Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Remembering Tar Heel mascot Jason Ray


I never met Jason Ray, the UNC mascot who died from injuries in an accident just before the regional semifinals last week in New Jersey. But I spent many winter evenings with him over the past three years, watching him help whip up Tar Heel fans as UNC basketball teams whipped up on scores of other teams. I know the job was shared by several students and of course I don’t know which nights Jason was in costume, but I do know the mascot was always fun to watch.

I also know a little about what it takes to do that sort of thing. A couple of hundred years ago, or so it seems, I was a Carolina cheerleader at a time when Dean Smith was just emerging as a coaching genius and beginning to win national attention.

In those days one of my jobs for pep rallies was to fetch the Tar Heel mascot – one of a series of wooly rams known as Rameses – from the farm of Bob Hogan and bring him to campus. Hogan, whose family had been farming in Orange County for generations, would help me take out the back seat of my 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air, and lead Rameses in one door. When I got to the campus destination, someone would help me lead Rameses out the other door. Hogan himself would handle those duties on football Saturdays. I don’t recall whether we had a Tar Heel mascot in costume in those days, but the real Rameses attended mostly football games and, I guess, other outdoor sports.

One of my cheerleading colleagues was Dave Bennett, a year or so younger than I, who would go on to become head cheerleader. After graduation, Dave became a teacher, a coach and head of the state government intern program for a time before going into the family plumbing supply business in Burlington, Bennett-Hockett Supply Co.

Last fall, the company had an employees day in Chapel Hill and attended a football game. Jason came over and entertained the kids. Here are Dave’s thoughts about Jason and what that day last fall meant, and a photo (that's Dave at far left) taken of the group with Jason Ray:

“Our hearts ache for the family of Jason Ray. This picture was taken last fall on a football Saturday as our business hosted an employee/customer outing to the Carolina v. South Florida game. Jason thrilled the kids in our group with his warmth and enthusiasm. He was a wonderful ambassador for the University and its athletic program. Jason’s tragic passing will be felt deep within the Tar Heel family.”

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