Rare Breed:
For a few UNM students, channeling Louie or Lucy is the honor of a lifetime

By Leslie Linthicum

 

Imagine pulling on a heavy carpet and a big fiberglass helmet and running at full tilt for hours on end. Maybe throwing in a cartwheel and your smoothest dance moves.

You sweat buckets. People tug on your tongue. They say you have rabies. And sometimes, when things go terribly wrong, a nefarious Aggie cuts off your tail.

But, oh, to be a Lobo mascot.

“You’re the symbol of the University. Everyone wants to take your picture and get your autograph,” says Rich Grainger (’96 BS, ’98 MS), who inhabited the Lobo Louie persona for five years in the mid 1990s. “What a wonderful gift.”

Marco Segura (’94 BA), who was Lobo Louie in 1993 and 1994: “It’s as close as you can be to being a celebrity. Everyone loves you. As much as you love it, the love that you get back is 10 times more.”

Natalie Umphrey (’06 BS), who was Lobo Lucy from 2000 to 2006: “It was like being a rock star. I call it my favorite job ever.”

Rich Grainger (’96 BS, ’98 MS)
Photo: Roberto E. Rosales

 

Edward Abeyta (’92 BA), who was Louie in 1991 and 1992, says, “We had a front seat to something really special.”

And, says Wende Schwingendorf (’94 BA), Lobo Lucy to Abeyta’s Louie and the victim of the Aggie fan’s scissors, “I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun in my entire life.”

As anyone who has ever cheered on a UNM team from the stands knows, Louie and Lucy (relationship status: “complicated”) are the he and she wolves who strut, dance, clap and shake their tails on the sidelines at basketball, football and baseball games. They can also sometimes be spotted at softball games, volleyball matches, at receptions and news conferences and, if you make arrangements, even at your bat mitzvah.

Do you have the picture? Big googly brown eyes, wagging red tongues, furry feet and paws, long tails just begging to be tugged. And, my, what pointy white teeth they have.

Depending on the sport, Louie will wear a basketball or football uniform. Lucy prefers a cheerleading outfit. They are officially members of the Spirit Squad, UNM’s cheerleaders and dance squad members, with one important distinction: Louie and Lucy have never spoken a word.

Well, how could they? They’re wolves.

“Don’t talk and don’t take off your head,” are two rules Umphrey remembers.

Oh, and don’t tell people that it’s you inside the suit.

“You’re this anonymous being inside the skin of this icon,” says Abeyta, an Albuquerque native who earned a communications degree from UNM. “No one knows it’s you. Everything that I did—it was Louie. It wasn’t me. Louie was my alter ego. This fun-loving guy who wants everyone to have a good time.”

Abeyta once wiped future Chicago Bull’s center Luc Longley’s sweat off the floor using an 8-year-old child. Grainger pantsed the Louisville Cardinal mascot during an NCAA game.

Marco Segura (’94 BA)
Photo: Yuni Stephenson

 

And Segura? He stood on the hood of a police car, hugged just about everybody he encountered and he once impersonated a dead horse by laying on his back and sticking all four Louie legs stiffly in the air at an away game at Texas Tech.

“You get away with murder in that suit and everyone thinks it’s funny,” says Segura, now a sales manager for an oil field company in Oklahoma.

Well, almost everybody. The Texas Tech fans, who had already been throwing tortillas at Segura, were incensed. The Masked Rider mascot’s live horse had been euthanized after a fall and Segura had to quick change out of the Louie suit and flee the stadium to avoid a wolf hunt.

Segura was not dissuaded from mascot work by the incident. When he moved to Tulsa after college he took a job for $20 a game to be Hornsby, a big blue bull mascot for the minor league Tulsa Drillers baseball team.

For Schwingendorf, who went on to a career in journalism and public affairs, the Lucy suit gave permission to unleash her inner nerd.

“I could be a total dork and nobody knew,” she says.

Umphrey found freedom to release herself from shyness. Each mascot develops his or her own style and Umphrey’s Lucy was

Wende Schwingendorf (’94 BA)
Photo: Roberto E. Rosales

 
girly and flirty. “I kind of put a little dip in her hip when she walked. I wanted her to be a little sassy.”

While most of the 18,000 people in the Pit had no idea that Umphrey was that sassy Lucy, her parents did.

“My mom was just so proud of me that she would tell everybody,” says Umphrey, who is a respiratory therapist supervisor at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara Medical Center in San José, Calif.

Her sorority sisters at Alpha Chi Omega also knew because it’s hard to hide a bag with a big wolf costume inside when it’s laundry day.

“I was in amazing shape, probably the best shape of my life,” Grainger remembers from his five years as Louie. “But there were times I didn’t smell that great.”

That would have to do with the sweating. Ask any former Louie or Lucy about their time in the suit and it doesn’t take long for the topic of sweat to trickle out.

“I would lose eight to 10 pounds a game just in sweat,” Segura says.

Running up and down the Pit steps as Lucy got Schwingendorf in the best shape of her life. She used to sweat out about seven pounds during a basketball game. “It’s basically like wearing a carpet,” she says.

“It’s like putting a fur on,” is Abeyta’s analogy. “It’s physically demanding.”

Abeyta believes he won his Louie audition when he did a round off cartwheel while wearing the heavy suit.

Washing that suit after every game is now the responsibility of the Athletics Department, but it used to be the mascot’s job.

Segura, whose family lived in Santa Fe, had help keeping the Louie suit fresh. He would take it home with his laundry and his mom would run it through the washer and dryer.

Schwingendorf also had some help. Her mom and many bottles of Downey helped keep her Lucy suit fresh.

Leaving the damp suit for later after a game?

“It’s not a good idea to ball it up and stick it in a bag,” says Umphrey, recalling a Louie who was a little too slow to the washing machine and earned the nickname “Stinky Louie.”

Segura forgot on occasion to air the suit out and paid for it later. “If you left it in a bag for a day…, oh my God!”

UNM was without a mascot from its founding in 1889 to 1920 when the student newspaper endorsed the lobo (Spanish for wolf) and UNM athletes became “Lobos.”

But the furry guy with the googly eyes and long tongue dancing up a storm on the sidelines didn’t come about until the 1980s. Before that, UNM skirted danger—and legal liability—by occasionally having a live wolf or wolf pup at games.

In the late 1920s, a wolf cub captured near Mount Taylor appeared at every football game led on a leash and harness by a cheerleader. But after biting a child, the wolf was dispatched.

But as recently as 1989, a wolf appeared at a football game. According to the Associated Press: “During an Oct. 28, 1989 home loss to Wyoming, All-American wide receiver Terance Mathis said he was nipped by the wolf after throwing a block and rolling out of bounds. Mathis wasn't hurt, but he was quoted as saying at the time, ‘He sure scared me. I've got tooth marks in my pants.’”

Since then, it’s been all furry suit for the Lobo mascot.

And that has given dozens of UNM undergrads an unparalleled opportunity— to travel, to represent their university and to be part of something big.

“Being Louie opened up a whole new world for me,” says Grainger, director of development for the nonprofit Paws and Stripes. “I was able to travel and see things I never would have been exposed to otherwise. I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”

Segura recalls traveling to NCAA tournaments and cheer camps. After he graduated he traveled throughout Latin America, Europe, India and the Middle East for his job and believes that a little of Louie traveled with him.

“Being able to interact with people, it helped me a lot,” he says. “Louie definitely had an integral part in that.”

Edward Abeyta (’92 BA)
Photo: Roberto E. Rosales

 

Umphrey grew up in the Lucy suit, learning time management and coming out of her shell. She appeared in television commercials as Lucy and even had her own trading card.

“It definitely gave me more confidence,” she says.

Abeyta, who went on to earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D., is now assistant dean for community engagement at University of California, San Diego.

“It was always more for me than the Louie craziness dancing and holding up signs,” says Abeyta. “Louie has always been such a part of UNM tradition and a way for the university to connect with kids and the community.”

Abeyta’s Lucy partner, even 25 years later, is still struck by what a privilege it was.

“It’s a really special thing,” Schwingendorf says. “There’s not that many of us around. It’s really a small group. And getting to do that, to be so immersed in the university culture and to be so appreciated, it developed in me a sense of pride in being a student at UNM and a pride that I have in my community.”

Edward Abeyta found some of his most memorable moments as Louie stemmed from camaraderie with other members of the Spirit Squad. Those students, who essentially volunteer to represent UNM day in and day out, led him and his father to establish a scholarship fund to help ease the burden of paying for college for Spirit Squad members. The Luis and LaMorah Abeyta Endowed Scholarship is for members of the Spirit Squad—Louies and Lucys included—who carry a full course load and have a cumulative GPA of 2.5. If you would like to support this program, please contact Bill Uher, Vice President of Development, UNM Foundation UNM Foundation, at bill.uher@unmfund.org.

Natalie Umphrey (’06 BS)
Photo: Chainey Umphrey