This year, named the Hawk the Best Basketball Tradition. Was there ever any doubt?

September 15, 2014

There are two rules when you’re the most famous mascot in college basketball: One, never stop flapping. A lesser-known rule — but just as important — is to be ever-watchful.

The physical embodiment of SJU’s motto, “The Hawk Will Never Die,” the Hawk attracts all kinds of interest, as Ian Klinger ’14, the person inside the suit from 2012 until he graduated in May 2014, discovered. He’ll tell you there’s nothing like running onto the basketball court, engulfed in the enduring adoration and thunderous chanting of thousands of SJU fans: “The Hawk Will Never Die!”

And then there are those times, usually at away games, when, as Klinger learned first-hand, the attention is not as welcome. Once, an NBA player and alumnus of SJU’s opponent tried to pin the Hawk’s wings and stop him mid-flight. The intervention was futile, of course, but Klinger learned quickly that the human mascot must adopt the bird’s keen vision.

To Klinger, incidents like that were minor interruptions and well worth it for the opportunity to represent SJU as the Hawk. “Tradition is everything at this school,” he says, “and it’s an honor to be part of it.”

No matter the distractions, the Hawk’s beloved spirit has persisted for decades at Saint Joseph’s, as has its legendary flapping. In its 58 years, the team’s so-called sixth man has been no stranger to close calls. The first came in 1928, when the Hawk narrowly edged out second-place choice the Grenadier in a student vote to choose the Saint Joseph’s College mascot. Because of the popularity of the football team at the time, the grenadier — a soldier who specialized in throwing grenades, much like footballs — was a popular choice. Ironically, the football program was discontinued in 1939.

Online Feature: Fox 29 interviews Timmy Parks ‘17, the 37th student to wear the prized Hawk costume.
This web-only feature was added to the original article on January 13, 2016.

In 1955, Jim Brennan ’58, who would become the first Hawk, decided Saint Joseph’s should have a mascot present at men’s basketball games.

His first choice was to have a live hawk fly around the arena. But he realized a raucous college basketball game was no place to let loose a bird of prey, so a fundraiser was held to purchase a Hawk suit from a South Philadelphia costumer who mostly did work for burlesque shows.

“Given the kinds of costumes he usually made, I was afraid if you pulled one feather, the whole thing would come off,” jokes Brennan, the author of HawkTales: Tales of America’s Most Honored Mascot and Its Continuing Legacy at Saint Joseph’s University, a book published last year with Paul Harris ’71 of Harrowood Books.

When Brennan wore the suit — for the first time on Jan. 4, 1956, in a 69-56 win over La Salle College (now La Salle University) — he stayed in constant motion, flapping his arms and running around the court during timeouts.

“There are 36 students who can curse me for that tradition,” he says.

The physical demands of being the Hawk are intense. Imagine doing standing jumping jacks continuously for two hours with figure-8 wind sprints peppered in during timeouts. In the best of conditions, it’s a challenge — and even more so in the suit.

“Around the 10-minute mark of the second half, you really start to feel it,” says Klinger, “but the fans always push you through.”

Attending away games often presents unique situations for the Hawk, as he faces other teams’ ardent and unwelcoming enthusiasts, but it’s a tradition the University fought hard to preserve. When the Atlantic 10 Conference banned mascots from traveling with teams in 1995, SJU refused to let the custom die.

“We appealed and explained that the Hawk is different,” says Don DiJulia ’67, vice president and director of athletics. “It’s not a cheerleader. It’s not just a mascot. It’s a member of the team.”

Head coach Phil Martelli holds the Hawk, who serves as the head team manager, to high standards. “I have the same expectations for the Hawk that I have for any of my players,” he says, “to be a great representative of the University in character, attitude and effort.”

On reconsideration, the Atlantic 10 granted a waiver for the Hawk, and since then, it’s made every A10 appearance with the men’s basketball team.

Students in the elite club of Hawk mascots receive a full-tuition scholarship, established in 1986 by Jack Gallagher ’63 (now deceased). The endowed fund continues to receive support from his family and friends.

To become the Hawk, student contenders must meet high academic standards, supply a faculty member’s recommendation and complete a competitive interview process. The final hurdle is Martelli’s approval.

“I think in life we all look for foundations, things you can hang your hat on if all heck breaks loose,” says Martelli. “For St. Joe’s basketball, that something is, and always will be, the Hawk.”

But bringing the SJU spirit to basketball games and athletic contests is only part of the Hawk’s duties. It also appears at campus events, corporate outings, weddings — and even, occasionally, alumni funerals.

It’s a lot to take on, especially for a student like Klinger, who was an accounting and finance major and a regular on the dean’s list, as well as a Hawk Host and student senator.

This year’s Hawk, Brian Lafferty ’15, is just as involved in academics and student life. A criminal justice major and dean’s list student from Springfield, Pa., he has served as vice president of the University Student Senate, a resident assistant, a Freshmen Orientation coordinator and an Appalachia Experience site leader. Lafferty served as the Hawk mascot for the women’s basketball program in 2013-14.

“The Hawk is the University’s most recognized public figure,” DiJulia says. “So we’re looking for a well-rounded student. It’s a full-time job, from Labor Day to the end of the school year.”

Students who represent the University as the Hawk come to understand that the suit isn’t something you wear. It’s something you become.

“Someone once asked me, ‘How do you feel about losing your identity to the Hawk?’” recalls Klinger, who is now beginning a job in risk assurance at PwC in Philadelphia. “At the time, I didn’t think much about it. But now I see what they mean. You become the costume. And the Hawk will always remain a part of who I am.”