It was meant to be.
Jonathan Walker was always intrigued by mascots, those lovable fluffy characters on the sidelines. An all-around athlete who was good at a lot but not college-level great at anything, Walker liked the idea of being around sports in college. If he was wearing a giant head and walking around in clown-sized shoes at the game, hey, he was still at the game.
“It was the Tennessee Valley Fair,” the 21-year-old Knoxville native said. “I was the president of the leadership board and they had the mascot come up, to see if somebody would like to do it. I found out I was pretty good at it.”
The fair mascot was a rooster. Despite growing up 10 minutes from the University of Tennessee’s campus, Walker felt right at home as soon as he donned comb and wattle.
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“I started being Cocky as soon as I moved on campus,” Walker said.
A four-year ride that’s taken him from every pinpoint in South Carolina to Omaha ends Friday as he walks his last mile in big yellow shoes. Walker, one of the few included in the most secretive organization on campus, ends his career as USC’s mascot when he graduates.
He’ll be easy to spot – all Cockys receive a senior gift of the bird’s “feet,” which started a tradition of wearing them to graduation. He might also wear the signature black tights with protruding yellow spurs, since it matches his black robe and mortarboard.
Why not? After basically having a 40-hour work week, year round for four years, and being a full-time student, he only gets one more chance.
“It’s been a wonderful ride,” Walker said. “I’m ready to hang up my spurs and move into the professional world.”
Despite his Tennessee heritage, Walker grew up a USC fan. Yearly vacations to Hilton Head gave him a look at the state and being a fan of Lou Holtz, then Steve Spurrier, got him into Gamecock football.
His appearances as the fair rooster led him to think about being a mascot during college, and he pieced together a highlight film.
He tried out at several places and was offered by a top three – Kentucky, Tennessee and USC.
The Darla Moore School of Business’ top-ranked reputation clinched the decision. Walker will graduate with a double-major in management and marketing as well as a minor in Spanish, and four years of memories of being around athletes and fans.
“The first one I did was on move-in day,” Walker said. “I dropped off my stuff, then got into the suit and walked around helping the other freshmen. I did my first wedding later that night.”
Cocky isn’t just the athletic mascot. He’s the school’s symbol, a brand that promotes USC wherever he goes. Classes, community service events, anything involving USC can have Cocky appear.
It’s why the school has more than one Cocky. Walker was the captain of coordinating schedules this year and kept performing the never-ending process of training the recruits.
“When you come in, you start in the lowest spot, and as others graduate or leave, you move up,” Walker said. “I tell the new birds when we bring them up how much time is involved. Since the 1980s, the Cocky brand has been constant. It’s a really big thing.”
“I don’t think people realize how busy those Cocky guys are,” said Jonathan’s father, David Walker.
“They do 30 to 40 appearances a week. They have a scholarship, but for most of those guys, it’s just around $500 to $1,000 per semester.”
Walker’s parents came to Columbia several times this year to see their son do his thing, and were able to participate in another senior tradition. The captain works the Parents’ Weekend football game, and the parents are invited to don the costumes of Ma and Pa Cocky.
The Walkers cheerfully accepted, seeing for a brief moment what Jonathan has seen almost every day for four years.
“It was like looking through paper towel tubes,” David Walker said. “We were dreading if it would be a Famously Hot Columbia day.”
Jonathan Walker’s passion for the job is evident, and his “secret identity” has spread among his friends. Graduate school is next, and then hopefully a career in business that also touches athletics; he doesn’t believe he’ll be following several former Cockys who were mascots in pro sports.
Walker says he has nothing but great memories, and he’s prepared to leave Cocky behind.
But he admitted it will be tough to see those yellow shoes tucked away somewhere and not feel the urge to hug a young fan or cheer on the sidelines or want the feeling of being in front of 80,000 people as the curtain drops, revealing him to the crowd as “2001” blares.
“It’s something I’ve been struggling with for a couple of weeks,” Walker said. “It really started hitting me this week. It’s over. We stay through the summer, all the kids’ camps, and the coaches’ camps, and it really becomes a part of who you are.
“It’s kind of like Superman, when he has to go back to being Clark Kent. It gets pretty sad when you think about it.”
But Walker leaves plenty of smiles.