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A CALIFORNIAN PAYS A VISIT

Commentary: Coming face to face with Bevo

A visitor from the West Coast checks out the UT mascot

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

LIBERTY HILL — "Hey, sweetie, you have a visitor! He's come a long way to see you, baby! Say hello to the nice man!"

The 1,725-pound beast paws the smelly earth, lowers his long and winding horns, and takes a clomp in my direction.

Thrashing his head, the burnt-orange giant slowly advances. I slowly retreat. Soon, his hot breath is on my trembling hands and my back is pressed against a rusty gate.

It's locked. Why is it locked?

"Oh, sweetie, you don't like this man from Southern California? Oh baby, I'm sure he's a nice man. C'mon honey, can't you like the nice man?"

A nice woman named Betty Baker is the behemoth's co-owner. She talks like she's also his mommy. This would be cute, if her baby was not about to gore me.

The beast apparently has an itch on a colorful back that looks like one of those rugs they sell at Las Vegas airport gift shops. He suddenly swings his huge head around to scratch it, his horns coming within inches of my stomach.

Oh, those horns. As long as Shaq and as sharp as a skate blade, they are stained with blood that marks their continual growth. That is his blood, right?

He is staring at me again, and I can smell it, and he can smell it. My fear. My prediction that Southern California will win the Rose Bowl by two touchdowns.

I realize he might have just pretended to scratch himself in hopes of removing one Southern Californian's large intestine. I realize his mommy is still smiling.

"That's my good boy! Baby just wants to play, doesn't he?"

Meet Bevo XIV, the face of University of Texas football.

Meet the toughest-looking animal mascot in sports, a true longhorn, and the one university representative who really can hook 'em.

His face is on their helmet and his horns are on their fingers, this galoot who has inspired tears and cheers and, at this moment, has me trapped and terrified in a pen on a desolate ranch in the middle of nowhere.

I'm telling the boss, this is absolutely the last time I fly 1,400 miles to interview a steak.

The notion that a Longhorn steer can serve as a university's most notable representative is actually not such a bad one.

Bevo, after all, is more than just a symbol.

Many years ago, he was also dinner.

The first Bevo made his debut on Thanksgiving Day in 1915, dragged on to the field for the Longhorns' game against Texas A&M.

He was too rough for regular duty, though, and, four years later, was slaughtered then eaten at the football banquet.

Ninety years later, times, and appetites, have changed.

"Bevo attends roasts," says his co-owner John T. Baker, Betty's husband. "But it's not that kind of roast."

No, Bevo is a celebrity these days, leaving his ranch to appear at everything from presidential inaugurations to birthday parties to, of course, football games.

Even as his team has frequently failed to show up for big moments during a 35-year national championship drought, Bevo has always been there.

Standing or sitting beyond the sidelines. Drinking Gatorade or Sprite-laced water. Staring solemnly during the playing of the Eyes of Texas. Stomping off sadly after losses.

The players are scared of him. Opponents don't trust him.

"He's our main deal, our symbol, our representative, not only for the football team, but for the entire university," says Larry Falk, director of operations for Texas athletics.

OK, so he's a representative that once relieved himself on the Nebraska logo while leaving the field after a Big 12 championship victory.

And yes, he's a symbol who long ago stormed the Rice bench during a game, delivering the ultimate late hits.

And sure, he's an official who, in a previous incarnation, broke up a tailgate party by battering a parked car.

And, all right, it's sort of creepy to have an academic institution fronted by a guy whose real name is Sunrise Studly.

But you get the point.

"When people see him and see the 'Bevo' across his nose, they know it's us," Falk says.

Throughout history, whenever rivals have wanted to tweak the Longhorns, they have gone right to the source.

Bevo was been kidnapped, painted and, in the most famous episode, branded with the 13-0 final score of the Texas A&M victory in 1915.

According to legend, the steer got his name from aghast but enterprising students who attempted to save face by altering the "13-0" brand into "Bevo."

Later, research concluded that a writer for a university publication named Bevo as a play on the word, "Beeve," which is Texas slang for cattle that will later be eaten.

"But we believe the branding story," John T. Baker says. "It's more fun."

Bevo is scheduled to make a royal entrance just before the Rose Bowl, then take his assigned spot in an end zone corner in front of a tunnel. It's the same place he sat during last year's Rose Bowl, which means folks probably won't be able to see him on TV.

"I think the Rose Bowl people are just scared of him, and that's too bad," Betty Baker says.

Actually, despite my fears, this incarnation of Bevo is a docile 3-year-old who has been known to roll on his back and let his handlers rub his tummy.

The only thing that really bothers him is the student mascot who has the audacity to run around dressed like a longhorn. Bevo XIV stares and snorts and even begins to charge the poser.

"He doesn't like that stupid little outfit," Betty says. "Why would they dress up someone like that?"

During the game, two handlers will hold his reins, and the other two will clean up his mess. Yes, that red bucket holds his manure. And, yes, that OU on the bucket is the abbreviation for the University of Oklahoma.

The four handlers, members of the school's prestigious Silver Spurs organization, try to keep Bevo XIV cool and comfortable and facing the game.

They are also the only students in college football who have to attend games packing extra pants. While turning his head to check out the action, Bevo XIV has unwittingly torn holes in their trousers and ripped their shirts.

"It's part of the experience of being his entourage," handler George Womack says. "You just have to be careful."

Bevo XIV has bumped one handler in the eye, leaving him with a shiner that required considerable explanation. Another time, a football bounced near his legs, he tried to kick it, and wound up leaving a welt in the leg of another handler.

"But, as part of the deal, we get to invite our dates down to the field to hang out with him," says Ross Sutherland, another handler. "When you do that, you're money."

Speaking of money, after the game Bevo XIV will return home to the cushy ranch life, leaving only for a $1,500 appearance fee, money that goes to the Silver Spurs.

Sometimes he gets mischievous. A previous Bevo walked through an unlocked gate and disappeared into the 250-acre spread, just before he was needed for a football game.

His handlers found another steer, plopped the "Bevo" sign on his nose, and tried to pass him off as the real thing. It would have worked, if the fake steer wasn't coal black.

Sometimes, too, he gets bored. Imagine being the guest of honor at functions in which you have to stay in the yard.

"Sometimes when he sees the boys coming, he makes them chase him around a little bit," Betty Baker says. "He's like, 'Oh no, I've got to go with them again?' "

But mostly he seems content. Although animal rights activists have occasionally protested his use, it's hard to argue the happiness of an animal that roams the hills during the day, returns to his pen for food at night, and is generally treated like a celebrity.

His owners have even set up a deal where tourists can sleep in a tiny house with windows overlooking the animal's pen. Anyone for Bed and Bevo?

The Bakers are kind folks who also owned the previous Bevo, who served for 16 years before retiring last season on their ranch, where he still hangs out.

They absorb all of Bevo's expenses and have a handshake agreement with the university for his use. Only two things really bother them: Critics who wonder if he is growing big with drugs, and accusations that they sedate him for games.

"He's never been on the juice," John T. Baker says, adding that the current Bevo was a show champion. "And he's been trained to be docile."

All this, and guess who's coming to dinner? Not Bevo. Not anymore.

The biggest perk of being the biggest mascot is, unlike his football team today, this Bevo will not be slaughtered.

"Oh no, we're going to keep him," Betty Baker says. "That's our baby. We want his head here."

Bevo, keeping his head for now, had no comment.

Bill Plaschke writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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