Negotiating stairs in the bulky uniform with limited vision was no sweat for Ryan. But his trademark backflips, both standing and from elevated levels? Those haven’t been easy, and some of them have literally left their mark.
“I would say it has definitely taken a toll on my body,” said Ryan, whose identity was revealed during a recent basketball game. “But it’s been a lot of fun,” he said.
Ryan, who expects to graduate in December and is hoping to be accepted into the University’s physical therapy program, was drawn to Derrick from the moment then-recruiter Charlie Webb mentioned the opportunity. So, when he became a student in 2011, Ryan tried out, stood out and was then outfitted as the University’s resident roughneck.
“Why Cole? Cole was just different,” said Webb, who is now a University marketing specialist and manages Derrick; the job is a paid student position. During Ryan’s campus tryout, with no instruction, he stood out from the other mascot prospectives by showing what he could do instead of asking what he could do.
But once Ryan donned the suit, he began creating his own Derrick persona. For inspiration, he has continuously researched and studied other well-known mascots from several professional sport franchises. “They just do what they do so well. Brutus and those guys, I wanted to be on that level,” Ryan said.
“I didn’t really take any advice from anyone. I just kind of did my own thing,” said Ryan. “My biggest thing was thinking outside of the box and trying to take things to the next level each time I did them… to try to entertain people and try to make them feel a little more involved. I started off dancing, which was already my thing. Then I tried a somersault. Then I tried a front handspring. And then I talked to Charlie about trying a backflip in the suit. I was like, ‘Man, I’d like to possibly try to do that.’”
One of Ryan’s friends taught him how to backflip during his freshman year. He introduced it at a basketball game, off the bleachers. “I stuck it the first time,” he said.
The fact that he had been a high school athlete has helped. Ryan said he gave up running track for UF to play Derrick.
People, mostly kids, tend to ask for the backflip. But “I can’t do it all the time,” said Ryan. “I gotta feel it.”
There have been injuries. For instance, at a playoff basketball game in Hillsdale College one year, he under-rotated and was left with a twisted ankle, banged up knee and jammed thumb.
There have been other interesting incidents. At the same Hillsdale playoff game, a Hillsdale student stole the school’s Trojan mascot uniform, put it on and charged Derrick with a full-sized garbage can. Derrick stood his ground and kicked the trash can down, sending the student flying past him and across the court. “Everyone went crazy. That student ended up actually getting thrown out of the game,” said Ryan. Hillsdale College issued a formal apology.
Some positive memorable experiences Ryan has had as Derrick have included participating in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure 5K run in downtown Findlay last fall, taking part in minor league hockey and baseball games in Toledo during mascot days, attending UF’s 25th anniversary gala and showing up at the occasional Mazza Museum Funday Sunday.
Ryan said he did his best to keep his identity a secret when it came to playing Derrick, but given the small campus and collegial atmosphere at UF, some found out.
Webb said since Derrick’s debut in 2001, Ryan is the first student to serve in the role for four consecutive years.
Bowing out early had crossed his mind. “There have been times when I didn’t really feel appreciated. I felt like people were getting too used to him (Derrick). I was like, “Man, I don’t know if I want to keep doing it. It’s tiring. I kind of feel like people are taking it for granted. I try to do my best each time I’m in the suit, but if no one’s really enjoying it like they used to, is it really worth it?’” he said he wondered.
But the standing ovation he received during his reveal was validation. “That was definitely one of the most memorable moments,” said Ryan. “That was a game changer. It definitely made me feel appreciated and I was really happy with the outcome.”
Brandi Laurita, assistant director of athletics at UF, said Ryan “has set the bar high” for future students who play Derrick. “He has brought such life to the mascot and really enhanced the atmosphere at athletic events. Oiler fans have enjoyed watching Derrick the Oiler and were always waiting to see his next dance move or acrobatic trick,” she said.
Ryan said there is a chance he might continue to play Derrick. “I would love to continue this role because of how much it’s become a part of my life and because I love doing what I do,” he said.