It happened on February 3rd, during the half-time show of the Toronto Raptors vs. New Jersey Nets game. One moment, the inflatable Toronto Raptor is bopping along beside an especially spirited Dance Pak cheerleader. The next moment, that same exuberant blonde is swallowed whole.
“The Raptor. Having some fun with the cheerleaders,” narrates the announcer. “Wow. Devoured! That’s… that’s wrong!”
Video footage of the incident—dubbed “Raptor devours cheerleader”—has since gone viral, with close to 3 million views on YouTube, hundreds of blog links, and tributes on a host of daily news networks.
It has also been played under a number of titles, though the understanding is never lost: “Maskot slukte cheerleader,” (Norway’s TV2underholdning),“Toronto Raptors mascotte eet cheerleader,” (Holland’s VKMag.com),“Maskottchen fristt Cheerleader auf,” (Germany’s RP Online), “Un ‘raptor,’ engullidor de cheerleaders” (Spain’s Eurosport).
Some have taken creative license with the footage, speculating about the Raptor’s new taste for human meat. “Did she taste like chicken?” pondered letroxxx in a comment on YouTube. “Is that Tiger Woods in there?” wondered Samoancanadian.
Others have debated the significance of the stunt. One blogger pointed out the skit was performed on Charles Darwin Day: “The important thing,” he wrote, “is that it demonstrates the concept of natural selection and survival of the fittest.” [Actually, Darwin Day is on February 12th.]
Most recently, a more sophisticated version of the stunt was attempted. Sarah C. (she wasn’t able to give me her last name, as per Raptors Dance Pak rules) was the dancer involved. She wouldn’t tell me what it was like inside the Raptor’s mouth—“we like to keep how we do the move a little bit of a secret”—but she says it all went according to plan: “[The Raptor] ate me and then spit out a man [who was also inside the costume.] The Dance Pak wanted him to give me back, so he spit me out, too.”
Weeks later, the Toronto Raptors franchise is still fielding media calls. “We’re totally surprised,” Anton Wright, manager of game operations for the team, told Maclean’s, noting that this is the most attention the Raptor has ever generated. For Wright, the stunt speaks for itself: “When you see [the Raptor] chomping on a dancer, fans and people on the opposite team are like: what’s going on? It’s pretty fun.”
Still, the stunt’s inherent entertainment factor does not exactly hold up as an explanation of the YouTube sensation. For one, there’s the simple fact that our darlingist dinosaur has tasted fresh cheerleader before. Here, for instance, the Raptor enjoys a spunky University of Buffalo cheerleader with a ponytail.
That, and the fact that the Houston Rocket’s mascot Clutch (a bear) has been cheerleader-devouring for years. In fact, Clutch was the first professional mascot to own a costume with cheerleader-devouring capabilities.
The Toronto Raptors do not allow the Raptor himself to be interviewed, but I caught up with Robert Boudwin, a.k.a. Clutch, this week.
“We do [the trick] about five or six times a year at Rockets games. And then I do it on the road,” Boudwin told me. “We’ve done that bit probably about 60 or 70 times now…And we’ve done it with countless cheerleaders.”
The first person Clutch ate, in fact, was not a cheerleader, but a child dressed up in the opposing team’s jersey. Since then, he’s unveiled some creative variations on the theme. “We’ve done it with PA announcers…. The PA announcer is talking on the mic and we eat her and then she continues to talk from the inside of the costume: ‘Hey, let me out of here. It’s dark in here. Oooh, God. What did you eat?’”
It works pretty simply, Boudwin tells me. Inside the costume, Boudwin wears a power belt with a battery and fan that is constantly sucking in air from the outside. The mouth has a trap door built into it, sealed with a thick piece of Velcro. From inside, Boudwin unlatches the Velcro, throws the mouth over the child/cheerleader, lifts the child/cheerleader onto his shoulder, and then seals the mouth before too much air is released.
I tell him that’s an impressive feat for an aging bear. (Boudwin has been Clutch for 15 years now). “Nah, they’re only 50 pounds for kids,” he laughs. “One hundred pounds for the girls. It’s not like you’re picking up a 200-pound man.” [Though Boudwin admits he’s done that, too.]
So is the T.Rap just a sorry copycat? In fact, it’s more accurate to say that Clutch and the Raptor have a special friendship: a bond that has placed them at the forefront of mascot innovation.
It all goes back 15 years. Boudwin was, by then, an expert in his field. As an undergrad, he started the mascot program at the University of Delaware, later moving to Houston after a successful audition for the part of Clutch. In 1997 or 1998, Boudwin heard of a new kind of inflatable mascot that had been introduced at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Impressed, he contacted Signs and Shapes International, the company behind the costume, and discussed the possibility of building an inflatable version of his popular character. “Air Clutch was the first [inflatable mascot] in pro sports,” he boasts.
Air Clutch worked well…for a while. But Boudwin quickly tired of it and moved on to “the next phase,” an airhead doll—“a shorter, fatter [mascot] that can roll… and that have these trap doors in the mouth.”
A year or two later, says Boudwin, the Raptor called. Soon, he had an airhead of his own. Today, the Rockets and the Raptors are the only teams in the NBA league to have airhead mascots. Clutch and the Raptor have even performed side-by-side, gobbling down Dallas Mavericks dancers at an All-Star game.
For Boudwin, sharing the idea with his good friend just made sense. “I mean, a lot of the NBA mascots talk very regularly,” he says. “The general rule is that the guys that have been in it longer tend to associate with each other,” says Boudwin, noting he’s closest with the Raptor, the Utah Jazz Bear, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Rumble the Bison, and the Pacers’ cat, Boomer.
Asked why the Raptor’s stunt was so popular when Clutch has been at the same thing for years, Boudwin just shrugs: “I mean there’s a lot of stuff out there on YouTube.”
In any event, it seems likely that ‘Raptor devours cheerleader’ is only the beginning. Scott Bowen, production manager of Signs and Shapes International, says he has met with the Raptor on a number of occasions to develop new features. “We’ve always got some R&D going,” he admits. Past brainstorming sessions have resulted in the mini inflatable Raptor and a pair of adaptable feet the Raptor mounts to stilts or rollerblades.
Still, game operations manager Anton Wright is cautious about promising more cheerleader devouring in the future. “We talked about it,” he concedes, “ and we don’t want to do it too much, because it gets boring then. Then it’s like: oh yeah, he’s eating another cheerleader again. He’s chomping another dancer… You just want to do it a couple times, where it still has that kind of appeal and that kind of, ‘What is he going to do? I wonder what he’s going to chomp on next time?’”