Cattin' Around

Brent Claiborne bounces about like Tigger, Winnie the Pooh's boisterous buddy.

That's his personality.

And that's his job.

"Who he? Who Brent Claiborne?" you ask.

"Who Dey," Claiborne answers. Who Dey as in the name of the Cincinnati Bengals mascot, Claiborne's alter-yet-also-akin ego.

Nick Maples, a Bengals supporter and Claiborne's former roomie, offers the history lesson.

"The mascot's called Who Dey because back when the Bengals were good (in the 80s) 'Who Dey' was the fans' battle cry: 'Who dey, who dey, who dey think gonna beat them Bengals??!!' The fans would then shout, 'Nooooobody!!'

"Now," Maples chuckles, "it's Eevvvvvrybody."

Claiborne's girlfriend Laura Sturgill, a speech-language pathologist for the Jessamine County School System, provides the technical lesson - not on why Cincinnati is now lousy (that's clear: inept management, offense, and defense), but on why Dey emerges from They.

"I write reports on this all the time; the 'th' in they has become a 'd,' and that's called stopping, a phonological process. There're no negative implications - 'dey' is just a good football slang term. But I wouldn't teach it to students," she giggles.

A great giggler himself, Claiborne, 30, has been masquerading for the Bengals nearly four years. He's a professional. And like other professionals, Claiborne developed his job skills in college.

Claiborne's college was the University of Kentucky. He was a kicker on the football team and an education major. Jerry Claiborne, Brent's legendary uncle, coached his nephew in 1989 - Brent's first season and Jerry's last.

His kicking days concluded in 1993, but his education wasn't yet completed. So he went searching for scholarship money and found it stuffed in a big furry suit.

"I'd been praying for scholarships," Claiborne said, "and the Lord blessed me with an opportunity to do the Wildcat for three years."

The Kentucky Wildcat mascot is part of the cheerleading team. And the members of the cheerleading team are athletes (7-time national champion athletes, thank you). And athletes receive scholarships.

During his tenure, Claiborne took the Wildcat to new levels. Well, to new places anyway.

Like graduation.

"Brent wore the Wildcat suit underneath his cap and gown," reminisced Maples. "Even the dean was laughing."

And water skiing.

"I don't know if he had permission to do that or not," Sturgill mused aloud.

No doubt Claiborne lacked permission the next time he strapped skis to his fleeced feet - this time, as Who Dey.

He went snow skiing. On Richmond Road.

"A few winters ago when the roads were frozen and closed, Brent tied a rope to a truck (driven by another former roommate, Tim Roland), put on the Bengal, and went skiing," Maples mused. "He was doing okay until the cops pulled him over on Richmond Road. They didn't think it was too funny. But they didn't give him a ticket. Just made him get off the road."

"He's spontaneous, uninhibited, and likes to make sure everyone's having a good time," Sturgill says. Marvelous mascot material.

Also, Claiborne claims he doesn't worry about getting hurt - as if one couldn't tell.

Once for a post-game photo op, Claiborne climbed the goal post in Cincinnati to be like "Mork from Mork and Mindy." His antics allegedly misaligned the posts, and the Bengals' groundskeeper "reprimanded" him.

And these days the grounds guy is conceivably the cheeriest fellow in 1-6 Bengal land.

"Morale's low; Bengals fans are starting to turn against the mascot," says Claiborne/Who Dey. "Sometimes fans will say, 'Why are you doing this?' or 'Your job sucks!' That makes it tougher when I'm hot, thirsty, and tired."

And sometimes, the crowd takes out its frustrations physically. Disgruntled - likely drunk - fans have clubbed Claiborne. "I might have to start wearing a cup," he admits, half joking, half not. This makes perfect sense, especially when one considers where a seated fan's punch would land on a standing mascot.

So maybe he worries about getting hurt after all. But what guy doesn't worry about getting hit - and (always) consequently harmed - "down there?"

Anyway, danger comes with the job. As does dehydration. Though he trains to stay in mascot-shape and though he intakes apples and water under the stadium once a quarter, he regularly gets sick after games. But after a few hours, "and some good iced tea," he says he's back to normal.

And Claiborne's normal is extraordinary.

He drives from Lexington to Richmond to teach PE part-time at St. Mark's school. He volunteers as kicking coach at Dunbar High. He assists at the Special Olympics. He helps direct monthly "Jesus Parties" for mentally and physically handicapped children and adults at Southland Christian Church.

"Brent likes to show Jesus to people," Sturgill says. "He has a genuine love for them no matter what their backgrounds or status."

Adds Maples: "He's the most giving person I know. His best gift is finding the least liked person in the room and making that person feel special.

"He's even optimistic about the Bengals."