Winthrop superfan escorted to altar by mascot

04/17/2011 12:00 AM

04/18/2011 7:16 AM

As beautiful a wedding as has ever happened went off without a hitch Saturday afternoon in Winthrop University's McBryde Hall. A piano tinkled. A wedding planner scared hapless groomsmen and ushers with orders worthy of a field marshal. Single women with dates elbowed those men to say wordlessly, "I better be next!"

The bride, Michelle Waters, looked stunning as "Here Comes the Bride" was played. The groom, like all grooms, just looked stunned.

After all, this time for a public event at Winthrop, he was wearing pants.

The crowd was a bit clueless at first as the minister and father of the groom, a normally serious fellow named the Rev. Wolfgang Schneider, from Germany, told them they were going to witness something "unusual."

"Not only will the bride be given away," Wolfgang Schneider told the audience of friends and family, "but since my son is such a big fan of Winthrop, we have someone to give him away, too."

All gawked, then clapped and cheered, and a little girl about age 3 blurted out: "It's a big chicken!"

No chicken. Johannes Schneider, groom and Winthrop Eagles basketball super fan, marched down the aisle, arm-in-arm, with Big Stuff - the Winthrop Eagle mascot.

Schneider, 29, was such a fan during his undergraduate days at Winthrop that he founded the fan club, the 'WU Crew.' He attended all home games wearing face paint and a Winthrop flag covering his lower regions rather than pants. Sometimes he wore no shirt, just a painted "E" for Eagles.

"My son sure loved college," said his smiling mother, Helen Schneider.

Johannes and Big Stuff were together all the time. Johannes has yelled so often and so loud at referees that last season - Schneider is back at Winthrop studying for a second degree - he was told by campus cops that he would be kicked out of a game for being too rambunctious.

"I love Winthrop," Schneider said before the wedding. He was ready to be married - his answers to questions about that were short. Practicing for "I do," I guess.

So a few weeks ago when Schneider's friends were talking about the wedding reception, the idea was floated that Big Stuff should show up and have a couple of drinks like the old days, after big Winthrop victories in big games.

"Better idea," said Michelle Walters, the bride-to-be. "Invite Big Stuff to the wedding. Have him give you away."

So that is exactly what happened. Big Stuff - this is the third Big Stuff over the past decade - has never been in a wedding in costume, in character, which means silent because eagles do not talk. Yet the eagle was put on the list, and the RSVP came back as a "yes." Big Stuff even brought a date - Winthrop student Nicole Harm.

"He said, 'I'm in a wedding, come with me,'" Harm said. "I figured, great. I love weddings. Then he said, "It's, umm, as Big Stuff. I'm Big Stuff in the wedding.'"

Harm attended Saturday anyway.

Both families were a bit surprised; most wedding parties feature chicken, but not Eagle.

"Well, there's something you don't see every day - a big bird at a wedding," said John Waters, father of the bride, after he walked his daughter down the aisle. "Actually, you never see it. Until my daughter gets married to a guy brought in by a big bird. And then the guy hugs the bird."

John and Marilyn Waters loved the idea from the get-go and were proud of Michelle for coming up with such a novel way of showing love. Wolfgang and Helen Schneider took a bit of warming up to embrace a wedding that might be the first ever to include a beak and talons.

"I just found out last week, and I told my son - you better tell your father," Helen Schneider said. "This is one surprise he might need a few days to get used to."

But Wolfgang Schneider - who just said "America is some country for sure!" after hearing the idea for the first time - figured out how to have a wedding with a big bird, even incorporating Big Stuff into the entry walk.

So Big Stuff brought Johannes Schneider down the aisle, handed him off to his father the preacher, then did what Big Stuff does - he high-fived a burly groomsman.

Johannes Schneider looked to his best man and his eyes said, "Awesome!"

"Weddings are always all about the bride," said the new Michelle Schneider after she was married. "I figured Johannes should get something super-special for him, too. He got it."

Then it was time for wedding pictures that will be put on mantels from Rock Hill to Germany. The beautiful bride alone. The bride and groom, who like all grooms is smiling because he cannot believe the good fortune that somebody would actually want to live with him. And a picture of the bride and groom and a 6-foot bird.

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