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Rocky 1— Worth the Wait

by Jill Yarnall

UNC Asheville's big man on campus isn't your typical good looking guy. For starters, he has four legs and tends to drool. But that doesn't matter to most students. Since he made his debut almost two years ago, live bulldog mascot Rocky I has attracted attention everywhere he goes—from commencement to the basketball court.

"Whenever Rocky comes to campus or attends games, it just really elevates the spirits of the people, and you see a transformation in the school. Plus, he's friendly and handsome."

"It's great to finally have a living mascot that can represent our school," said junior Kristen Englert. "Whenever Rocky comes to campus or attends games, it just really elevates the spirits of the people, and you see a transformation in the school. Plus, he's friendly and handsome."

Those traits were exactly what the university needed in its bulldog, said Kevan Frazier '92, director of UNC Asheville Alumni Relations, who has been instrumental in bringing back the tradition of a live mascot.

Chancellor Ponder with students, Fall2010

Math professor Ed Johnson '96 is Rocky's owner and handler.

In 1948, the first live mascot, Puck, arrived on campus and launched the tradition of live bulldog mascots that lasted into the 1980s. Puck was followed by Puck II, Chug-a-Lug and Winston. Then, the tradition of a live mascot fell out of use.

But the symbol of a bulldog, used since the university first fielded athletic teams in the 1930s, remained intact. The costumed bulldog mascot has been a regular at sporting events, but didn't have an official name.

In 1995, the Athletics Department held a naming contest and the moniker "Rocky" won. The winning name was submitted by staff member Nancy Williams because it means "steadfast."

As much as Rocky became a symbol for the university, students were eager to revive the tradition of a live mascot. In 2007, a group of students, staff and alumni began working diligently to make that dream a reality.

Alumni couple and dog lovers Alexis Johnson '97 and Ed Johnson '96 volunteered to be the mascot's keepers and trainers. Ed, who also teaches in the Mathematics Department, began contacting breeders across the Southeast. For months he had little luck finding the right dog. On a whim one day, Ed researched bulldog rescue organizations online. In less than 30 minutes he found what seemed like a perfect match: a two-year-old, rescued white Victorian bulldog being fostered in Georgia.

Victorian bulldogs are a relatively new breed established to resemble the bulldogs of the 18th and 19th centuries. They are taller than the well-known English bulldog and have broad faces, wide chests and short coats.

Ed and Alexis drove to Georgia to meet the dog and to determine if they could mold him into mascot material. They knew immediately they had found Rocky I.

"The dog was extremely gregarious and overly friendly. It was clear that he absolutely thrived on attention and would make a perfect mascot," said Ed.

Chancellor Ponder with students, Fall2010

They soon learned another of the dog's traits. "By the time we arrived back in Asheville, the car, Alexis and I were covered in slobber," laughed Ed, who now carries a towel clipped to his belt when appearing at campus events.

What they didn't know was Rocky's back story, which didn't come to light until his debut at the 2009 homecoming basketball game received media attention across the region.

Reporters discovered that Rocky began his journey to college mascot fame at the Humane Society of Escambia County in Alabama. At that time he was named Rebel and was surrendered to the shelter with an adult female named Dixie and their 10 puppies. The canine family was fostered at the director's home for nine days before they were moved to the Rockin' P Boxer rescue in Jackson, Ala. The next leg of his journey took Rocky to a foster home in Georgia, where Ed located him.

"To know that we were a part of Rocky's, aka Rebel's, happy ending and to know that he will bring much joy to the fans and players at UNC Asheville is more gratifying than I can even express," said Humane Society of Escambia County Director Renee Jones.

From the beginning, Rocky was a campus superstar. Now, after nearly two years of being part of the UNC Asheville community, his fame is only growing.

"He's so friendly and calm. Rocky makes me glad I didn't go to NC State—I don't want to pet a wolf. And I'm OK without a battering ram," joked sophomore Ellie Little as she rubbed Rocky's chin during Founders Day festivities on the Quad.

Ed says his life on campus will never be the same either. Two years ago, he was just a Math professor; today, he's best known as Rocky's dad.

"It can be very difficult to go somewhere on campus with Rocky because I get stopped so frequently," he said.

Rocky doesn't mind. "He absolutely loves it. He lives for it," Ed says.

In fact, when Ed puts on a UNC Asheville shirt and his signature blue Converse high-top shoes that he wears when handling Rocky for public events, the dog gets so excited that Ed can hardly buckle on his collar.

"He's so friendly and calm. Rocky makes me glad I didn't go to NC State—I don't want to pet a wolf. And I'm OK without a battering ram..."

Once on campus though, Rocky calms down and is all business. The 85-pound gentle giant allows children to climb all over him at volleyball games, gratefully accepts treats from Bulldog Athletic Association members during basketball games and poses for photos with incoming freshmen at orientation. He even wears a cap and gown at graduation.

By all accounts, Rocky has settled into a happy life on campus. And the students, staff and alumni who revived the tradition are happy as well.

"When I met Rocky, I knew he was the dog for UNC Asheville," Frazier said. "He was worth the wait, drool and all."

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