November 29–December 6, 2001
Once a Bird Brain...
Former Eagles mascot Dean Schoenewald is still crazy after all these years.
part 1 | part 2
Ex-Eagles mascot Dean Schoenewald was the most famous person to don a mascot costume on the planet. He was interviewed by Good Morning America, profiled in People magazine, The Wall Street Journal and Biography magazine, among others, and he started the first-ever mascot school. During more than 15 years of performing, Schoenewald captivated stadiums with his death-defying stunts, wacky skits and overall ingenuity and chutzpah. When he suited up, he made the game an intermission for his act — and the nation took notice. He earned four CNN plays of the day.
The 40-year-old who used to parade around the Vet as Bird Brain is no longer mascoting. Instead, Schoenewald serves as commissioner of a new women’s football league.
But who knows for how long. Because during his long strange trip through professional sports, he has always managed to live up to his nom de plume.
Dean Schoenewald was much more than a dynamic performer in a silly suit. He’s a Horatio Alger epic in the flesh, a Peter Pan who used Balboa-esque perseverance to rise above his poverty-stricken childhood to earn six-figure contracts and entertain millions. With televangelist fervor, Schoenewald spoke to hundreds of mascot wannabes and preached that if they became mascots, they too could become famous and make big money. Schoenewald, however, was anything but warm and fuzzy. A fast-talking, chain-smoking character right out of a David Mamet play, the 6-foot-tall, strapping Schoenewald, who looked more athlete than clown, levied lawsuits, cursed like a sailor and ruffled feathers with impunity. Parades of parents begged for him to be banned, women’s groups picketed his risque antics, and others just desperately wanted him locked up. "To be honest, he should be on the ten most-wanted program, not CBS Sunday Morning," said baseball-souvenir shop owner Art Miller, who says he did business with the man once beloved by thousands at Veterans Stadium.
Schoenewald claims the only thing he is guilty of is being a misunderstood artist and creating damn good entertainment. "There has been controversy everywhere I’ve been," asserts Schoenewald, who, in the ’80s and ’90s suited up for 18 teams in leagues ranging from the North American Soccer League to the USFL. "But there has also been consistency and quality. I don’t mean to be arrogant, but I’ve created more popular mascots than anyone on the planet."
Growing up with his seven brothers and sisters in Ocean City, N.J., Schoenewald just wanted to get three square meals a day. "We were the poorest people in Ocean City by far," recalls Schoenewald. "We got creative to survive." To scrape by, his family gathered red potatoes and lima beans in unguarded fields after the harvester went through. "There was a lot left," says Schoenewald. While Schoenewald dined on a steady, meatless diet of veggies and rice, his imagination feasted on dreams of becoming a big-time jock. Schoenewald fondly recalls lining the field for Ocean City High School football games. "I got the hot chocolate and hot dogs for the officials at halftime. I put the cones out. I did whatever it took. I got to sit in the press box and watched the announcers call the games. I knew then that I wanted a career in sports." He recalls his mother, Lois, who worked as baby-sitter for Phillies wives, hitting pop-ups to him on the front lawn and giving him a dime for every ball that he fielded cleanly in little league. "She taught me baseball," says Schoenewald. On the ball field, Schoenewald dove face first a la Pete Rose and wasn’t afraid to sully his uniform. And as much as Schoenewald worshipped Rose, he detested Mike Schmidt’s clean uniform and cute coif. "He was so smooth," fumes Schoenewald. "That’s not Philly. That’s not blue collar." In the field, Schoenewald was nearly flawless. His father, however, was not nearly as smooth.
"He didn’t hit us or anything. He was trying to feed the family when he got in the trouble. He didn’t rob anyone," says Schoenewald. "I don’t have any problem with that if you’re trying to feed your family." Convicted of counterfeiting, Schoenewald’s father, Lester, did two years in Lewisburg state prison, says Schoenewald. "I thought everybody’s dad was in prison," he recalls with a solemn laugh.
At Ocean City High, Schoenewald never got his shot at pigskin glory. "I got injured in gym class," he laments. Schoenewald figured that ice hockey was his ticket to the big time, anyway. In the meantime, Schoenewald cultivated his other love, acting, performing in a number of summer stock productions. Still, Schoenewald yearned for athletics. Upon graduating in 1979, he planned on attending college at North Dakota State University, where he hoped to walk onto the school’s hockey team. At that point, a mascot career was not an option. Then, mascots were relegated almost exclusively to the collegiate ranks and the minor leagues, where Max Patkin, who’s featured in the movie Bull Durham, and Al Schacht had done their vaudevillian routines for decades. In the ’70s, though, everything changed for furry costumed creatures. In 1974, Ted Giannoulas debuted as the San Diego Chicken, and in 1978, Phillies management enlisted summer intern Dave Raymond to suit up as the Phillie Phanatic. Soon, the Phanatic was winning over fans with his antics, which included running over Tommy Lasorda’s jersey with his ATV or doing a ridiculous aerobics routine in front of Jane Fonda. Meanwhile, Schoenewald’s mind was doing somersaults, and he was starting to rethink his North Dakota exodus. A day before he was supposed to enroll, Schoenewald opted to forgo Fargo. "I called them up and told them I was going to be a mascot in the NFL," recalls Schoenewald. "I wanted to combine acting and sports. The only job in sports is the mascot." Schoenewald took his college savings of $1,200, bought costume materials and made his debut at a coffee shop before thirty friends. Emboldened, Schoenewald offered his services to Eagles management. "They said no thanks, but they also said we can’t stop you," recalls Schoenewald. Undeterred, Schoenewald showed up at Veterans Stadium as the 7-foot-tall Bird Brain and was quickly embraced. "I never missed a game," he recalls. A true die-hard, Schoenewald also showed up at the stadium on off days. When the Eagles threatened to move the team to Phoenix, Schoenewald placed tombstones and lay down in full costume in front of the Vet. "It was at night," recalls mother Lois. "There was nobody there. I think it made the front page [of the newspaper], though." Schoenewald’s finest moment came during a Monday Night Football game in Dallas when an inebriated Cowboys fan lit Schoenewald’s left wing on fire with a Bic lighter. "I pushed [the guy] down the stairs. I was just defending myself," recalls Schoenewald. "The Cowboys must have seen it happen because they pulled me out of the stands right away. It was obvious they were worried for my safety."
While Schoenewald was embraced by fans, he was still never formally recognized by the Eagles organization. However, Schoenewald was able to make a few bucks doing appearances, mostly speaking out against drugs to kids. Schoenewald, however, thought that his message needed a broader audience.
In 1985, a 25-year-old Schoenewald took his act out of the stadium and into the streets, announcing his candidacy for mayor of Ocean City. In suit and tie, Schoenewald stood for hours in front of supermarkets shaking hands and holding babies. During televised debates, Schoenewald released his great oratory ability. "He called the other candidates all kinds of names," remembers Lois, who was one of her son’s few volunteers. "He rolled over the other two candidates." Meanwhile, Schoenewald’s steady stream of press releases managed to keep his name in the news as well. But after months of knocking on doors and other tough campaign work, it was just not enough. "People thought he was too young and that he wasn’t going to stick with it," says Lois. A week before the election, Schoenewald bowed out of the contest. "People still voted for him," says Lois.
Meanwhile, Schoenewald had still not managed to win the support of Eagles management, which still refused to grant its "unofficial mascot" free admission to games. Lois remembers waiting on line at the Vet to buy those pricey tickets. "It was hard for us to buy those tickets," she says. With the Eagles not cooperating, Schoenewald got creative and talked his way into a gig as a local television weatherman. "What’s the difference between partly sunny and partly cloudy," laughs Schoenewald. But the sun set on Schoenewald’s career as a weatherman when he transformed himself into a different breed of costumed eagle, an American Eagle. At the Los Angeles Olympics, Schoenewald tried to generate his country’s spirit with his American Eagle getup, but a Japanese TV crew seemed the most interested. "He wasn’t the official mascot," recalls Lois. "He was just himself trying to be the mascot."
Perhaps the frustration was setting in. After ten years of fluttering his wings as the Eagles unofficial mascot, Schoenewald wanted to fly elsewhere, somewhere he would be more appreciated. "The Eagles wanted me to die in a car crash on the way to the stadium every year," recalls Schoenewald. "There was no love lost."
After ten years of fluttering his wings at the Vet, Schoenewald wanted to fly elsewhere. When he heard that a new NHL franchise called the San Jose Sharks were starting up, Schoenewald saw an opening. "Once he has a chance, that’s all he needs," says Lois. Schoenewald spent $25,000 creating a shark costume and went west in a Ford van, which he painted with land sharks. "He thought he’d get publicity on his cross-country trip," Lois remembers. Whatever attention generated, it was not nearly enough. When Schoenewald arrived in San Jose, he was not greeted with open arms. Although it was only their first season, Sharks games were already selling out nightly and the team had plans on introducing a mascot in their second season. Now, however, they had an unexpected interloper circling their offices. "There’s something out in the reception area, and you’re not going to like it," an associate told Sharkie VP Matt Levine at the time. Schoenewald, a man who could probably sell moonshine to Mormons, made his impassioned pitch, dancing like MC Hammer, putting Levine’s head in his mouth and making Levine burst out in laughter. Levine was swayed but not sold. "He crossed his arms, put one hand to his mouth and said, Our mascot will never look like that,’" says Schoenewald. Despite their reservations, the Sharks gave Schoenewald a tryout — with an asterisk. "They issued a press release in case I bombed." After a two-game tryout, it was official: Schoenewald was a swimming success, and he was hired as the NHL’s first official mascot.
Promptly, Schoenewald persuaded his brother Tom and his college roommate, Matt Noel, to leave then-Glassboro State College and help set up shop. While the dropouts set up personal appearances, Schoenewald worked the San Jose faithful into a frenzy. Before games, the Shark-clad Schoenewald warmed up the tailgaters by whipping around in his ATV in the parking lot. During games, Schoenewald pretended to fight with a Flyers fan, tossed popcorn on people and pounded his chest like an ape in heat when he took a liking to a lady. "He had the crowd eating out of his hand," commented Levine. But Schoenewald did not stop there. He wanted to bring the house down — and he did. In between periods, Schoenewald exited the mouth of a CO2-spewing Zamboni and bungee jumped headfirst from the arena’s rafters.
For his efforts, Schoenewald garnered four CNN plays of the day. "I came in unannounced, uninvited and stole the show," boasts Schoenewald. "You can’t do much better than I did in San Jose. And I’m talking Chicken, Phanatic level stuff. They never went the places the Shark went as far as holding the crowd in their hand."
San Francisco Examiner columnist Rob Morse agreed, writing: "[Schoenewald] is to the Sharks what Bobby Orr used to be to the Boston Bruins. The star of the show." Even Lois made the trip out to San Jose to applaud her son. So enthused by his performance, she got a vanity plate for her car that says "MASCOT." "I felt like I should get it," says Lois, "since I was there from the beginning."
part 1 | part 2