A day in the life of the West Virginia Mountaineer: The mascot who can't hide his face
It's 9:30 a.m. in Norman, Oklahoma, and the West Virginia Mountaineer is roving up and down the sideline, looking for little pockets of gold.
Eventually he finds a spot he likes: right in the corner of the south end zone, where several West Virginia fans are situated for the road game against Oklahoma. This will be one of the most relaxing parts of his day—all he has to do is stand around, and everyone will come to him, a crowd of people, all wanting a picture or a chat with one of the most iconic mascots in college sports.
The Mountaineer is one of the only mascots in Division I athletics who can't hide behind a suit. Aside from being simply a mascot—running with the team onto the field, interacting with fans, doing pushups when the team scores—the Mountaineer is also part local celebrity and part living embodiment of the state of West Virginia.
The Mountaineer is also required to be an active, full-time WVU student. This year, it's Michael Garcia, an unassuming and baby-faced public administration major from Fairmont, West Virginia.
Garcia is instantly disarming, energetic and likable—you have to be when you're one of the only human mascots in college. He's not a silent actor in a sweaty suit. If he's not making someone's day, he's not doing his job.
"People can see my face," Garcia said. "There are 10 mascots in the Big 12 and I'm the only one where you can see my face, whether I'm in buckskins or not. Whether I'm here on the field or whether I'm traveling in through the airport people know who I am. It's a good way for me to be an ambassador."
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Fairmont is only about 20 miles from Morgantown, and while Garcia grew up a Mountaineer fan (his brother attended the school when he was a kid) he never saw himself in the shoes of West Virginia's mascot.
It wasn't until his sophomore year that things changed, as Garcia realized that he could have the unique opportunity to represent his home state. To become the Mountaineer mascot, a hopeful has to go through a rigorous application process, and then win a "cheer-off" among WVU fans at halftime of a Mountaineer basketball game. Garcia has won twice now.
"I never envisioned myself (as the Mountaineer), but I think of myself as someone who can do my best and try really hard to represent the 1.8 million people in the state," Garcia said. "You have to let all that emotion, spirit and pride in you have in this school exude through all your actions."
Garcia assumes the role of an ambassador to both his university and his home state seriously. And there's no more visible way to do it than as the Mountaineer. Whether it's the iconic buckskin uniform (you never quite get used to the smell), the vacant, soulless eyes of his coonskin cap ("I usually see people's eyes go from my eyes up to the hat at some point in the conversation,"), his musket (it's technically a rifle, as he's quick to point out), or his customary beard, Garcia might be the most visible student in the state.
It's a hectic life. On Thursday, Garcia wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and visits three schools in Jackson County, along the western edge of the state. School visits make up many of the hundreds of in-costume appearances he makes a year – then it's back to Morgantown, as Garcia tries to stay afloat in his coursework and prepares to travel to Oklahoma.
But as he heads into his senior year at WVU, Garcia wouldn't have it any other way.
"I'm starting to realize now, I've only got, maybe, seven, eight more months of being the Mountaineer left. Every day, I want each of those days to be my very best, not just 'hey, I'm the Mountaineer today.' I want to live it up, because after I'm done, I'm never going to have it back again. This is the coolest thing I'll ever do in my life."
David Statman is SI's campus correspondent for West Virginia University. Follow him on Twitter.