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St. Joe’s Just Couldn’t Get Any More Hawk Feathers

The new Saint Joseph’s Hawk, flapping his wings next to a statue of a real Hawk, with the slogan THE HAWK WILL NEVER DIE
Dan McQuade/Defector

PHILADELPHIA — The costumes were more than 20 years old. They were looking old. They were getting ratty. They were ripping. St. Joseph’s athletic director Jill Bodensteiner said she was getting angry emails from alums about the state of the Hawk costume. The feathers were becoming a real issue. They were all over the court every game last year. “I always saw the feathers,” St. Joe’s women’s basketball coach Cindy Griffin said. “It was a great conversation piece with referees.”

But the problems with feathers were even bigger. They were existential. Every time the costume needed to be repaired, St. Joe’s simply had problems getting new ones. “The manufacturers and the distributors were just having fewer and fewer feathers in stock,” Bodensteiner said. “And if they did, they were not the same shape, not the same size, not the same color. And so then we’re dyeing individual feathers, trying to get them to fit. I mean, there were just chunks of missing feathers on the costume.”

Today Saint Joseph’s unveiled a new version of the Hawk, its first update in two decades. It was a low-key affair on Hawk Hill; the assembled press was four camera operators from local TV stations and Dan McQuade from Defector Media (the last good bird mascot news website). The Hawk came out and flapped a bit, and that was basically it.

But the Hawk did flap nonstop, as is tradition. Sports teams at SJU use the slogan “The Hawk Will Never Die,” and the Hawk mascot flaps its arms over its head the length of every appearance. It will flap, flap, flap an entire game, even if it goes into double overtime and lasts three hours. That might get tough, but the students playing the Hawk get rewarded for their hard work with an athletic scholarship. St. Joe’s has had a costumed Hawk mascot since 1955.

5th Quaker City Tournament: Saint Joseph's mascot The Hawk on court during game vs Minnesota at The Palestra. Philadelphia, PA 12/29/1965
The Hawk on the floor at The Palestra in 1965. (Herb Scharfman /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

The costume had been in bad shape for a while. In 2009, then-Hawk Tim Klarich told the Associated Press: “All our coaches always joke with me about how bad I smell.” In recent years, there would not be time to make necessary repairs to the school’s two mascot suits during basketball season. Stitching kept coming apart. It would get a massive refresh at the end of hoops season, but the suits were at the end of their usefulness. Every designer SJU met with said feathers would not be a viable option for the new costume; they’d just be too hard to get. Calgary-based mascot firm Street Characters, which has done a number of pro sports mascots, designed the new Hawk.

Bodensteiner said the updated costume was done after getting feedback from various stakeholders in St. Joe’s athletics. Sixty-one students have been the Hawk mascot, she said, and 42 of them were involved in some way with the new costume. “All of us were hesitant about change when we embarked on this, including me,” Bodensteiner said.

Left: The Hawk costume in 2019. (Nicole Fridling/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Right: A feather picked up courtside at a game last year. (Dennis Grove/The Gola Standard)

The new velour-looking costume seemed like it’d be heavier to me, but St. Joe’s insisted it was the same weight. That was confirmed by Matt Kirchgasser, a senior at Saint Joseph’s who wore the feathered-costume last season and portrayed the Hawk at today’s unveiling. He’s been in the new suit a few times.

“I’m really a big fan of the new one,” he said. “Last year I had so many worries that it was going to be falling apart when I put it on. I’m very excited about testing out the new one and getting it out there. The wing movements feel smooth and clean.”

Smooth and clean wing movements are the kind of thing you need in a costume where you have to flap your arms for a full game. Kirchgasser says that’s not so bad: Ten minutes into a game, it becomes such a routine that it’s “like eating chips in front of the TV.” Kirchgasser described the long audition process for the Hawk, which included a resume, a letter of recommendation, a video pitching himself for the job, and an hour-long flapping test while he walked around campus. He says he loves the role, and the feathers will stay with him even though they’re not on the new costume.

“I’m still finding feathers in my old shorts, in my pockets,” Kirchgasser said. “Like, they’re everywhere.”

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