How to Train Your Dragon

Getting Inside the Head of UAB’s Mascot

By Caperton Gillett

0811_blaze1Left to right: Shaniqua York, Blaze, Addie Phillips, and Chase Redus

IT ISN'T EASY TO DANCE WITH ABANDON while wearing a 10-pound dragon head. But for those brave souls who think they have what it takes to don the mantle of Blaze—UAB’s costumed mascot—showtime comes each spring, when UAB Spirit Groups leader David Gilliland auditions hopefuls for the coveted role of “Blaze handler”—the official name for the men and women inside the costume.

Wannabe Blazes must prepare original skits with music, dancing, and props to demonstrate their versatility, sense of humor, athleticism, and—most of all—showmanship to prove they’re dragon enough to represent UAB.

“Blaze is expected to attend every football game, every men’s and women’s home basketball game, and a few other sporting events when requested,” Gilliland says. In addition, “Blaze probably attends more special events than games,” from nonprofit fundraisers to campus spirit events to a memorable visit to the Rick and Bubba Mascot Challenge, where the dragon clocked 6.5 seconds for the 40-yard dash and a respectable third-place finish. “It is important that Blaze always represents UAB in a positive manner,” Gilliland says. But what does that entail?

“You have to know how to use the suit.”

“You can’t just get in there and walk around like normal and expect it to look good,” Gilliland says. “You have to become the complete image of Blaze.” Blaze is already big—and a good handler has to make him larger than life.

“All your movements have to be huge,” says Joseph Boehn, a former cheerleader who, with audition partner Addie Phillips, passed on cheerleading tryouts this year to audition to become a Blaze handler. The big costume is made bulkier by an added fat suit to fill out Blaze’s charmingly rotund figure. “If you move too small, nobody can tell what you’re doing. So everything has to be really exaggerated,” Boehn says.

Blaze’s body—with head—weighs a full 35 pounds, including a heavy snout in front, heavy wings in back, and long, heavy feet down below, which Phillips says can present balance challenges and make walking exciting. Also, “it’s a sauna,” she says.

“But it’s good when football games are cold,” adds veteran Blaze handler Shaniqua York.

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Joseph Boehn and Addie Phillips show off their moves during
Blaze auditions this spring


“You have to really like kids, because they’re going to attack you.”

And that’s in every sense of the word. At games and events, Blaze could be clipped by an overenthusiastic youngster or pounded by a fearful one. “You’ll come across different kids—some of them enjoy being around Blaze, but some of them cry, and their parents still push you to talk to them,” York says. “What do you do? Make them cry, or keep your distance?”

Even more challenging than crying kids, she says, are Blaze’s occasional encounters with aggressive kids. “They’ll hit you,” she says. “And you have to keep that bubbly Blaze thing going.”

“You have to have a big personality.”

“I have a lot of energy,” says Phillips, whose audition skit with Boehn involved a sequined bikini, plastic dumbbells, and some funky dance moves. As a cheerleader, she spent one game filling in as a Blaze handler. “I like to stay moving the entire time. And Blaze moves throughout the whole game. It takes a lot of energy.” She says Gilliland swaps out Blaze handlers every quarter of a football game to keep Blaze fresh.

It’s not just a matter of physical endurance. The role of Blaze also requires discipline and creativity. This year, Gilliland says, will be Blaze’s first attempt at national competition, starting with a qualifying video and ending—Gilliland hopes—with a visit to the College Cheerleading National Championships. “It takes a lot of extra effort,” he says, including “being creative and being able to come up with skits. I think all of our handlers this year are really ready for it. And I think it’s going to be fun.”

Enter the Dragon

At the end of spring tryouts in May, Gilliland is tasked with selecting the hopefuls who will get to fill four Blaze scholarship slots. After some deliberation, taking into account the energy, creativity, and personality of each candidate, Gilliland selected Phillips, York, Boehn, and rising senior Chase Redus to become “Blaze Handlers” for 2011-2012.

Gilliland’s advice to his new crew? “Be very outgoing. Uphold the UAB image of Blaze while you are in the suit,” he says. “And when the music comes on, you start dancing.”