Secrets Of The Shell

Mums the word, but for the lucky winners, being the next mascot for the Maryland Terrapins means lots of work and a hidden identity

November 17, 2003|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

The 10 young men and women who made it to the final round of tryouts last week should know by today whether they got one of the most coveted jobs at the University of Maryland. The problem is they won't be able to tell anyone if they did.

The identity of Testudo, the mascot Diamondback terrapin, is such a secret that the student who made the decision, the student who will soon hand the fuzzy head and the baggy shell over to another student, doesn't want you to know who he is. He doesn't want you to know his name; he doesn't want you to know his age; he doesn't want you to know which state school he was at before he transferred to Maryland. He fears you might have seen him lugging a big bag around campus or you might have noticed how often he's missing during basketball season. He worries you might put the pieces together and unmask him.

Secrecy "is not written anywhere but it's passed down," said the student, who will say he has been one of three undergrads who have played the part since 2000.

"It's not just for us," he said. "It's for the people in the stands. You're not a student when you put on the costume. You're Testudo."

Every applicant who made it to the final round -- every student who put on the 15-pound get-up and strutted their stuff at a field hockey, soccer, women's volleyball or exhibition basketball game -- had been told they could inform their parents and roommates that they applied, but they should not spread it further.

The importance of secrecy was raised back in September, soon after the job was posted on the university's Web site and in The Diamondback student newspaper. Forty students showed up in the auxiliary gym at the Comcast Center for interviews, some in "Fear The Turtle" T-shirts, some with foam terrapins on their heads.

Although the university's athletics department pays for Testudo's travel and his $3,500 suit, students ran the tryouts. The main student, the one who doesn't want you to know his major or what he plans to do after college, came up with a one-page questionnaire to help weed good candidates from bad.

The questionnaire asked applicants their grade point average, as well as their height and weight since the costume cannot accommodate anyone shorter than 5 foot 8 or taller than 6 foot 2. It asked if they have their own transportation, if they live on campus, if they have a part-time job, which could be a conflict since being Testudo involves about 10 hours of work a week, more when the basketball and football seasons overlap.

Another line asked about mascot experience. Experience wasn't necessary but the chief Testudo -- who dressed as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Winnie the Pooh, a Ninja Turtle and a Power Ranger for a party company when he was in high school -- deemed any time spent in padding and a hood a plus.

The Diamondback became the school mascot in 1932, but there was no giant costumed character until the 1970s. While no one knows precisely where the name Testudo comes from, most think it is derived from the scientific name for turtle, testudines, or from the name of an African species, testudo gigantia, or from the Latin word for headgear worn by Roman soldiers.

During two days of interviews, each applicant was given five minutes to explain why he or she deserved the job.

"I have so much school spirit," said a 21-year-old senior from Baltimore County. "I mean I let it out when I go to the games, but I want to take it to the next level."

Another applicant, a 19-year-old junior from Carroll County, said, "I'm just real extreme with sports. It would be an honor to be Testudo."

Some tried to impress the judges with bold ideas.

One said if he were Testudo, he would never take a break.

Another said he thought all the noise made before a free throw was a waste. He'd rather see the crowd silent while the player takes his bounces, then noisy the moment the player shoots.

Yet another said sports was the main reason he came to Maryland. He told the judges how he wrote in his college application essay that if they let him in, he'd be the school's greatest fan.

Applicants were told the job doesn't pay any money but the benefits include the best seat in the house, never having to worry about tickets, traveling to away games and tournaments, hanging out with cheerleaders, and best of all: a floor pass for the Duke game.

Applicants were warned, though, that the most prestigious sports, especially basketball, would be theirs only after they paid their dues at field hockey, volleyball and baseball games, as well as homecomings, orientations and open houses.

Those with experience had an idea of what they were getting into. One applicant had been a Towson University Tiger and one a Golden Eagle at Owings Mills High School.

Those without experience were given no training before they put the furry gloves on their hands and the mesh beak on their shoulders. They were told only the basic rules: No talking. No being seen in partial costume. No vulgarity.

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