A look behind the mask of True Grit
Summary: CJ, the person inside True Grit’s suit, provides an exclusive look at what life is like as UMBC’s top dog.
Has your dog ever knocked down former President William Howard Taft during the Presidents’ Race at a Washington Nationals game? Is a he close friend of a catamount from Vermont? Can he do the Harlem Shake, dance to “Gangnam Style” or perform stunts with cheerleaders? Better yet, is he over five feet tall and the official face of UMBC?
UMBC’s official mascot is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever named True Grit. He can be seen at school sporting events, promotional events and even the occasional major-league baseball game. According to the barely five-foot-three brunette that gives him life, he is more than a dog, he is “an ambassador outside of UMBC that promotes school spirit on and off campus.”
CJ, the human behind True Grit, refuses to give his real name for the sake of keeping the mascot’s personality sacred. He says his name in a voice barely above a whisper to keep True Grit’s identity separate from his while out in public, and he does everything in his power to be discreet about his mascotting role.
The costume itself fits into a large black canvas bag and is comprised of several parts. CJ effortlessly works his way into the body, which is essentially a furry jumpsuit that has some padding on the chest and stomach to give a more imposing look. A white XXL jersey (number one, of course) and black athletic shorts are added next, followed by the paws.
On special occasions, he can be seen in different clothing: on his birthday he wore a crown, and at Homecoming he wears a homecoming t-shirt. Before CJ puts on the head, True Grit’s yellow Under Armour basketball shoes complete his athletic outfit. As soon as the head goes on, all conversation ceases—he is completely transformed into True Grit.
“It’s not normal at all,” said CJ about mascotting while getting ready for a UMBC Athletics marketing event in the Commons breezeway. “I don’t live a normal life. But I’m not bragging!” Once he makes his transformation into his alter ego, his body language changes instantly, and it’s only waves and thumbs up from there. There is no more CJ—only his canine friend shines through. He makes sure to stop and rub the nose of the retriever statue outside of the RAC on his way to the breezeway.
CJ first started mascotting in the fall of 2012 at the homecoming bonfire. At that point, he was still getting used to having a tail, and relied heavily on dancing in place and lots of waves and high-fives. Now, though, he has this art form down to a science.
True Grit represents the spirit of UMBC, and CJ said, “the most important thing is to get fans excited.” He certainly has the personality for it, as evidenced by how excited he gets when he sees photos of True Grit around campus. He walks up to a poster with him on it and points with a huge grin, saying, “that’s me!”
A mascot requires more endurance than anything else. It’s especially challenging on warm summer days with multiple events in quick succession. Heatstroke is a real risk. Being peppy is important, but CJ has an exceptional ability to mime and convey thoughts and emotions without words. “Every event I do, I learn something more about myself. Even when I get sick from the heat after an event, it’s worth it.”
Despite seeing him everywhere, he has to remember that “the fans love True Grit, not me.” It’s strange to look in the mirror and not be able to see any semblance of himself, but that of a dog with a completely different identity. Some people try to guess who is inside the costume, and one prospective student asked if it was Freeman Hrabowski. True Grit’s response was a finger over his lips as he silently laughed.
Seeing True Grit walking down Academic Row on a sunny Thursday afternoon certainly puts a smile on nearly every face. Some just smile, others wave, and some even greet him by name. Through True Grit, CJ intends to share his contagious UMBC spirit with the entire campus and uncover the vitality he knows exists, one tail wag at a time.
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