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Fuzzy friends speak after Brutus assault that rocked mascot world

Brandon Hanning planned for months. Saturday, Hanning saw the striped shirt, fake muscles and oblong head of his target, and he attacked.

By now, you've seen the video. Hanning, inside the costume of Rufus, the Ohio University Bobcat, took off on a dead run from the 15-yard line and tackled Ohio State's Brutus Buckeye at the 35 as Brutus and several cheerleaders led the Buckeyes onto the field. Moments later, as several Ohio State players kneeled on the goal line in prayer, Rufus attacked Brutus again in the end zone.

For his crimes, Hanning was banned from mascotting. He might have been expelled -- had he actually been a student at Ohio. Hanning attended Ohio last year, but he dropped out and now attends Hocking College, a two-year school in Nelsonville, Ohio, that appears to have no need for a mascot. Reached by The Post, Ohio U's student newspaper, Hanning offered no apologies for the attack.

"It was the whole reason I tried out [to be Rufus] last year," Hanning told the paper. "I knew we were going back to OSU this year, and I wanted to tackle Brutus."

Hanning's attack has rocked the mascot world.

"He's clearly a tenacious [compound adjective]. Kudos to him for being able to finally tackle someone he clearly does not like," said Ben Cortes, better known as Stanford's Tree. "But that said, I think mascots need to up their game. We can't just let random people get to the sidelines representing us. If someone had my tree costume on and just goes around tackling [Cal mascot] Oski, I end up looking like an aggressive [jerk]."

Brian Crane, who carried a sledgehammer as Purdue Pete from 1993-95, couldn't believe a school would be so lazy as to let a non-student represent the university in such a prominent role. "Somebody's head needs to roll for that," Crane said.

Indeed. Someone's giant, fuzzy head needs to roll.

Crane explained Hanning's egregious breaches of mascot etiquette. In another context, Crane said, the attack would have been OK. But never when the mascot is assisting in the team run-out. "There's no need to get the fans more excited than they already are at that point," said Crane, who worked at the old CNNSI.com in the late '90s and once roomed with SI.com celebrity Stewart Mandel. "When the score is 43-7, that's when you need the fight between mascots."

Also, Crane said, the Mascot Rules of Engagement require that the home mascot always win a fight in games not involving blood rivals. Also, the vanquished is not to be embarrassed. "It's the home school's job to save face for the visiting mascot so they don't look like a weakling," Crane said. "Maybe it's something like the female cheerleaders come over and give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation."

Sorry to break down the fourth wall, but most non-rivalry mascot fights are more scripted than the average WWE match. Purdue Pete really doesn't long to take his sledgehammer to the side of Brutus' nutty head. "We see Brutus all the time," Crane said. "He's always very professional." Crane doesn't even harbor any resentment for the time Michigan State's Sparty beat him in a magazine's "Buffest Mascot" contest. Asked whether he thought Sparty was juicing -- hey, it was the '90s -- Crane politely declined comment.

But what is a mascot to do when the attack is unplanned?

Though he was one of the most heavily armed mascots -- except for the West Virginia Mountaineer (musket) and Oklahoma State's Pistol Pete (six-shooter) -- Crane knows Purdue Pete would never swing his sledgehammer in anger. "The sledgehammer should never be used as a weapon," Crane said. "I don't think Purdue Pete would have resorted to that."

At Stanford, Cortes would not handle an attacker as gently as Brutus did Saturday.

"I recently installed arm branches to give the vicious pythons I sport at the end of my shoulders free reign," said Cortes, who drew his own blood to make a bloody mary during February's "Tree Week" to beat out four other saplings for the job. "Should any [stuff] go down, I have a couple fists -- one I call Iron, the other I call Justice -- and I just rain both down on the heads of any would-be attackers."

Other mascots are not afraid to take a swing at a marauding mascot if the attack is vicious enough. Bobby Gallagher was the St. Joseph's Hawk from 1997-98. As any college basketball fan knows, the Hawk's only job is to keep flapping for the entirety of every St. Joseph's hoops contest. That makes the Hawk a prime target for an opposing mascot. "They know you have to flap your arms non-stop," Gallagher said. "You can never, ever, ever stop flapping your arms. There are no excuses. ... The hawk is kind of a sitting duck -- no pun intended."

On Feb. 3, 1998 at Rhode Island's Keaney Gymnasium, Rhody the Ram didn't appreciate it when the Hawk showed him up at halftime by sinking three 3-pointers with one arm while still flapping with the other. So in the second half, Rhody decided the Hawk had to suffer the ultimate embarrassment. He would have to stop flapping.

As Gallagher flapped near the Hawks' bench, Rhody approached with an inner tube. His plan was to slip the tube over the Hawk's arms, making it impossible to flap. The plan was almost perfect. "But it got caught on the beak," Gallagher said.

Instead of proving the Hawk flappable by rendering him unflappable, Rhody succeeded only in separating the head from Gallagher's costume. In the mascot world, removing another mascot's head is akin to stealing someone else's horse in the old west. "It was almost like a blackout," Gallagher said. "I was embarrassed and angry at the same time. I guess my intent was to punch him."

Gallagher only managed to shove Rhody. But he wasn't concerned his violent response would get him in trouble. He didn't know if he had kept flapping. If he stopped at any point, he probably would lose his job. Not until after Gallagher returned to the team hotel and saw this SportsCenter highlight could he sleep soundly, knowing he had flapped through the fracas.

Gallagher said others tried to stop the hawk from flapping. He said Temple's Owl mascots, Hooter and T-Bird, were especially bothersome. But he didn't dare attack his avian enemies. "I'm pretty sure either one of them or both of them are girls inside the costumes," Gallagher said. "So as much as I wanted to defend myself, I had to ignore them and keep walking away."

Stanford's Tree has no intention of walking away should his branches be attacked. Cortes will put down roots and fight. Of course, it helps that he has his own protection detail. Tree Protective Services handles any hostilities directed at the Tree with extreme prejudice. At a given event, Cortes will have between three and 12 TPS handlers watching his trunk. They also provide other valuable services. Earlier this school year, Cortes had 10 TPS members escorting him through campus. "That," he said, "was mostly for navigation purposes."

Cortes and the TPS won't make the trip to South Bend this week, so we'll have to imagine how a throwdown between the Tree and the Notre Dame Leprechaun might have ended. The Tree is headed to Eugene on Oct. 2, though. The Oregon Duck is known for a temper as volatile as the Disney duck upon whose trademark Oregon's Duck used to infringe. Plus, Oregon's mascot clearly has upper-body strength. He knocked out 506 push-ups during the Ducks' 72-0 season-opening massacre of New Mexico.

Unlike Brutus and Rufus, the Tree won't be surprised if he gets Quack Attacked. He'll be prepared. "When we go to Oregon," Cortes said, "I'll have to round up a bunch of homies."

Of course, any scrape with the Duck will only serve as a warm-up to the Tree's faceoff later this season with archenemy Oski of Cal. "I've taken on way worse than him in my travels and wanderings," Cortes said. "If he happens to throw some punches, that might just make my day."

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