A 'phenomenal' and 'rock star' life awaits next UCF mascot (2024)

A solitary voice counts off, the only sound is sneakers squeaking on the gymnasium floor at The Venue on UCF‘s campus.

More than 50 students, ranging from high school seniors to graduate students, pair up to work on dance moves they’ve just been taught by two instructors. The only other noise is music from a nearby speaker paired with a smartphone.

Michael Callahan wanders between the groups, intently watching the footwork and occasionally scribbling notes onto a clipboard. He stops to check a name on a nametag one of the participants wears and notes it before moving on.

It’s just after 9:30 on a Saturday and the start of what could be a long day.

When it’s all said and done, the future of UCF’s Knightro mascot program is somewhere among this group of students, many of whom won’t make the cut.

A 'phenomenal' and 'rock star' life awaits next UCF mascot (1)

Being Knightro

Heavy is the head that wears the helmet, and nobody knows that better than Callahan, who spent two years as Knightro from 2002-04 before eventually taking over the program as head coach.

“I was a very school-spirited individual,” said Callahan, who also serves as director of informational systems at UCF. “In high school, I painted myself green and ran around for basketball games, field hockey games, soccer, etc.”

When Callahan arrived at UCF from Massachusetts, he tried out for the band but turned his focus elsewhere. It wasn’t his path.

“I saw Knightro and said that would be cool,” Callahan said. “I should probably try out and do that. It matches my goofiness. It matches my school spirit. So I tried out that April and was fortunate enough to make the team.”

Callahan recalls the first time he wore the Knightro costume.

“It’s phenomenal. You become a rockstar immediately,” he said. “You’re so used to everybody seeing you as a person that you disappear when you wear the suit, and the rock star is born.”

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A Knightro is born

In the beginning, there was the Citronaut.

He was the original mascot for UCF, or Florida Technological University, as the school was first called. He featured the body of an orange and the head of an astronaut. Then there was Vincent the Vulture, Sir Wins-a-lot, Puff and Mack the Knight.

Most of the mascots weren’t officially sanctioned by the school until the late Steve Sloan, then the athletics director, pushed for creating an official mascot. Trey Gordon, a former cheerleader who also was involved with student government, helped develop the idea that would later become the new face of UCF.

And with that, Knightro was born and debuted in November 1994.

“They found a company in Pompano Beach and had the costume made,” said Linda Gooch, coach of UCF’s spirit program and cheerleading team. “They were not thinking of Florida heat and football, so it was more for looks and appearance. That was when we had Glitter Knightro, and the costume weighed 50 pounds.

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“We were always paying the extra fee with the airlines because we were overweight. It’s been a process with trial and error, just like anything.”

While there would be various costume versions throughout the years, one constant has been his popularity.

“He’s very unusual looking and fun, so people want him there [at events],” said Gooch.

Knightro makes approximately 250 appearances that are not athletic department-related. Whether it’s to welcome a speaker at the College of Business or to kick off an event at the Orange County Convention Center, Knightro is always in demand.

“He’s incredibly popular, that’s for sure,” Gooch said. “It’s all we can do to meet the demand.”

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Team Knightro

The program is celebrating its 30th anniversary this fall; 74 people have been honored to be Knightro.

However, being Knightro isn’t a one-person operation.

A team of individuals is required to help make Knightro’s appearances go smoothly and without complications.

“When I did it, there were three to four people on the team,” said Callahan. “Over the years, the increasing presence of Knightro and the number of activities have required a larger number.”

For the most part, the team features approximately 12 students, although it depends on the number of applicants and how many pass the tryouts. Members are considered part of the athletics program and earn some of the same perks as other athletes.

Members can receive partial scholarships, free tickets to athletic events and tons of UCF-branded athletic gear from Nike.

But Gooch warns participants that the program isn’t for everyone.

“If Knightro isn’t at an event, everybody will know it,” she told candidates trying out. “You have to be dependable, an independent worker who doesn’t need to be micromanaged, show up on time and do your job without supervision.”

“You’re representing the university,” added Callahan. “When you think about UCF, you think about the football coach, the basketball coach, the school president and the deans. When you think about the university, Knightro is that one consistent image you look at on billboards and the sides of buses.”

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Once selected for the program, members will participate in a mini-boot camp during the summer to learn what it takes to become Knightro. They also will be called on to participate in campus and community events featuring Knightro. Everything from a visit to a children’s hospital or birthday party to a luncheon at the Governor’s Mansion.

Once the fall semester begins, students selected will meet once a week to review their appearance schedule. The team meets Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 6-9 p.m. for practice.

A typical football Saturday begins with Knightro and his team appearing at various tailgates before participating in the March to Victory as fans make their way to the stadium. If there is a pregame concert, Knightro makes an appearance on stage. Then, there are photo opportunities with fans and pregame activities on the field.

Throughout the game, Knightro’s job is pumping up the fans.

‘I love Knightro’

At the tryouts, the candidates are working on non-verbal communication, a cornerstone of being Knightro.

“Knightro doesn’t talk,” Callahan reminds the group.

Participants gather in smaller circles to begin working with props such as an oversized pair of scissors, an umbrella or a fake set of dumbbells. Each candidate tries to tell a story before Callahan blows his whistle, signaling a change of prop.

All of which is done in complete silence outside of the occasional snicker here and there.

Callahan asked the Sentinel not to identify participants.

“I wanted to be part of the program because I love dancing. It’s one of my passions,” one participant said before tryouts. “I was mascot back at my high school, and it’s so fun to put on a costume, embrace a new personality and go out there and show what kind of character you are.”

Added another participant: “I went to the first football game this year, and I fell in love with Knightro, and I want to do it. I’m here and excited to be part of a great program.”

Matt Murschel can be reached at mmurschel@orlandosentinel.com

A 'phenomenal' and 'rock star' life awaits next UCF mascot (2024)


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