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Wednesday, Jun 12, 2024
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Behind the mask: Mysterious Mercer mascots

Tot and Toby on the Bear Walk on a football game day in 2023. Photo provided by Seiler Rivers ’24.
Tot and Toby on the Bear Walk on a football game day in 2023. Photo provided by Seiler Rivers ’24.

As ubiquitous as Mercer’s orange light post banners or President Bill Underwood’s black labrador, Cricket, are on campus, there are two figures that stand out from the rest.

Toby and Tot, seen walking around during sporting events and scholarship days, embody the school’s spirit. The people inside the costumes, however, are the Mercerians who make the Bears come alive.

Since she was a freshman, Caroline Ulsaker ‘24 has led a second life on campus. On the surface, Ulsaker is just another student as she goes from class to class, rounding out her last semester at Mercer. She is a chemical commerce major who works with Housing and Residence Life as a resident assistant, and she is involved with QuadWorks.

In her circle, she is known for her generosity and kindness to her friends and to the students for whom she is an RA.

“She’s always there when you need her to be, and even if she’s busy, she makes time for you,” Zainab Shaik ‘25 said of her friend.

Yet when she isn’t studying, Ulsaker may be found on the way to Five Star Stadium in the fall, or Hawkins Arena in the winter. She isn’t suiting up as a player, nor is she announcing the starting lineups for the Bears. She is Tot.

Ever since her first year at Mercer, Ulsaker has been dressed as Mercer’s mascot, cheering on its teams and high-fiving fans in the stands. She said that it started off, as these things often do, as a joke.

“I remember seeing a Bear Blurb announcement freshman year, around December, but I didn’t do anything about it until January,” Ulsaker said. “I emailed the lady after having a conversation with my mom about how funny it would be if I was the mascot and she was like, ‘Oh, well we already have a Toby so do you want to be Tot?’”

Tot, Ulsaker said, was somewhat of a mystery to the school up until that time because there had not been someone to be the mascot until Ulsaker stepped up.

Despite having to learn as she went, Ulsaker knew that, after her first game as Tot, she wanted to fulfill that role for Mercer.

“It was awkward. It was really awkward, I had no idea how to interact with people but I loved it and I wanted to give another chance,” Ulsaker said.

Ulsaker even recalled tripping over the shoes of the costume, nearly falling down the steps of Hawkins Arena on her first day on the job. After some adjustments to the suit, Tot was no longer at risk of stumbling, but what could not be altered were the dimensions of Tot’s head - or fur.

“I remember putting on that head for the first time and thinking, ‘Wow, I could be claustrophobic,’” Ulsaker said. “Turns out I was fine but, like, it was definitely new and weird and as gross as it sounds, very sweaty because I had no idea what I was getting into.”

In the second half of football games, Tot would mingle with fans in the student section. Before that, however, Ulsaker made sure to visit young fans attending the game. Ulsaker said that she always envisioned Tot to be the mascot for kids who attended sporting events so during the first half of football games, she would walk up and down the home side stands at Five Star Stadium and meander around the sidewalk next to the Homer and Ruth Drake Field House, greeting and taking pictures with kids.

Ulsaker recalled one of her favorite memories with young fans as Tot.

“There are these two kids in particular who I basically watched grow up and they came to all the football games and all the basketball games. At first, the youngest girl absolutely hated me, she would scream, she didn’t want anything to do with me,” Ulsaker recalled. “Slowly, we started getting closer and closer, and then this year, she finally gave me that first hug.”

That interaction, Ulsaker said, might be the most emotional of her career as Tot, and the family of the child reached out to Ulsaker when she revealed her identity at Mercer’s last home basketball game earlier this year.

Other moments with the younger generation did not always go so smoothly. Many times, Ulsaker said, there were overzealous kids who would strike Tot in the mouth, other times, there were the skeptics who argued that Ulsaker was not a bear, but rather a human dressed as one.

“It’s also an act of convincing kids that are so sure that they know everything. They’re like, ‘You’re a person.’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m not. Rawr, I’m a bear.’”

The Cover Up

For football, Ulsaker started her day with the “Bear Walk,” a tradition where the football team, marching band and cheerleaders walk from the Connell Student Center to Five Star Stadium, high-fiving fans along the way. Then, the three hour-long game had to take place before Ulsaker was able to go back to her schoolwork and other responsibilities.

As a result, Ulsaker had to be nimble while discussing why she was always busy during these blocks of time with her friends, especially since game days offer plentiful opportunities for friends to convene throughout the day.

For Ulsaker, having to dodge plans without spilling the truth could be difficult since, after a while, her friends did not want to hear the same excuse over and over.

“I got afraid that my friends were gonna think that I was abandoning them because I wanted to go to these football games with them. They wanted me to go to these basketball games and I was like, ‘I cannot be there.’”

In the end, Ulsaker estimated that fewer than 15 people knew of her second life. That circle included a group of friends from her freshman year when she first became Tot, an RA with whom she worked and the odd person here and there who found out one way or another.

“I was so surprised, but it made sense, it added up. I see how it was Caroline, but who would have thought?” Shaik said. “We would hang out a lot and she would tell me her excuse for cover was that she was going to the gym and I never questioned it.”

The reasons for her secrecy, Ulsaker said, included wanting to maintain the mystique of the position, but also the fact that the character of Tot is different from that of Ulsaker.

“When I give you like a flying fist bump or I blow you a kiss, that’s a whole different energy that I can't give anymore because then it becomes weird more because it’s not a character anymore, it’s Caroline,” Ulsaker said.

Yet, there were instances that Shaik recalled Tot being suspiciously friendly with her. While Shaik worked for Bear Force at basketball games, Tot would come and dole out high fives, and even once made a cameo while Shaik was FaceTiming her parent. Another time, she asked Tot to bring her a box of the Krispy Kreme donuts given out to fans during basketball games, which was swiftly delivered by Tot herself.

Since her first year as Tot, Ulsaker has had more opportunities to don the suit more than 100 times. While she said that the sheer number of games she attended made them start to meld together at times, some memories remain fresh in her mind, like the kids who grew fond of her over the years. 

The search for the next Toby and Tot has started since both students will be graduating from Mercer this year. While Tot chose to be interviewed for this article, Toby declined to comment.

For the next generation of mascots, Ulsaker recommends that they not be afraid to “let go and have fun” because the people they see don’t know who is behind the mask.

Gabriel Kopp

Gabriel Kopp '26 is majoring in Journalism and Law and Public Policy at Mercer University. He has written for The Cluster since he started at Mercer, and currently works as the Sports Editor. When he isn't studying, he enjoys going for runs and reading the New York Times.

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