December 31, 2013

Rock Hill’s mascot 'Rocky' heads to Capital One Bowl game

Jadeveon Clowney, the Dixon brothers and a handful of other University of South Carolina football players won’t be the only Rock Hill natives making an appearance at the Capital One Bowl Wednesday.

The Rock Hill High Bearcat himself, "Rocky," will be performing during a pregame show. Rocky is known to his friends and family as Rock Hill High junior Jacob Strickland.

Jacob has taken a costume that occasionally got put on by a cheerleader into a community icon, said Rock Hill assistant varsity cheerleading coach Debra Crenshaw. She’s seen Rocky, and Jacob, turn into so much more than a person in a furry costume who waves and dances around at a few football games.

"He has just taken to the mascot like no other," Crenshaw said.

Jacob fell into mascoting by accident, said his mother, Becky Strickland, who works at Castle Heights Middle School. Three years ago, Jacob, who was already in high school, was doing his homework in her office after school one day when the school needed someone to put on the Castle Heights Knight costume for an event. Jacob agreed to do it.

"And he was just a natural," she said. "We called the high school and asked them how he could get involved in mascoting at Rock Hill."

Countless sporting events and community appearances later, being Rocky has almost become a full-time job, Strickland said, but Jacob wouldn’t have it any other way.

"It’s just fun," he said.

Jacob went to not one, but two mascot camps to work on his performance skills last summer. He learned the do’s and don’ts of mascoting. He even has a manual of mascot rules.

Yes, there are rules, called "Mascot Commandments," and Jacob follows them, almost to a T. For instance, he never sits still for more than 15 seconds. He also never talks while in costume.

But one rule Jacob likes to break every now and then is the one about taking breaks every 40 minutes or so to cool down and get some air outside the costume. He likes being Rocky too much to strictly follow that rule. To help with the inevitable heat in the costume, he has a vest that can be loaded with ice packs to wear beneath the Bearcat fur, as well as a small fan.

Over the last few years, the Strickland family has really become the Rocky team. Jacob’s dad, James Strickland, built the rock that Rocky comes out of at the football games and the family set up a system with a walkie talkie so that Rocky can walk around at events by himself, but still get instructions from someone outside the suit.

"We stay within vision, but we give him space to build his own character," Becky Strickland said.

Before Jacob and his family came along, there was no "Rocky," said Rock Hill athletic director Bill Warren. Jacob even came up with the name to help create the character.

"It’s awesome," Warren said. "He’s a valuable asset to our athletic program."

When he’s not in the Rocky costume, Jacob is quiet, and shy, even. He plays in the Rock Hill HIgh band and works hard in school. But when he becomes Rocky, he turns into someone else, said Crenshaw.

"He comes alive once that costume goes on," she said.

Jacob said he and Rocky aren’t too different in personality.

"Rocky is the man to be," Jacob said. "He’s goodhearted and he’s tough, but he has a good time."

One of the things Jacob learned at mascot camp is that the personality of the mascot needs to stay with the mascot, even when the person in the costume graduates. That’s why he, his family, Crenshaw and Warren are hopeful they’ll be able to establish an apprenticeship program, to keep the tradition of Rocky alive after Jacob graduates in 2015.

Rocky does a lot more than just come to football and basketball games, which tend to draw the bigger crowds. Warren said Jacob attends nearly every athletic event, no matter what sport it is. Rocky also gets lots of requests to appear at community events, Warren said.

He makes plenty of appearances at elementary schools where, Crenshaw said, Jacob really excels.

"If there’s kids, he does really great with them," she said. "You want people like that to represent your school."

And Jacob’s mascoting career isn’t going to end when he’s got his Rock Hill High diploma, yet another thing becoming Rocky has done for Becky Strickland’s son.

"He never really talked about college before, and now he talks about it all the time," she said.

Warren said many people don’t realize there are scholarships to be had for mascoting.

And at the Capitol One Bowl, where the Gamecocks will take on Wisconsin, Jacob will have a chance to meet one of his mascot idols, USC’s "Cocky." It’s pure luck it worked out that way, Strickland said.

Jacob’s Rocky was named an "All-American" mascot at a Universal Cheerleaders Association camp last summer. Just 12 percent of all mascots who auditioned made the cut. Of the 40 mascots performing Wednesday, Rock Hill High is the only school from South Carolina represented, Strickland said.

And while Jacob has known for months he’d be performing at the bowl, until a month ago, he didn’t know that one of the teams playing would be the Gamecocks, his family’s favorite team. The USC roster includes Clowney and Gerald Dixon of South Pointe High School and Gerald Dixon Jr. of Northwestern High School.

"It worked out great," Jacob said of their good fortune.

Jacob’s Rocky and other mascots from across the country have been in Florida this week. They will perform during the pre-game show Wednesday. . After the show, the University of South Carolina will play the University of Wisconsin at 1 p.m. on ABC and ESPN3.

Rachel Southmayd at 803-329-4072

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