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November 23, 2014

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My day with UNLV’s Hey Reb

The man, the myth, the mustache

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Leila Navidi

UNLV mascot Hey Reb races Weekly reporter Erin Ryan at Pole Position Raceway in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 6, 2012.

Hey Reb is smoking me, with no peripheral vision and major drag from the enormous foam head and fake muscles threatening to pop the seams on all that red spandex. He’s so far ahead that he could take his hands off the wheel and go for a jaunty mustache stroke. It’s a move usually reserved for the basketball court or the football field, a way of telling UNLV’s enemies politely, ever so coolly, to suck it.

I end up losing by a fraction of a second, based on our best lap times in the go-karts at Pole Position Raceway. Hey Reb would normally rub this in with a booty wag in my direction, or maybe the signature Party Rock shuffle that put Justin Bieber to shame (YouTube it). But since I’ve already met the man behind the most famous Rebel, he can break the rules and gloat out loud.

“You know I went easy on you,” he says, spiking his words with New Jersey swagger. The accent is real. “Lee,” let’s call him, is from that part of the world. Since he first took up the Hey Reb mantle five years ago, the UNLV student has been careful to keep his identity under wraps. Secrecy is big in the Mascot Commandments, which include never being seen publicly in partial uniform or speaking in full uniform, as either will “ruin the fantasy that the mascot is a real creature, not just a person inside a costume.” Lee takes that very seriously.

Hey Reb Hangs with Erin Ryan

UNLV mascot Hey Reb gets ready to race Weekly reporter Erin Ryan at Pole Position Raceway in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 6, 2012. Launch slideshow »

“I have a really big problem if any of my skin is showing,” he says. “It’s the mystery, and kids can tell the difference.”

With his skin hidden and his mannerisms in character, he joins me for a game of pool. We sink a few “dirty” shots, as he says, and eventually the layers of Hey Reb peel back to reveal a sweaty, smiling, 22-year-old Italian. Because he takes on the mascot’s persona so completely when he’s performing, I’m surprised Lee doesn’t have a mustache. I can’t imagine him shooting fireworks from his gloves and shaking it to DJ Kool, but the more we talk, the more I understand how he and Hey Reb have grown together.

Lee likes to say he came out of the womb dancing, because he could always keep a beat. When he wasn’t playing soccer he was performing in school musicals such as Oklahoma! and Grease, where he learned the art of improv by fire, because he could change and be back onstage faster than anyone—meaning he sometimes found himself alone in the spotlight.

He liked the rush, and it led him to play his first mascot guerilla-style at the age of 13. His junior high didn’t have an official costume for its Viking, so he made one. As the marching band took the field during a football game, Lee did, too, busting every move in his arsenal. The crowd went bonkers.

The following year, he got into marketing and promotions for a minor league baseball club called the Camden Riversharks. He dominated the on-field entertainment as the team shark, a Chik-fil-A Cow, a tuxedo-clad usher named Mr. Trash and many other characters. From his homemade Viking to now, he has inhabited 31 mascots, but Hey Reb is his masterpiece.

“I drove all the way across country in a ’92 Acura Legend—no A/C, no driver’s-side window,” he says of his journey to UNLV, despite getting into numerous East Coast schools. “I just kind of needed to get out of Jersey, to be totally honest.”

Click to enlarge photo

UNLV mascot Hey Reb and Weekly reporter Erin Ryan play some pool at Pole Position Raceway in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 6, 2012.

Lee was backup mascot his freshman year. Today, he manages Hey Reb’s presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. He raised money through student government and the Alumni Association to purchase a brand-new, beefed-up suit and lobbied for the pyrotechnic gloves, among other special accessories. And he books his own community gigs, from charity fund-raisers and weddings to a wild rappel down the side of the Rio. It’s a whirlwind schedule in addition to his studies and other jobs, fueled only by chocolate milk, mozzarella sticks and a terrifying amount of gum. He enjoys the spotlight; and yes, it’s nice to know the Rebel Girls; and who wouldn’t want to be so close to the action at every game? But connecting with the people, the UNLV faithful, puts the real magic in his mustache stroke.

Young fans look at Hey Reb like he’s a mix of Superman and Santa, and Lee connects with them through high fives, hugs and a silent language of comic gestures. For years, a disabled teen has been courtside in her wheelchair, and while she can’t talk or lift her hands, squeezing Hey Reb’s finger has become a happy ritual.

The power of that finger hit home for Lee last year, when he started waving to a 3-year-old named Claire. Her parents have season tickets, so she and Hey Reb had a moment at every game. “I always wave at her with one finger. And she always, always goes crazy. … After the season ended, we finally met outside the Thomas & Mack, right after Selection Sunday, actually. We met face to face. And I hugged these people,” Lee says of Claire and her parents, with whom he’s now close.

“To have such a solid friendship to where I would almost call them my family, starting off on games of not even speaking a word, just waves and hugs, it’s crazy. … There’s little kids and parents that I would never be able to put a smile on their face as just me, a UNLV student, but seeing Hey Reb, they’ve probably smiled from ear to ear once or twice, and that’s really cool.”

Even if they’re a little less tender, we’ve all had our moments with Hey Reb. The tipsy fans who feel him up probably don’t appreciate how fastidiously he Febrezes the costume, and the ones cheering on his dance battles with the TCU Horned Frog probably have no idea what all that “getting low” takes out of a guy. He tirelessly doles out T-shirts and 6-foot sandwiches and lets people grab the stache, all part of what he calls “that extra feel” of a game. The coaches, players, cheerleaders and dancers are also there to inspire and put on a show, but they will never leap into the arms of the crowd and surf like there’s no tomorrow. That’s Lee’s job. He makes us laugh when the Rebels are winning and keeps us believing when they’re not.

But he can’t stay forever. Lee has bigger dreams, though he takes the passing down of the mascot tradition just as seriously as its code. Most have never seen his face, but I bet die-hard fans will know when his Hey Reb has left the building.

“He’s my favorite, the best,” Lee says and nods when I ask if he feels at home inside the suit. “That’s word-for-word perfect. I can be having the worst day ever, and then I just throw on the suit and I’m surrounded. … You get a kid that’s just so excited to see you they start to cry. That’s it. That’s where it hits you. When that stuff happens, I take the head off, and it’s not just sweat coming down my face.”

Sometimes, it’s good to break the rules.

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