Today is a very, very special day. 15 years ago today I proposed to Kristi on the 50 yard line of my senior year Homecoming game, and she (eventually) said yes. That's the story in a nutshell, but this is the whole story...
I'm not sure when it was that I decided to propose to Kristi. I think it was late in the summer of 1997. We had been dating for well over a year, and we were both heading into our last year of college. I knew that I didn't want to be with anyone else, and so I set about trying to think of a truly legendary way to propose. One of my friends had just proposed at the top of the Eiffel Tower, and so I also wanted to do something romantic and memorable. But I was broke, and a trip to a foreign land just wasn't in the cards. I wanted to be a lot less predictable than that, too.
And then it hit me - I had a golden opportunity that only a very few people ever get. I was the mascot of the school, and so I had access to a lot of resources that most people don't. At that time, I was doing skits at halftime of every home football game at mid-field, so I thought that would be the perfect opportunity. But there was only one problem: I was supposed to be in the Sammy Bearkat suit, and it just wouldn't do to have Sammy propose. I needed to be the one to do it. But popping off Sammy's head in front of the entire stadium wasn't an option either. In fact, it was the very last option. I wanted to remain Sammy, after all.
So I devised a plan where Sammy and Samantha (Sammy's female counterpart at the time) Bearkat would go out to the 50 yard line and begin a dance skit, but at some point the skit would stop and my proposal would happen. But I needed someone to be Sammy while I was busy proposing, and it would have to be someone who was good enough to perform as Sammy for an entire quarter and all of halftime while I was out of the suit. It couldn't be just anyone. Only another Sammy would do.
Two years earlier at Homecoming, I was fresh on the mascot scene and looking to establish myself and my version of Sammy's character. That day a former Sammy named Chris Gill came to the game and asked me if he could suit up for a quarter, just for old time's sake. And I told him no. This guy was a Sammy LEGEND, and here I was telling him no. Chris was suspended for three games after he repelled down the Bowers Stadium wall during a game a couple of years earlier. Chris is big and built and in the army and could've wiped the floor with me and done the whole game unbeknownst to anyone else (until they found my mangled body a few weeks later). But he was very gracious about it. And looking back on it later, I felt absolutely horrible about what I had done. So I figured I owed him. So I called him up one afternoon after I had dreamed up my proposal and apologized for my immaturity and my stupidity two years before. And I let him in on my plans and asked him if he would come back and be Sammy for half the game that day. He graciously accepted my apology and agreed to help me out. He was the first person to know of my plans.
The second person to know of my plans was a guy in the RTV department named Steve Carmack. He and I had worked on my last couple of UCA competition videos together. He videotaped Sammy's appearances as part of a class project and helped me edit the footage down into two minute videos. He also helped me record the audio for my halftime skits. I usually planned and recorded the music for my skits about two weeks in advance, but this time I put it off as long as I could. I think we recorded the skit audio just one day before the skit. The skit started out as Sammy and Samantha see each other from afar and slowly move toward each other and dance to "Strangers in the Night." Then there was a record scratch and the music stopped and my voice came on. I would say on the recording "Wait a minute, Sammy. There's something I've got to say." And then my voice on tape asked Kristi to marry me. I remember getting really short of breathe just recording the audio. And I remember shaking as I stood on the sideline waiting to walk out on my cue. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.
I tried to think out all the logistics. How would I get off the field afterward? When would I get back in the suit? How could I get her and my parents there without tipping her off? How would I get her out on the field to begin with?
I was devious and cunning. I laid the foundation weeks in advance. I began dropping little hints here and there that I was really concerned - and later unhappy - with the job Steve had been doing taping Sammy. In reality, he was doing an amazing job, but I was setting the stage. Finally, the week before Homecoming, I told Kristi that I had asked Steve not to tape and if she would tape the skit for my Nationals tape. Being the best ever, she agreed readily, and played right into my trap. I was specific - I wanted her on the field about a quarter of the way out on the 50 yard line so that she could make sure to get all the action. Using the zoom on the camera would cause too much shake, so I needed her close. I even cleared that with the appropriate people at the stadium (and let them in on my plans.) They were very gracious and accommodating.
I knew that I would need to get off the field quickly, and I didn't just want to walk off. That's a bit boring. I considered hiring a limo to pick us up and drive us out of the stadium, but I did mention that I was a poor college kid, right? So instead I added a pre-game skit that incorporated a Gator 4x4 vehicle that the trainers use to cart players off the field when necessary. At the time, there was a very popular Volkswagon commercial that had been parodied quite a bit, and I thought that would be a great way to get my getaway vehicle onto the field in an inconspicuous manner. I asked my pal, Mark Barry (who ended up succeeding me as Sammy) to drive the Gator both for the pre-game skit and for the getaway.
Cris Gill drove in early that day and met me at the stadium so I could show him how to walk and move as my version of Sammy. He proved why he's a Sammy legend. He picked up my walk and mannerisms in less than a half hour and we went over the plan for the switch. At the beginning of the second quarter, he would meet me in the "Kat Kave" where I changed and he would perform the second quarter and halftime while I went home and showered. We went over the skit several times, not because he needed to, but because going over the plans in and the skit were helping to calm me down a little.
Later, when the game started everything went according to plan. Our families were there. The pre-game skit went well. Kristi was walking around taping me for Nationals. Perfect. Then the second quarter came and time for the switch. Chris got into the Sammy suit and ran out to perform and I left to shower. Unbeknownst to me, Kristi had seen Sammy come out and went down and followed him for awhile and even asked him some questions about where she was supposed to be at halftime. Chris played the whole thing perfectly and Kristi never had a clue that it wasn't me in the suit. I told you Chris is a legend, right?
Finally - the big moment. Kristi is out on the field, her back to the stands and laser focused on her task. I had returned to the stadium and had snuck down to the sideline, where I waited for my cue. Finally - my cue came and I walked out onto the field, walked around Kristi between Sammy and her and dropped to my knee. I opened a ring box just as my proposal came over the loudspeaker. It took her several seconds before she realized what was going on and that I was kneeling in front of her and not in the Sammy suit. She lowered the camera, put her hand over her mouth and began crying. The crowd roared. I later found out that Tim, her father, had wandered over to the end zone under the scoreboard and was talking to someone. Whoever was talking to stopped and said, "hey, check that out, somebody's getting engaged." "Yeah," he said with a laugh, "that's my daughter!"
Our boss, Linda Gorski, ran out from the sideline and grabbed the video camera just as the Gator cart pulled up to drive us away. Kristi was crying, and I was still waiting for an aster. We got in the Gator and made a victory lap around the track of the stadium. The whole time I was asking, "well?" Kristi was still crying and I was starting to feel pretty stupid.
Finally, as we rounded the stadium and neared the Kave, I asked her again, "will you marry me?" and she nodded (still crying) and sobbed, "yes."
Everything else is pretty much a blur after that. About the only thing I remember is that I had forgotten to bring my usual shorts and T-shirt back with me and had to perform the last quarter and a half in my underwear and how scratchy that was.
So that, kids, is the story of how Kristi and I got engaged 15 years ago today. And given the opportunity, I would do it all over again.
I love you, Girl. Happy engagment anniversary!
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