Loyal Cougars

3rd Down With the Clown: At the Gathering With Swoop

“Out there,” he points toward the fairground gates that lead to a world I’m beginning to miss very much. “Out there, I’m Swoop. But in here I’m Woop. As in ‘Whoop whoop.’ Out there, it’s four downs. In here, the only down is what you are with the clown.”

I’ve been trying to get ahold of Swoop for weeks with no luck. The first number I found turned out to be for the Philadelphia Eagles mascot, who politely told me in a caustic Northeastern accent to “go get [redacted for the children], jagweed.” Right attitude, wrong Swoop. After that, it was the Miami University mascot who, after checking a couple times to make sure I wasn’t trying to reach the University of Miami, got really, really excited. It broke my heart to tell him that he was the wrong Swoop. Eastern Michigan Swoop was obviously drunk, Eastern Washington Swoop didn’t know it was a mascot. Then there was Emory University Swoop, and finally the South Bend Silver Hawks Swoop (baseball’s only Swoop). I was close to giving up, but my persistence has finally paid off; the phone is ringing and I think I’ve got my man. Bird. Manbird.

We go through a brief introduction and before long, I’m desperately trying to convince him to give me an interview. He keeps telling me it’s a short week before the Holy War and there’s just no time. Finally, he gives in and tells me he’s willing to compromise. “If you want an interview, meet me at the Utah State Fairgrounds on Tuesday and I’ll give you a two-for-one special.” He refuses to explain and hangs up quickly and I’m left confused but grateful. It’s always a tightrope walk catering to the egos and schedules of even regional school mascots.

It’s a warm, dry September morning as I stroll toward the fairgrounds for my interview. I can see Swoop waiting for me near the entrance but it takes me a second to realize it’s him. That may be surprising given the fact that there are relatively few anthropomorphic hawks hanging around most places you go. In this case, though, Swoop is neither the most unique looking individual milling about the dusty fairground gates, nor is he wearing his signature Utah jersey with its characteristic “mountains drawn by a paste-eating third grader” sleeves. Instead he’s draped head to toe in a combination of black and neon green and his drab yellow beak is blackened with what I’d later learn was his dad’s shoe polish. With his bobblehead physique and bulging eyes, he looks every bit like a baby bird that fell into a bonfire. He waves me over.

“Let me tell you something,” he says as I approach, my eyes darting in every direction to try to capture each detail as a group of fleshy black pincushion types make their way through the entrance. In the distance I can hear music that sounds vaguely like someone put a Papa Roach CD in a blender. “In the late 90s I had a lot of offers from a lot of teams looking down the barrel of political correctness. Basically any school with a football team and a Native American-themed mascot was looking for a new team name and for some reason everyone wanted birds. But I chose Utah. You want to know why?” I do. He raises his arms and gestures at the scene that surrounds us. “Because Utah’s the only place where I knew I could do my job and be myself. Where I’d never have to compromise my membership in the Family. Welcome to the Gathering. Whoop whoop.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. He ushers me through the gates and I’m starting to get a little nervous. As we walk through the fairgrounds under the intense late summer sunlight, Swoop explains. It turns out the Gathering is some kind of annual pilgrimage for a group of lifestyle aficionados who call themselves juggalos. From what I can see, the Gathering is essentially some kind of communal Cirque de Soleil, if the theme of Cirque de Soleil were diabetes. Everywhere I look, mounds of unkempt flesh are spilling out of black bodices, black corsets, or over the tops of JNCO jeans like waterfalls of skin and fat in suspended animation.

“Um, Swoop,” I start to say, and he stops and gives me a serious look. “Listen, I need to explain something to you,” he says imploringly. I’m taken aback by the gravity of his tone. “Out there,” he points toward the fairground gates that lead to a world I’m beginning to miss very much. “Out there, I’m Swoop. But in here I’m Woop. As in ‘Whoop whoop.’ Out there, it’s four downs. In here, the only down is what you are with the clown.” Chastised, I hold my questions and let him continue to lead me through the open-sky corridors of the Gathering, past a tent that says “Juggalos for Jesus” and another that says “Free Lap Dance With T-Shirt Purchase.”

I’m astounded by the number of people that Swoop, or Woop, knows at the Gathering. Everywhere we go someone’s stopping to say hello, give him a hug, or reveal to him some newly pierced anatomical protuberance. He introduces me to all of them and I have to say I come away from the tour with my nascent ideas on juggalos radically altered. These are salt of the earth people, working class bohemians that never seem to notice or care that I’m wearing a button down shirt to their nightmare clown hootenanny. They’re welcoming and warm almost without exception, until I ask if Faygo comes in any diet flavors. If it does, no one was sharing.

At the end of a long, sweaty day full of awkward introductions and a lot of inadvertent cannabis inhalation, Swoop leads me to the fairground exit. We haven’t talked football even once, haven’t discussed the Holy War, Utah’s chances in the Pac 12, or Swoop’s budding rivalry with Cosmo Cougar. None of it seems to matter here at the Gathering, where the only thing Swoop can focus on is the litany of “Family” members that surround him.

“These are my people,” he tells me as he licks powdered sugar off of a funnel cake. “This is what you guys don’t get at BYU. This is why you’re not building a base in a diversifying Utah population. It’s not just the fact that we started playing Twizted songs on Third Downs, or that our stadium drinks are provided by Faygo. It’s not the free Valtrex at the University of Utah student clinic, or the Arby’s coupons on the back of the free tickets. It’s not even our insistence that neither the Holy War nor college football in general really existed before the 21st century. More than anything, it’s that we don’t judge these people. At the U, we welcome all these people with open arms. You could really learn something from that at BYU.”

The thing is, he’s right. It’s all I can think about as I walk down the dark streets toward my car. I came to meet Swoop hoping to get something, anything, I could use as more ammo in the endless security dilemma of rivalry smack that characterizes the Holy War. But instead what I got was a lesson on human kindness.


  1. Brandon Jones

    September 8, 2016 at 11:38 am

    Well done, Boney! Keep ’em coming!

  2. Matilde Boidevermicelle

    September 8, 2016 at 11:52 am

    This is an iron slap wrapped in a velvet glove. Bravo.