Cardinals

From Lame Nerd to Boss Bird: An Arizona Cardinal’s Story

Big Red ranked as one of the best mascots in the NFL, according to a new survey.
Big Red ranked as one of the best mascots in the NFL, according to a new survey. Christian Petersen/Getty Images
As the Arizona Cardinals set their teeth, ahem, beaks, for their season home opener against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, team mascot Big Red is already celebrating a win.

Big Red ranked as one of the best mascots in the NFL, coming in at No. 5 overall, according to a new nationwide survey.

But this scarlet songbird wasn’t always so in vogue. In 2005, “the once-hapless Arizona Cardinals tweaked the bird,” The Wall Street Journal recalled. The overhaul made him meaner and, the media outlet quipped, propelled him to a Super Bowl appearance in 2009.

After the facelift, Big Red became the boss bird  — and a fan favorite. In 2016, The Arizona Republic posited, “It appears fans beyond the desert are smitten with the team, too.”

And smitten they are.

In the recent survey, Las Vegas-based sports betting clearinghouse SportsHandle polled 1,000 NFL fans and concluded that our very own crested cheerleader is the fifth-most popular mascot in the league, and the fourth-most intimidating.

It wasn't all that long ago that Toronto-based Hogtown Mascots, the company that has manufactured mascots for The Walt Disney Co. and the now-defunct Paramount Parks, tapped Big Red as the best mascot in the league.

“Despite being one of the NFL’s oldest franchises, the Arizona Cardinals only adopted an official mascot in 1998,” the company wrote in a December 2020 blog post. “But what a mascot it has been for the last two decades.”

Big Red “hatched” on October 4, 1998, according to an archived biography from NFL.com. At 8 years old, he took the stage with the Black Eyed Peas before the Cardinals' first-ever contest at Glendale's State Farm Stadium.

Here are a few more highlights from Big Red’s own autobiography, circa 2009:

“You see, Sun Devil stadium was like an oven; not just preheated to 125 degrees, but one that had accidentally been set to self-clean mode. At times I would fly out to tailgate with our hardcore fans and I think some of them were ready to pull out my feathers and take a bite.”

“I've spent many postgame hours prone whilst those who assist me try to nurse me back to health by turning me into the Dasani water dispenser, tipping that five-gallon jug right into my mouth after tossing in a couple Tylenol.”

“I have also fended off many a crazy fan that goes out of their way to wrap their hands around my neck as if choking me has anything to do with what's going on on the field.”

Big Red Destined for Mascot Fame

It was that cheeky irreverence that impelled Big Red to early mascot fame, according to Jerome Bartlett, the San Antonio-based “Mascot Guru.” Bartlett has spent his career working with mascots for the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Astros, Harlem Globetrotters, and countless minor league organizations.

“Players come and go all the time, but the mascot is the only consistent part of the team,” Bartlett told Phoenix New Times. “Very rarely do they ever retire a mascot. That’s one of the things that makes the mascot beloved — it’s somebody who can always be there.”

That's a lesson Samantha Demarest learned when she relocated to Arizona from Washington in 2005 — the same year Big Red got his big makeover. She and her family moved into the Phoenix apartment complex where Big Red’s then-performer lived.

“The mascot even lived in our apartment complex and befriended my son,” Demarest recalled. “You want to see a kid really come out of his shell? Have a major mascot spend even two minutes with a child having a rough time. And he doesn't even have to be wearing the suit.”

Brandon and Bonnie Cunningham recalled that when they moved to Goodyear from Georgia last year, their six-year-old daughter was most excited about a chance to meet Big Red.

“Fans go to the games when they’re young and share those same experiences with their kids and grandkids. It’s that feeling of home,” Bartlett said. “Mascots are the most beloved member of the team.”

From Big Red to Scottsdale Community College’s eccentric mascot, Artie the Artichoke, that usually rings true. Not in the case of Arizona’s foe on opening Sunday, however.

The Kansas City Chiefs’ confusingly extraneous KC Wolf ranked dead last in SportsHandle’s recent survey. He’s commonly ascribed a more unflattering nickname — if he’s recognized at all.

In a January exchange between fans under a tweet from Sunday Night Football on NBC, one user wrote, “Had no clue Chiefs mascot was a wolf until today lol.” To which another user responded, “KC Wolf, other times known as KC Rat.”

“Mascots that miss the mark are a costume that doesn’t look very attractive,” Bartlett said. “If the costume is ugly looking or just not well taken care of, that could cause fans to not be interested in the character.”

But world-class performers are the exceptions to that rule and Big Red is one of them, he added.

“If you have a high-quality performer in any costume, you could literally have a trash bag as a mascot and that good performer inside will bring it to life," Bartlett said.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Elias Weiss is a staff writer at the Phoenix New Times. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, he reported first for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was editor of the Chatham Star-Tribune in Southern Virginia, where he covered politics and law. In 2020, the Virginia Press Association awarded him first place in the categories of Government Writing and Breaking News Writing for non-daily newspapers statewide.
Contact: Elias Weiss