Iconic mascot Cy shares 7 decades at Iowa State

Oklahoma State mascot, Pistol Pete, and Cy mess around during the game against Oklahoma State University on Nov. 14. The Cyclones would go on to lose 31-35.  

Mathew Evans and Lexie Troutman

Ten minutes until kickoff. The team sits in the inflatable tunnel, waiting in anticipation to run on the field. The crowd of 60,000 screaming fans stands tall, yearning for their team. Blasting out of the tunnel, Cy waves the American flag high, bringing the crowd to a frenzy.

Iowa State was founded in 1854, but the university did not receive its mascot until 1954. Virgil Petty, who was originally recruited to Iowa State to play basketball, found his place as the first Cy.

“At the time, Iowa State had been falling behind Iowa in athletics,” Petty, a 1957 grad per the Alumni Association, said. “The Pep Council wanted to find out a way to generate more enthusiasm for the lagging sports program.”  

The Pep Council chose a cardinal because of the school’s colors of cardinal and gold. However, the name was already circling.

“In the early 1930s, a great dane named Cy used to sit with the cheerleaders at the games,” said Tom Kroeschell, director of Cyclones.tv.

The university held a competition to name the future face of the school; the winning name was chosen as Cy, which was thought up by Wilma Beckman Ohlsen of Ames. For her participation, she was given a stadium blanket with the Iowa State “I” in the middle.

A name doesn’t mean much without a mascot to go with it though.

The first Cy costume was composed of chicken wire, felt and aluminum straps.

“The bird stood [8 feet 6 inches] tall,” Petty said. “My eye line was at the bird’s neck and there was about [2 feet 6 inches] of the bird’s head on top of mine.”

Transporting Cy to away games was no easy task because of the bird’s large size.

“The bird was so big that you couldn’t put it in the trunk of your car,” Petty said. “We had to build a box and ship it on a train to get it to places.”

Warren Madden, senior vice president for business and finance who’s been at Iowa State for 50 years, understands the significance of Cy. Madden was a graduate of Iowa State in 1961 and has witnessed the mascot’s evolution.

“During my early years, the first costumes started out with plastic waste baskets as the boots,” Madden said. “They were much different costumes. The initial Cy was basically a frame that a person stood inside, and it didn’t have the ability to really engage with people.”

Throughout the years, the school has attempted to change the look of Cy. It added a Baby Cy in the early 1980s and a companion for Cy named Clone in 1989. The school ended up losing interest in the additional mascots and decided to maintain a solo act.

For those who have performed as the mascot, it has never been about the fame.

“Besides a few of my close friends, no one knew I was Cy,” said Robert John, former Cy actor. “It was not about the person inside the suit — it was about Cy.”

In 1972, the ISU football team won the right to play in the Liberty Bowl. This meant that John, the only Cy that year, got to travel to Memphis, Tenn., to support the team.

“My roommates and I all piled into this guy’s van with Cy and drove down to Memphis,” John said. “We were somewhere near St. Louis when the driver of the van fell asleep.”

The ensuing crash caused some major troubles for both Cy and John.

“We went off the road and the van rolled about three times,” John said. “I was in the back and actually got saved by Cy. “I rolled onto him and it damaged the suit pretty bad.”

John ended up with some head trauma along with other minor injuries. Cy, on the other hand, was not in the best condition.

“There was battery acid all over it, and the frame was bent along with a lot of torn fabric,” John said.

After a quick recovery, the group, along with the battered Cy, hopped on a Greyhound to Memphis. John and Cy arrived to a crowd of alumni.

“The alumni were in shock at what had happened,” John said. “They told me to go rest up and that they would figure out how to fix Cy. They got the hotel engineer to help straighten out Cy’s metal frame and a local seamstress to patch together his fabric.”

Hours later, John woke up to a surprise. Cy had been fully repaired.

That night, ISU fans hosted a pep rally, where John got to reveal the repaired Cy to the worried crowd.

“I came in through the back of the hall and surprised everybody,” John said.

The fans rejoiced when they saw their beloved mascot was back in shape. The arrival of the formerly battered bird even caused the crowd to unceremoniously cut off the governor, who was giving his rally speech.

“The governor ended his speech and smiled as the crowd cheered,” John said. “I went to the stage and shook hands with him. I leaned in and apologized for accidentally upstaging him, but he said it was alright and was happy to see us both in good health.”

During John’s time as Cy, he had to pay for his own travel expenses, but teams allowed him to tag along with them to away events.

“Being Cy when Iowa State won national championships was so fantastic,” John said. “There was a lot of partying going on afterward.”

Before switching to a new suit, candidates had to be a predetermined height before they were allowed to officially try out. With a tall height of the suit, the student had to be at least 6 feet 3 inches.

Timothy Glenn, former Cy, said the suit was heavy and awkward, so each applicant had to be able to lift 60 to 70 pounds.

After years of being solely used for athletic appearances, Cy began to be appear at different events throughout the community.

Past alumni would contact the Athletic Department and set up a time for Cy to come during parades, reunions or other events.

One small town hosted Glenn that year and gave him a place to stay for the night.

“I took some buddies with me, and we made a day out of it,” Glenn said. “The games weren’t always on TV, so the kids in town didn’t always get to see the mascots. They were so excited.”

Even with parades, games and other appearances, Glenn never felt overwhelmed. But the university began splitting up the responsibility of Cy among various students after having acquired a second costume.

Glenn explained some of the benefits of being Cy, including being allowed on the sidelines when those in the suit were not working. Nothing beats being in the suit, he said.

“When I was in the suit, the look in the eyes of little kids was amazing,” Glenn said. “Whatever was happening of the field, you could count on someone wanting to take their picture with you or give you a high five.”

Glenn has kids of his own now and explained how special it is for them to attend games.

“[I] loved seeing them pose for pictures with Cy and seeing their reactions,” Glenn said.

Jenny Harestad, a 2001 ISU graduate, became Cy during a time when Iowa State had an advanced version of the suit that was more mobile.

Harestad grew up as an ISU fan and remembers seeing Cy throughout her childhood at sporting events. While participating in intramurals, the Cy tryouts poster caught her eye.

Her friends encouraged her to try out, and out of the 13 people who attempted to be Cy, she was one of the four who received the honor.

“[I] just love being at the events,” Harestad says, “It’s just a cool thing I can say that I did. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Football games were an occasion for each of the students working as Cy to come together and share the experience. The four mascots attended different tailgating events Cy was requested at and then split up the game. Each student took one quarter to go out on the field, Harestad said.

Harestad traveled with the ISU football team to Missouri in 1999. Iowa State had just joined the Big 12 Conference a few years before the game.

Harestad remembers the amazing experience of being on the field during the moment when Iowa State beat one of its rival teams, 24-21.

“It was huge,” Harestad said. “That was a big monumental win for the football team.”

Cy’s influence is even more present to her now than it was when she was behind the mask.

“Now that I have kids, their faces just light up when Cy’s on TV,” Harestad said. “Whenever we go to games, that’s what they’re always looking for.”

During a football game in 2011 against the University of Connecticut, Cy’s wings were clipped by a rival fan who was unhappy with the result of a recent touchdown, revealing a dark side to the mask.

“We had scored a touchdown and I ran up the stairs to the section where the Iowa State fans were, and there was one UCONN fan where I was trying to go,” said Zane Brugenhemke, who was manning the bird. “I put my hands on him and turned my head, which caused the beak of Cy to hit his head, so he punched me in the face and twisted my head.”

The hit caused Brugenhemke to lose his balance, resulting in an unexpected injury.

“He shoved me, which caused me to fall onto the field six feet below, and I broke my radius in one spot and my ulna in two spots,” Brugenhemke said.

The good tidings Cy brings more than out shadows the minor hiccups the mascot has seen over the years. 

“It never ceases to amaze me how individuals who are 55 years old all flock to Cy. It’s like they’re still kids,” Kroeschell said. “Cy affirms the feeling people have to the school, and bridges the gaps in generations.”