A strange figure, almost predator-like, stalks the sidelines at Vineland High School football games. With an intense glare, it scans the bleachers before striking a mighty pose.

Then hundreds of spectators erupt in applause. Rowdy the Rooster is in the house.

This mighty, feathery fowl is one of the most distinctive high school mascots in South Jersey. He has represented the high school for nearly 100 years as the city, once called the “egg basket of America,” transitioned from being an agricultural landmark to becoming more urbanized.

But while the town’s focus might have changed, fans’ regard for their pugnacious poultry is still high.

“Everybody loves the mascot,” said Jacob Kell, the 16-year-old Vineland High School junior who has served as Rowdy since his freshman year.

High school mascots are a piece of Americana.

Whether it’s a rooster or American Eagle, mascots serve as a symbol to bring a community together, create school spirit and spur athletes to victory.

A mascot can be anything — legends, iconic symbols, animals. A school’s mascot often coordinates with the colors of the school but not necessarily; sometimes it’s a matter of choosing something that sounds appealing with the school’s name. Although some schools and teams elsewhere have stirred controversy with their chosen mascots, no such problems have come up in South Jersey.

Many schools only settled on a mascot in the past couple of decades. But several local schools, such as Vineland High, boast a long, colorful history of their mascot’s origins, exploits and line of successors.

And, sometimes, a school’s nickname and choice of mascot can be a bit head-scratching, as is the case with both Vineland and Lower Cape May Regional.

Rowdy the Rooster was actually nameless until 1986. His story starts in the late 1920s, when Vineland High School was called The Poultry Clan, referencing a group of fowl, because of all the poultry farms in South Jersey, especially in the Vineland area.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that The Poultry Clan moniker was ditched in favor of The Fighting Clan, thanks to former VHS athletic director Anthony DiTomo. He also thought the original mascot design was too scrawny and needed to be beefed up to go along with the new nickname. Thus, a more fierce, muscular-looking mascot evolved.

Over the past 48 years, about 52 students have worn the Rowdy costume. Jane Zucca, now Jane Pustizzi, was the first.

“We didn’t call it the rooster back then, though. It was still very chicken-looking,” recalled Pustizzi, 64, who still lives in Vineland.

Back then, the costume paled in comparison with what’s worn today. Pustizzi wore white sweatpants, a white sweatshirt with homemade wings sewn onto the underside of the arms, and a head-covering hood with feathers and a beak. But as pathetic-looking as she says it was, she can’t recall a time when anybody mocked Rowdy. The school has always had a strong bond with its mascot.

Devontae Herring served as Rowdy from 2010 to 2012 and has the distinction of being the first mascot in VHS history to graduate in costume.

“My experience as Rowdy Rooster was a blast. Honestly, it was the best experience I’ve ever had,” said Herring, now studying fine arts at Cumberland County College.

He remembers getting his share of trash talk from the crowds of rival high schools when appearing as Rowdy. He’s had popcorn and chicken feed thrown at him and KFC meals eaten in front of him. People have even “threatened” to cook him.

“But it was all in fun, and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I know there are some people who think it’s a lowly character, but the whole school is proud of our mascot,” Herring said.

Dorothy Burke has been assistant principal at Vineland High for 12 years and is responsible for school clubs and activities. She serves as the unofficial historian for Rowdy and suggests it would be scandalous to even think of replacing him.

“Vineland is steeped in tradition. The student body loves Rowdy and stand behind him 100 percent. To put it simply, you don’t mess with Rowdy,” she said.

What the heck

is a Caper Tiger?

Lower Cape May Regional athletic director Mark Schiffbauer has been at the school since 2002 and has never been asked how that nickname came about. But he started asking questions, and what he found may be surprising to many. The name has nothing to do with the animal at the Cape May County Park & Zoo, but rather with the animal representing the Exxon Oil Co.

“Put a tiger in your tank” was the oil company’s primary marketing pitch back in 1965. At the time, there was an Exxon station, then called Esso, across the street from the high school. In 1966, the franchise gave out promotional tiger-shaped sponges to motorists. Some of the school’s coaches who patronized the gas station liked the idea of the tiger and started to use the symbol to motivate their players.

At the time, school teams were simply called Capers, referring to the fact that they were located on the cape. Coaches started to designate a “Tiger of the Week” and presented players with plaques made by the woodshop classes with the tiger sponges affixed to the fronts.

The idea caught on, and the football team’s grass-roots movement to call themselves the Caper Tigers steamrolled. A 1967 yearbook is the first time the team is called that in print. Yet it wasn’t until between 1972 and 1975 that all the sports teams started identifying with the tiger image.

The school has embraced its tiger mascot and image over the years. The school band plays “Eye of the Tiger” at pep rallys and at special games to pump up the teams. And during pre-games, the whole student body participates in a thundering “growl” in a unified display of school spirit. A student also suits up in the elaborate tiger costume for appearances at games and school events.

And another surprise fact uncovered: Technically the school mascot is the sea horse, the same as it was when the school first came into existence in the early 1900s. Although it is ingrained as part of the school’s identity, the tiger has never been formally adopted by the district.

Indian mascots

Whether quirky or amusing, a high school’s choice of mascot is for the sole purpose of bringing the student body together and creating school spirit. Nobody wants to stir controversy. The NFL’s Washington Redskins, for instance, is getting a lot of backlash for having a name that is considered a racial slur against Native Americans.

But the three area schools with Native American nicknames don’t seem to have that problem. Absegami High School in Galloway Township is known as the Braves, Buena Regional High School in Buena Vista Township is called the Chiefs and Wildwood High School is known as the Warriors.

Absegami athletic director Steve Fortis said it is the school’s intention to promote and honor the culture of the Lenni Lenape tribe it is named after. Fortis said he couldn’t recall the school ever having an issue with anybody who considered the mascot offensive to Native Americans. The school has made a conscious effort not to put the mascot image on anything but team uniforms.

Absegami students attending a recent football game said they do not consider it a racial slur or find it offensive that the team is called the Braves. Most of them had a harder time accepting that the school color is brown.

“You can only wear so much brown, and then it gets kind of boring,” said Lizzie Haynes, an Absegami junior who sat in the stands during a recent game. “If anything they should change that.”

Wildwood High School has proudly called itself the “Home of the Warriors” since the school opened in the early 1900s. School officials say they have always been respectful of the image of Native Americans, particularly the Lenni Lenape tribe that originally settled the area. The insignia of an American Indian head is used in the school logo, but usually it’s just a “W” on the uniforms.

The school logo for Buena Regional is the head of an Indian chief, a tribute to the originial settlers of the area, district employees said.

Representatives for the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe out of Bridgeton could not be reached for comment.

Contact Lucia C. Drake:

609-272-7295

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