Behind the Beak

Who is Cocky, Carolina’s Most Beloved Mascot?

by Caroline Christy / Garnet & Black

Whether you’re a student, professor, alumni or fan, if you’re involved with the University of South Carolina, you’re bound to know who Cocky is. But do you really know him? Who is our beloved mascot, how did he come to be and what does he mean to our community today?

Before Cocky, there was Sir Big Spur, or “The Rooster,” but before that, USC was only known as the “Gamecocks.” Where did the idea of a fighting rooster even come from? It all started with Gen. Thomas Sumter, an American Revolutionary War general who was known as “The Fighting Gamecock” due to his fighting and military tactics during the war. The Cocky that USC fans know and love today made his debut on Oct. 18, 1980, almost 45 years ago, at the homecoming game against Cincinnati. 

John Nelson, an undergraduate student, was already in the race for USC’s mascot at the time. He created the first costume for what would become Cocky and was known as “The Rooster,” up until Cocky’s first appearance in 1980. “The Rooster” was a more intimidating, realistic version of Cocky, and the new cartoon-like, more approachable version of the fighting gamecock was not immediately accepted by fans. In fact, at first, it was even booed. However, fans eventually came around, and in 1982, Cocky became the official mascot of the university. 

From there, Cocky stole the hearts of countless fans, becoming the iconic mascot we know today. 

Cocky won three Universal Cheerleaders Association Mascot Championships in 1986, 1994 and 2008, won Capital One’s Mascot of the Year in 2004 and most recently earned a spot in the Sports Illustrated ranking as the seventh greatest mascot in college football history in 2019. Since then, Cocky has been wooing fans at football, basketball and other athletic USC games, as well as making appearances at hospitals and schools. He has easily become one of the most beloved mascots in college history. 

Not only has Cocky brought fans together, but he has also created an entire community of mascot alumni. Whether they were Cocky five or 25 years ago, students that have adorned the bird suit are connected forever through this unique, special experience. 

One of these alumni is Tara Parker, who participated as Cocky from 2013 to 2016. Parker was quite the busy bee in college. She double majored in Hospitality Management and Retail Management, with a minor in Entertainment Management, on top of all her secret responsibilities as our beloved mascot. 

Parker reminisced on her time as Cocky with a reverence one might have for a high school sweetheart. Parker had always loved characters like Cocky. Even as a kid, she said she "always gravitated towards mascots".  

The anonymity of the role also intrigued her. "Mascots have this total sense of freedom," Parker said.  

Cocky acted as a kind of mask for Parker and allowed her to fully be herself in the presence of strangers and friends alike—a truly unique experience for a college student trying to figure out who they are in the world. “It felt like an avenue where I was really able to be the fullest extent of what I wanted to be," Parker said.

Once she decided that she wanted to be a part of the Cocky program, she started the audition process, which is neither easy nor widely advertised. Parker said, "Only people who seek it out end up at the audition." 

She emailed the head cheerleading coach at the time and started the audition process.  At the time when she joined, the audition consisted of a 30-second skit, an improv section and an in-person interview.  Parker remembers her own audition, when they gave her a cone and a car windshield shade to work with, a trick combo that she somehow made work in her improv section.  This process values creativity, personality, adaptability and fun, echoing the very traits that Cocky represents. 

To Parker, and the rest of the team at the time, Cocky was described to have the persona of a "7-year-old boy." According to Parker, that’s what Cocky brings out in people; that child-like, infectious joy that allows us to be whatever we want. "I think as we get older, as we get more into this corporate world, we forget those moments and those experiences that make us giddy," she said.  

Someone like Cocky helps us remember those moments.  Parker said with Cocky, "Everything is a big deal.  Everything is celebrated with him." One can't help but smile as she says this, knowing how easy it is, especially as you get older, to diminish celebratory moments as ordinary.

When asked why she thinks people love Cocky so much, Parker said, “We can all see ourselves in him.” Cocky can be anyone. He's a representation of everything we could be, and everything we want to be.

Some of Parker’s favorite memories as Cocky come from the Cocky’s Reading Express program, which she was the first female lead for. The program works to serve children from grades pre-K through second grade in Title I elementary schools in South Carolina. They make visits frequently, where they give away books, read to children and create overall excitement around reading and higher education. The current coordinator of this program, Margaret Cook, explained that Cocky’s Reading Express works to “foster a love for reading, but also to increase access to high-quality books.”  

Parker has nothing but respect and love for the program and everyone involved. The impact this program had on her was incredible. “The whole program, in general, was so life-changing for me,” Parker said. Service is an extremely important aspect of Parker's life, and she was able to give back to the community in a very unique and special way through this program. "There were so many moments of kids coming up and saying, 'Thank you for what you do,'" Parker shared.  

Cook echoed this sentiment, saying that some of her favorite memories from the program have been when children remember her from previous visits, proving to her the impression that the program has on the children. “For kids, just a single visit can actually have a huge impact,” she said. 

To Parker, being Cocky for this program opened up a whole new world of career possibilities. She remembered realizing she could combine her passions, saying, "There's a whole possible world doing what I love with community, combined with sports."  Parker continued her involvement with sports teams and community long after graduation.  She currently works in hospitality but has previously worked for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as well as the San Antonio Spurs. Her experience as Cocky was an important step in her career and helped her narrow down what she wanted to do after college.

Cocky’s Reading Express is just one example of how Cocky has made an impact on and off the field in our community. The Cocky program has created long-lasting friendships and bonds between the students and faculty of USC for years. Parker still keeps in touch with many of her fellow Cocky's through what's called "The Fraternity," a Facebook group with all of the former mascots throughout the years. "We are all connected, and we support and love each other. I think it's so beautiful and I'm so thankful for it," Parker said.

Cocky represents so much more than a mascot. He is a reminder to unleash your inner child-like joy and to be whatever you want to be. While his main job involves pumping up crowds and cheering on our athletic teams, he serves a greater purpose for our Carolina community. He's an outlet for excitement, kindness and love. Parker is a testament to this, as well as so many others who have had the pleasure of putting on the bird suit.

In her words, Cocky taught her to “dream big and to celebrate everything.” Her advice to any future Cocky's is to just "go for it. Especially if you are a not a cis-gender male, I think it's so important to have representation." She followed this up by encouraging those of differing identities to follow their dreams, no matter how impossible they might seem. Cocky is a representation of everyone, not just one identity. Anyone who has the desire can put on the mask, no matter who you are.  No one is left out, and everyone is represented equally as Cocky. That's exactly what makes him so special. 

"Whatever it is, you can do it. There's no reason why you can't. We get in our own way so much," Parker said.

Maybe we can all take this lesson from Cocky and remember that even when it seems impossible, we can do anything we set our minds to, and we can do it full of joy and love.