beyond, “Just go be goofy; just go be funny.” Phillips tried to be as outgoing as possible when he wore the suit and tried to get others to act the same.

“I would always tell folks, ‘Mascots are a a terrifying concept and idea, so you have to find ways to make it less terrifying, especially to young kids,’” Phillips said.

5. There is a height requirement: Rachel LaFerriere, of Toledo, played Rudy during the 2019-20 season.

“I actually was the shortest Rudy that we’ve had,” she said. “They actually have a rule technically that you’re supposed to be 5-7 or taller. I’m 5-6. My bosses joked with me about it because I was very short. But it was so much fun, and that season was amazing. The best moments, for sure, were right before the team would run out of the tunnel. I would run out as Rudy with the cheerleaders sprinting.”

LaFerriere got into the mascot business at Whitmer High School in Toledo because her older sister and her mom played the mascot at the same school before her.

“I don’t want to say it was expected of me, like it was something I didn’t want to do,” she said. “It just like, ‘Oh, man, I can’t wait until it’s my turn.’ We all had that shared experience. It’s kind of a family thing.

6. There are things to learn about wearing the suit: LaFerriere said there’s no chin strap with the Rudy head. That limits what you can do as Rudy. No one wants to see the mascot lose his head.

“You couldn’t do flips or cartwheels or anything like that, which I would have loved to do,” she said. “But I don’t even know if my arms were long enough for that because the head is so big. Maybe some of the guys with longer arms, if they had a chin strap, they could have. You can’t bend down too much or bend over too much because your head could fall off.”

LaFerriere also had to worry about her hair coming out of the Rudy head.

“I would either braid it or put it in a ponytail or something,” she said, “and then I would have to wrap my head so that the hair wouldn’t slip out below the base of the neck.”

7. Wearing the suit is hard work: Sutton Smith love the anonymity of being Rudy. It gave him the license to be his silliest self.

“You can kind of go anywhere you want to go and get away with just about anything you want to get away with, but it’s tough,” he said. “I remember we would run out of the tunnel with the cheerleaders before a basketball game, and everyone’s going nuts and the band’s playing and you’re breathing heavy. Then you have to stop, and they do the national anthem and you’re trying not to pass out because you’ve just been running. You’re so jacked up to start the game, and then you have to calm down and stand still.”

8. Rudy has caused some controversy: In January 2005, Rudy was featured in an interview on Eighteen mascots spoke to the website for a feature titled, “Mascots Talk Back.”

Rudy was described “as a pilot who doesn’t need a wingman to get women” and a “barnstorming braggart” who can “really get the mission accomplished.”

Dayton Athletic Director Ted Kissell called the content “harmless, frivolous and almost amusing.” He didn’t know the marketing department approved the interview until it had been published.

“We made a mistake, and I apologize for it,” Kissell said. “I apologize to anyone who might be offended.”

Credit: Jim Witmer

Credit: Jim Witmer

9. There are moments Rudy never forgets: Jay Nigro, who for many years after graduation was the DJ at UD Arena, played Rudy in 2005 and 2006. He said people knew him as “crazy Jay” when he was in high school, so it made sense to take his personality into the mascot job. He would later play the Dayton Dragons mascot “Heater” for a couple of seasons.

For Nigro, a moment that stands out during his Rudy days came on Senior Night.

“I crowd surfed up the student section,” Nigro said. “I just remember my pants falling down and trying to hold on to my pants.”

10. Rudy has had several different looks over the years: Gary Galvin played Rudy from 1997-99. Prior to that, Rudy was known as Mr. Potato Head. The new Rudy looked more like a pilot. He had a blue suit, a red satin scarf, black boots, black leather cap and goggles.

Galvin was the first one to wear the new suit. He climbed out of a box during the first timeout of a game in 1997 to the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It was a dream job.

“The basketball team was good,” Galvin said. “You get front-row seats. I loved the excitement. I had freedom to be as creative as I wanted to, and it was just all about hyping up the crowd. The biggest memory that I have from that first year was that the suit was extremely hot. I would sweat so much that I had pools of sweat in the bottom of my feet. My costume would be drenched to the point the students section would cheer ‘Rudy smells!’ when I would do crowd surfing. I would bring the costume home and put it in the basement because it smelled so bad.”

11. Walking as Rudy can be a challenge: Kevin Greco, who lives in Los Angeles now, played Rudy from 2010-14 and experienced UD’s Elite Eight run as the mascot.

“You wore big shoes that were like size 23, and it took a really long time to get used to that,” Greco said. “The steps in the arena are sort of terraced. There’s like a big step and then a few little ones, and your peripheral vision was so limited in the suit. In normal life, you see your feet and your peripherals and you don’t think about it because your brain is good at that. But when your feet are completely cut off from your peripherals, and you’re wearing shoes that are much larger than your feet, it’s a whole different mental calculus. Then you can’t also be looking down at your feet because you want to be interacting with fans and whatnot. So I had to learn how to walk in a much different way.”

12. Rudy often interacts with other mascots: The only visited mascot to regularly visit UD Arena is the Hawk, of Saint Joseph’s. The Hawk never stops flapping his wings during games. Galvin remembers fans trying to get him to interfere with the flapping, but he respected the rules. He also remembers traveling to games at Xavier and wrestling with the Musketeer during games.

“We just agreed that we would take it to a certain point and then the home team mascot would win,” Galvin said.

13. Being Rudy can have lifetime benefits: Adam Doenges, now the head football coach at Sidney High School, is a 2005 UD graduate and got the Rudy job at the end of his freshman year. He went to a mascot and cheerleaders camp in Madison, Wis., to learn about how to be the mascot and remembers walking around downtown Madison with Bucky the Badger, of Wisconsin, and the elephant from Alabama, Big Al. That prepared him for the job, which he loved.

“I’m not necessarily an extroverted person,” he said, “so being able to stand in front of 13,000 people who have no idea who you are and just being able to live free a little bit with anonymity, that was a neat experience.”

Doenges worked the game in 2002 when Brooks Hall hit a buzzer beater against Villanova.

“We ran out in the court,” Doenges said, “and next thing I know Nate Green, who was a pretty large individual, was kind of smacking me across the face back and forth. That head is pretty wide away from my face, but his blows were still able to reach my actual face.”

Doenges got a teaching job at Sidney in part because of his experience as Rudy. UD honored him on Senior Night that season, and the public address announcer described him as a student who wanted to be a math and education teacher. Months later, Doenges had interviews on campus with different schools, including Sidney.

“I sat down with the assistant superintendent,” Doenges said, “and he said, ‘Well, I’ve been waiting two months to talk to you.’ I’m like, ‘How does this guy even know me?’ He said he was at the senior night game and heard math and education and wrote my name down. The next thing I know I had a job offer at Sidney, and I’ve been there ever since.”

14. Being Rudy can make you famous forever: Smith played Rudy in a promotion for Channel 7′s telecasts of games in the 1985-86 season. The video survives on YouTube. In it, Smith dances in the locker room at UD Arena while wearing the Rudy suit. A smoke machine fills the room as a song straight out of the ‘80s plays: “Look out, look out, here come the Flyers!”

Smith also rode on the Channel 7 helicopter to deliver the game ball at a UD football game.

“We did a lot,” Smith said. “I went to children’s hospitals to visit kids. They gave me hospital scrubs. Rudy doesn’t change his outfit at all anymore. But I lived at Goodwill, buying different things to dress up. I dressed up as Digger Phelps when Notre Dame came here. I sat right next to him on the bench.”

15. A big part of the job is posing for photos: Mike Ryan, a 2013 UD graduate, loved roaming the arena as Rudy, making a stop in the media room to eat some Donato’s pizza and rehydrating with pop from the always stocked cooler in that area. Interacting with fans at the arena and taking photos with them was a big part of the job.

“It’s mostly high fives and fist bumps,” Ryan said, “and putting up the No. 1 or a thumbs-up or whatever. You’re also trying to read how kids might react. I learned pretty quickly the kids who are calling for Rudy to come over, 99 times out of 100, they’re fine. When the parents are calling for Rudy to come over and the kids are kind of unsure, those are the ones that usually immediately start crying.”

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