Louisville fans originally wore the Cardinal mask to creep opponents out. Now, it's become a school tradition.
Three years ago, in early October, a joke turned into an icon.
That joke horrifies announcers on live television, invades home games and away matchups, confuses some, and disturbs others. It can be spotted at weddings, baby showers, births, Thanksgivings, and graduations.
Red, latex, and an undeniably realistic depiction of a human-sized cardinal head, it's as uncomfortable to wear as it is to be next to. It is, of course, the CCBM: The Card Chronicle Bird Mask.
Three years ago, the mask was an unknown Amazon product with two reviews. It's uncertain who exactly the target consumer was, but it was not intended for the world of sports.
That changed when Mike Rutherford's inbox was graced with a link to the mask. Rutherford, founder of SB Nation's Card Chronicle site, was inspired to write a post about it. Because of the close proximity to Halloween and the nature of the mask, he wished for every Louisville fan to wear one to the upcoming Cincinnati game.
"My dream," Rutherford said, "was for everyone to wear this creepy mask in the stands in silence the entire game. Just creep the hell out of Cincinnati, and there's no way Louisville could lose."
He was kidding, but his readers weren't. Almost immediately, people started buying the mask from Amazon. The following game, there were a few sightings. When Cincinnati did finally come to town, there were upwards of 20.
The same season, masked students started sending pictures to the Card Chronicle. Because of the online attention, the student section soon became littered with the latex, emotionless bird heads. Deeper into the season, masks were spotted among the entire crowd. Eventually, live broadcasts took notice, commenting on the unnerving fixed expression.
Today, three years later, pictures are still sent in to Card Chronicle. The site, which features the photos, receives four or five pictures per day. The pictures, which are backlogged a year, aren't always football or game day related. In fact, most of them aren't.
The mask has visited the Grand Canyon, Washington D.C. and troops overseas. It's graced the head of Louisville greats Teddy Bridgewater and Peyton Siva. It's posed next to Bobby Petrino. Rutherford's groomsmen wore it on his wedding day. People pop it on their kids, their dogs, their grandparents and their professors.
Fans even go to extremes to wear it to games.
"People have reported allergic reactions to wearing them," Rutherford said, "and they'll send in pictures with their faces broken out in hives. It's latex, and some people are allergic. Some people are taking medication so they can still wear it without breaking out into hives."
Companies, realizing the dedication, now produce knock-off bird masks for Louisville fans. The notoriety has grown so much that it's listed on Louisville football's Wikipedia page under "traditions." After three years, it's become a fixture, not a fad.
Rutherford believes the staying power is in the nature of the fanbase.
"Louisville fans don't just go to games because the teams are good," Rutherford said. "They go to games because they're fun. Go anywhere for a big time event—bowl game, Final Four—any neutral site event, like Atlanta, and all the proprietors of the businesses say the same thing: 'We had no idea Louisville fans like to party this much.'"
The mask, in all its terror, personifies (or birdifies) that spirit.
"It's the reputation Louisville fans have," Rutherford said. "A fun-loving fanbase who likes to party a little bit. The mask, though creepy, likes to party, too."
It's been three years since that Cincinnati game, yes. The CCBM festivities, though, haven't ended yet.
Haley O'Shaughnessy is SI's campus correspondent for the University of Louisville. Follow her on Twitter.