It's Jazz Fest at the Lagniappe Stage, and Beatin Path is finishing its set. The Mutt-and-Jeff incongruity of two of the band's guitarist/vocalists is arresting, with Mike Mayeux towering over the 5-foot-5-inch Skeet Hanks, but equally striking is Hanks' energy. As the country rock band's set nears conclusion, he becomes bouncier, bounding around the stage, then hustling back to his mic to harmonize on a chorus.
Athleticism and energy defined another period in Hanks' career. From 1993 to 2000, he was Gumbo, the oversized dog that served as the mascot for the New Orleans Saints. "It was a great time. I had a lot of fun," he says over lunch.
In Hanks' case, mascots are made, not born. He wanted to be a stunt man as a child, going so far as to practice falling down the stairs one day until his mom made him stop.
Though he had no gymnastics experience, he got his start as Lafitte, the University of New Orleans fuzzy alligator in a pirate costume. He wasn't the athletic department's first choice when he started in 1985, but the bigger man selected to assume the Lafitte costume had to quit when he was called up by the National Guard. The costume had already been fitted to him, so for that year Lafitte had baggy legs with Hanks inside. He could have had the suit altered, but he left the costume as it was until he left in 1987. "It was funnier because the legs were all bundled up," he says.
In 1990, the NFL mandated that each team had to have a mascot, but each could decide its own mascot. In honor of the real Saint Bernard named Gumbo that was an early team mascot, the organization created Gumbo, the character that the official New Orleans Saints Web site identifies as "the symbol of our team and the optimism we held so dear." In his late 20s, Hanks was a little old for professional mascotting, but a friend who knew him from his UNO days recommended him, anyway. After a quick routine and some stunts on a motorcycle, he had the job.
One of his favorite accessories was a four-wheel utility bike. In a game against the Chargers, it served as his steed. With a mannequin that served as his tackling dummy dressed as a Charger sitting atop his doghouse, Gumbo went medieval. "I got the jousting thing on the four-wheeler and knocked his head off."
Not all skits went off that easily, though. For a game against the Washington Redskins, he and his assistant Norm Glindmeyer dressed the mannequin as an Indian and tied it to a chair on the 50-yard-line. Gumbo, dressed as a cowboy, rode the four-wheeler toward the mannequin with a lariat, ready to rope it.
"I'm going 20, 30 miles per hour on the four-wheeler and as I start going, the lasso flies out of my hand," he says, laughing. "Can't do anything about it, so I decide to jump off and tackle him. Little do I know that when you jump off a four-wheeler going 30 miles per hour, you're basically going 30 miles per hour in the air. I hit this thing and didn't stop rolling. The mannequin's in a million pieces. All the managers are freaking out because the game's about to start and there's tiny bits of mannequin everywhere. Meanwhile, I'm 30 yards away from it and my whole body is numb. I know I've got to get up because people think I'm hurt, so I get up and I'm wobbling, waving, 'I'm OK, I'm OK.'"
He insists that many of his skits and plans worked, "but the ones that screwed up are funnier." One of his favorite catastrophes involved bandmate Mike Mayeux in a Star Wars skit, with Mayeux in a Darth Vader outfit and Gumbo as Luke Skywalker. "The end of the skit was supposed to be me tearing his cape off and he's in his boxers," Hanks says. "I pulled his cape and pulled it and his mask off. There's Mike Mayeux in front of 60,000 people completely naked except for his boxer shorts. He says, 'What do I do?' I said, 'Run!' so he grabbed the mask, put it over his face and ran off the field with me chasing him."
Practicing and planning, he admits, weren't necessarily the priorities for him that perhaps they should have been. "I like the ad lib part of it," Hanks explains. "That made it more fun for me." Improvisation led to unusual moments such as Hanks convincing the cheerleaders to toss him in the air the way they tossed the female cheerleaders. During one toss, he executed a back flip in costume. "The cheerleaders are on the ground laughing and the guys are high-fiving afterwards," he recalls.
As Gumbo, Hanks had little interaction with the players, though on the few occasions when he ran into them, he found some of them were fans. Once he had something planned that called for him to be in the tunnel heading to the field before the game. The players were also in the tunnel at the time, which was unusual and for Hanks, a little intimidating.
"They were all at least 3 feet taller than me. I'm in a chef's costume and Willie Roaf turns around and looks at me: 'What are you?' I didn't say anything, and all the players were looking at me like, 'What are you doing in the tunnel?' Then I get a tap on the shoulder. I turn around and it's Sammy Knight. It's his first year and he's, like, 'Alright, Gumbo! I'm watching you. You think I'm not watching you, but I'm watching you.'"
There were, however, days when Hanks wished he were less visible. One Saturday night, he went to see Cowboy Mouth and ended up too drunk. After his first skit the next day, he ran to the nearest restroom, which was public, pulled the head off and threw up in a stall. "As I'm throwing up, there's a man and his son in there," Hanks says. "The little boy says, 'Daddy, Gumbo's sick.' The dad says, 'Yes son, it looks like Gumbo had a quite a night.'"
Hanks isn't sure why the Saints decided to change mascots, but in 2001 Gumbo was out and Mambo -- a short-lived jester-like mascot -- entered the picture. Hanks was offered the role of Mambo, but he declined. "I don't want to be this character because he's already going to be hated. They're going to hate this character because they love Gumbo," he told team officials. "I did do one game for them until they got the new guy in place, and I've never been flipped off more in my life."
Now, Gumbo's back but Hanks has hung up his fuzzy head. "I'd do it again if I could," he says. "I think I could, but I just ran across the street like a lumbering elephant, so my body's not like it used to be." He still has positive memories, and more importantly, occasional reminders that he made an impression on people. He's now employed by an ad agency, and when a Popeye's commercial needed someone in a chicken suit, the office looked immediately to him. "Once the commercial aired, I got at least 40 calls from people asking if it was me, Hanks says. "One of my friends said, 'I knew that was you. I'd recognize Gumbo's walk anywhere.'"
- Skeet Hanks
- Skeet Hanks didn't let a lack of a gymnastics background stop him during his tenure as Gumbo.