LEXINGTON, Ky. -- In the more than 15 years that 16-year-old Justin Stank has worn the full-body ram outfit for which he is now nationally known, it has always provoked a reaction. Sometimes these are positive, like the phone numbers older girls would pass along to him when he attended Colorado State games as a younger boy, or the time Timeout, Fresno State's bulldog mascot, playfully put baby Justin in his mouth. Other times they have bordered on disastrous, like when a drunken Colorado fan grabbed him by the neck while shouting profanities at a football game when Justin was in elementary school, or the time a UNLV fan accosted him in the bathroom at the 2010 Mountain West tournament.
But this week, that aforementioned widespread notoriety, has been something else entirely. Ever since TBS cameras spotted Stank behind the Rams' bench in Thursday night's win over Missouri, the Greeley West High sophomore has evolved into a miniature celebrity, receiving texts and Facebook messages from friends updating him on his TV time, posing for photos with fans around Lexington, and conducting interviews with The Coloradoan, The New York Times, and SI. "This has been hilarious," says his mother, Zoe.
It started when Justin was six months old. Zoe and her husband, Stephen, had adopted the Rams as their own after moving to Greeley, Colo., in 1991, and while in the school bookstore one day, Zoe spotted a ram onesie that she thought would make the perfect gameday attire for their young son. “It was great -- it was warm," she recalls. The woman in the store told Zoe that the outfits were no longer being produced, so as Justin has grown, the eight or so replacements have been hand-crafted by a sewing hobbyist neighbor from materials Zoe purchases from a nearby fabric store. As the costume endures the wear-and-tear of being worn to a full slate of football, basketball and volleyball games -- the current two-year-old model has a horn partly flattened by the tugs of curious fans, plus a small tear suffered in transport to Lexington -- Zoe makes the necessary mends.
But the person who most directly enabled Stank's NCAA tournament exposure remains a mystery. Justin and Zoe had purchased seats about midway up the section behind Colorado State's bench, but when they got to Rupp Arena on Thursday, a couple that knows Zoe approached them with a ticket for the front row. It had been given to them by a mystery man, they said, with instructions to find the "little ram" and pass it on. "We didn't know who," Justin says, noting that they still don't. "They just said, 'Get the kid down front.'"
The sight of Justin in his getup was not unfamiliar to the Rams themselves. As a middle schooler, he served as a ball boy for Colorado State's men's and women's basketball and women's volleyball teams, a time period that overlapped with several of the Rams' current seniors. He remains a fixture in the lower rows of basketball games and at the 35-yard line of Hughes Stadium. "I didn't know it would be a big deal," said senior guard Wes Eikmeier of Stank's now-celebrated presence during Friday's media availability. Nearby, teammates smiled and chuckled at a Ram receiving yet another question about Stank. “You can see by our reaction we’re pretty fond of it.”
Stank, a defensive lineman at Greeley West, is an aspiring Ram himself. Though he stands just 5-foot-5, he and Zoe (who stands 5-2) are holding out hope that he might exceed the 5-10 stature of his father and maternal grandfather in order to have the size necessary to suit up for their favorite team in a few years. He has received interest from several Division II schools in the area -- and incidentally is also a competitive archer and junior rodeo clown -- but Colorado State remains his top goal. When a Rams assistant told Zoe that her son had earned the nickname Stank the Tank at one of the team's football camps, she joked, "He's like a puppy: You name him, you gotta keep him.”
For now Justin will have to settle for being the Rams' most prominent fan. The fame will likely come with a small price, as Stank expects some teasing from his West Greeley classmates when he returns to school next week. That is, unless, Colorado State upsets top-seeded Louisville Saturday night, in which case they might encourage him to bring similar luck to the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis, which the Stanks plan to attend if the Rams advance. But either way, even with more national exposure surely awaiting him during Saturday's game against the Cardinals, Stank doesn't expect much in his life to change.
"Even if I end up on TV a lot, I actually wouldn't care," Justin says.
His mother interjects: "Oh, you would." "Not that much though," he says.