Austin Lashley stood just inside tunnel four in Stegeman Coliseum, enjoying a Georgia men’s basketball victory, when he got punched in the mouth.
It was Dec. 19, 2015. Georgia had just beaten Georgia Tech. Lashley was invisible to the rest of the world as he leaned forward inside Spike, Georgia’s inflatable 10-foot mascot. As then-freshman forward Derek Ogbeide ran past, Ogbeide punched Spike’s midsection — and Lashley’s face. A small cut opened above Lashley’s lip. Lashley later sent a Tweet to Ogbeide.
“Dear @derektrigger,” Lashley wrote, “There is a real person in the Spike suit, and you punched him in the mouth today.”
“I am so sorry…. I had no clue,” Ogbeide responded.
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Lashley brushes off the incident now. Anyone could have made Ogbeide’s mistake. Most people don’t realize a person stands inside the costume. Fans see a face stuck in a perpetual smile. Some think it’s a creepy, remote-controlled robot. Really, a person pulls on strings to wiggle its ears and lifts Spike’s arms to wave hello. Every game, a student works inside Spike to create an illusion.
Spike was born in the mid-1990s, said Avery McLean, former director of promotions and licensing at Georgia from 1981-2004.
Georgia’s volleyball coach at the time, Jim Iams, noticed Nebraska used an inflatable mascot named “Lil’ Red.” Iams thought an inflatable mascot could work at Georgia. He brought the idea to McLean. The appropriate people approved, and Georgia contracted a company to design a suit that resembled a cartoon bulldog. Georgia settled on the name “Spike” because of the costume’s spiked collar and the volleyball slam of the same name.
“In a way, it was less intimidating to children,” said McLean, who now works as Director of Marketing and Public Relations at St. Mary's Health Care System. “That inflatable type mascot didn't scare them as Hairy Dawg does to some.”
Spike has become a staple at Georgia’s indoor sports events in the two decades since. The mascot attends every home volleyball match in the fall. In the winter, Spike roams the concourse at Stegeman Coliseum during men’s and women’s basketball games and, when requested, gymnastics meets.
During games, Spike takes pictures with fans, intentionally falls down or gives high fives. It does anything that will elicit a smile. It can even stand on its head, an optical illusion the people inside create by turning the costume upside down.
This year, three students — Lashley, Jay Badlani and Drew Bodney — bring Spike to life.
“We’re supposed to keep it on the hush-hush,” Lashley said, “but it’s too cool to keep a secret sometimes.”
In between events two Spike costumes hang on hooks in a small bathroom inside the men’s cheerleading locker room. The suit can collect sweat and a certain musk during an event — someone once hung a car air freshener in the costume, Lashley said — so it hangs to dry when not it’s not being used.
Preparing the costume takes little time. Within minutes, Lashley, Badlani and Bodney can sling a battery over their shoulder, strap an air pump to their waist and inflate the suit. Then, if in Stegeman, they hobble up a flight of stairs and exit the locker room.
In that moment, when Lashley, Badlani and Bodney step into the suit, they become Spike. Their identity melts away. They begin to play a character: Hairy Dawg’s goofy, clumsy younger brother. In a way, it’s acting.
“In public I'm pretty shy and reserved," Bodney said. "But once you step into the suit you're a completely different person and it's a lot easier than I thought it would be ... It's an outlet to be something I wish I could be (outside of) the suit.”
It's likely Spike's last appearance this season is Wednesday's men's basketball game against Texas A&M. Three players will be honored for senior night. It’s senior night for Lashley, too. He has been Spike for the past three years. Spike may be used for events later in the semester, but this is Lashley’s final game.
When the game ends, Lashley will return to the locker room and hang Spike on its hooks, where the suit will stay until needed again. Then Lashley will climb the locker room stairs, walk through the depths of Stegeman Coliseum and exit the building, leaving Spike behind.
Soon, someone else will step inside.