SALT LAKE CITY — I recently had the good fortune of sitting courtside for some of the NCAA Tournament games at Vivint Arena. While it’s always an interesting experience to be that close to the action, my favorite March Madness moment actually took place in the stands.
At one point during the Baylor-Gonzaga basketball game on March 23, I looked to my right and saw a boy with Down syndrome march down the stairs and stop next to a security guard on the stairs leading to the locker room tunnel.
Turns out, this boy was on a mission.
He was determined to meet Baylor’s mascot, Bruiser.
The moment that happened was nothing short of magical.
My heart melted watching this cute kid maul the furry bear. He hugged him around the neck. He kissed him on the snout. He hugged him again — around the belly, this time. Fittingly, these were legit bear hugs.
The young boy ran down the stairs again an hour later after Baylor’s second-round loss to the Zags. (Kudos to arena security for not sending him back to his seat about 15 rows higher.) He had to say goodbye to his new friend from Texas. This time, the boy reached out his hand and touched Bruiser’s paw as the bummed-out mascot briefly stopped en route to the locker room to get out of his inferno of a costume.
When I returned to my seat to watch and write about the next game — Kansas vs. Auburn — I suddenly had a mission of my own. I wanted to meet the boy who wanted to meet the bear.
After asking a helpful arena usher, I trudged up the stairs and scooted by fans to the middle of a row in the center of the section behind the basket where Bruiser and his cheerleader friends had camped out during the game.
After introducing myself to the Walker family from Eagle, Idaho, I got the pleasure of meeting their adorable son and having a short conversation with him.
Andrew is 11. He’s very affectionate. His favorite subject is math. He squeezes you tight, tickles your side and giggles when you put your arm around him for a picture.
As was apparent to anyone paying attention to Andrew and Bruiser during the Baylor-Gonzaga game, this boy loves mascots. Not just loves. LOVES. So he just had to meet the fun bear wearing a fluorescent chartreuse uniform. (During our chat, Andrew looked down at the court and excitedly pointed at Kansas’ mascot, Big Jay the Jayhawk.)
Andrew’s parents, Danny and Shera Mae, weren’t at all surprised by his obsession with the mascots at the tournament.
A few years ago, they took Andrew to a BYU basketball game and momentarily lost track of him. He’d spotted Cosmo and started heading down the aisle at the Marriott Center just as he did at Vivint Arena.
"He walked right past the event staff and under the rope onto the floor just as the game went to a media timeout," Danny explained. "Moments later, Cosmo was being tackled. Andrew ran right out on the floor and grabbed his leg."
The Walkers knew one of BYU’s yell leaders, and got his attention from the crowd. He went over and helped his young friend return to his seat.
Later on, Cosmo came up into the stands and gave Andrew a hug.
"From that moment on, he’s been hooked," Andrew’s dad said. "He loves Cosmo and any other mascot he can find. He often says, Dad, when I grow up I want to be a bishop and a mascot!"
The bishop remark is because Danny Walker is currently serving in that leadership role for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His son will really be thrilled if his next calling is to be a mascot — and all the better if Andrew’s dad can learn some of those fancy Cosmo dance moves. The 11-year-old gets a kick out of watching the popular videos of BYU’s now-famous mascot dancing with the Cougarettes.
Though Cosmo is Andrew’s favorite, he has plenty of room in his heart for all the other mascots, including the Jazz Bear. Danny once videotaped Bear sliding down the arena stairs. Not only does Andrew know how to find that video on his dad’s phone, but he also regularly tries to imitate the mascot’s stunt at home with a sled from the garage.
The Walkers have a blast attending the Mascot Games, too. Andrew will even look up videos from that event on YouTube.
"Needless to say," Danny added, "these mascots have had a big impact on him."
In a beautiful example of sports being more than the final score, the sweet boy with a big heart and an affinity for giving bear hugs had a big impact on me, too.