Aug. 12, 2022
What’s it like being VCU’s fierce and lovable mascot? Four Rodneys share their warm (so warm!) and fuzzy memories.
Share this story
Fans come to Virginia Commonwealth University basketball games to watch the action on the court and to cheer for the Rams. Rodney, VCU’s colorful and beloved mascot, might not see it that way, though.
“In Rodney’s mind, everyone’s there to see him and there just happens to be a basketball game in the background,” said Parker Reinecke, a student who currently plays Rodney.
For years, Rodney the Ram has been an essential part of the famously lively atmosphere at the Stuart C. Siegel Center for VCU basketball games, as crucial to gamedays as The Peppas and the team’s uniquely passionate fanbase. Rodney also has been an integral presence at other VCU sporting events and a wide variety of community events throughout the Richmond area. Through it all, many VCU students have served in the now-iconic role of Rodney, donning the suit and putting their own personal spin on the character.
Ronald Young, a former Rodney, compares being Rodney to being the Black Panther in that there are different iterations of the character over the years, but “we’re all part of that history forever.”
Here are four stories of students who have proudly struggled into the Ram suit and helped build something special.
Parker Reinecke (current)
Reinecke believes everyone needs a cheerleader, and he’s more than happy to play that role.
“If I see someone running down the street, going for a jog, I will be the first person to clap for them,’ Reinecke said. “Being Rodney just fits my personality.”
With that mindset, Reinecke enjoys developing routines for Siegel Center crowds, designed to add to the gameday atmosphere. Many fall through, never getting out of the conceptual stage. Sometimes, however, they make it on stage. For instance, Reinecke is a former high school drummer, and as Rodney he decided to join The Peppas, VCU’s legendary pep band, for a song during one game without warning, pushing aside the drummer (a friend) in the process. He made the jumbotron, and the crowd ate it up.
“When you try something, you don’t know if it'll fly or if it'll completely flop,” said Reinecke, who is a psychology major with a minor in criminal justice. “When people really enjoy it like that, it’s such a great feeling.”
Reinecke, who estimates he has played Rodney at more than 100 events, loves being Rodney so much that he misses the outfit in the summer. “When everyone goes home and Rodney is sitting in the Siegel Center all alone, it gets a little dull,” Reinecke said.
However, Reinecke’s experience as Rodney led to an offseason job as Nutzy, the Richmond Flying Squirrels mascot, and he has received a call from the Baltimore Ravens about his potential interest in serving as a backup mascot for the NFL franchise.
“The mascot work really never stops,” Reinecke said. “It's year-round.”
Reinecke enjoyed a moment of fame as Rodney when he wore the suit to participate in a commercial shoot for Marriott Bonvoy that featured former NBA star Grant Hill and several other college mascots. The well-received TV spot aired frequently during March Madness this year, giving Rodney – and Reinecke – prominent screen time.
Reinecke admits there is something disconcerting about being both the center of attention and completely anonymous.
“You’re giving high fives and hugs all day, taking pictures with people, but you take the head off and you put your day clothes on, and no one knows who you are,” Reinecke said. “You go from being the face of the school to this guy drenched in sweat walking down the street carrying two giant bags. That can feel kinda lonely. But, you know, I wouldn't trade it for anything.”
For Reinecke, it’s just too much fun. Last year, he attended the Atlantic 10 men’s basketball tournament in Washington, D.C., as Rodney. Before the game, Reinecke was “doing my thing,” working to get the traveling VCU crowd excited, when he got a tap on the shoulder from a security guard. His mother was in the crowd and wanted to see him. Reinecke worked his way through the packed stands to his proud mom, who let everyone in earshot know that Rodney was her son.
The man sitting next to his mother considered this news and the large-headed ram who was standing before him.
“He must look more like his father,” he said.
Danielle Hiser (2009-2012)
When Danielle Hiser tried out to be Rodney, she never guessed she would get picked, partly because it was a spur-of-the-moment decision. She’d seen the announcement for tryouts for the mascot and joked about it with a friend, who dared her to give it a shot. She still remembers changing into the suit for the tryout – “it smelled really strange” – and taking a picture of herself with the suit in an empty Siegel Center locker room, believing it would be the one and only time she’d be Rodney.
“It started out as, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny to try out to be Rodney?’” Hiser said. “And then it turned into three and half years of being him.”
Like other Rodneys, Hiser found the experience to be both demanding and thrilling. The suit came with an array of challenges that included limited visibility and maneuverability, size-14 Nikes (“clown shoes on me, basically,” Hiser said) and a heaviness made more pronounced by ice packs inserted into the vest to keep the temperature down.
On top of that, Hiser said Rodney is not always treated respectfully, as though some people believe they are encountering some kind of walking toy – “you’re a cartoon,” she said. Hiser remembers being swarmed by kids at one event. They latched onto her, grabbed her horns and surrounded her so that she couldn’t see where they were around her legs.
“In situations like that, you’re panicking a bit and you don’t want to get hurt or to hurt someone else, but you’re also trying to continue to be Rodney and stay in character for everyone,” Hiser said. “It can be tough in there.”
Still, Hiser said the highs far outweighed the lows, especially because of the enthusiastic support she received from VCU’s athletics department.
“I wanted to engage with people and wanted to find new things to do, and this was great for that,” Hiser said. “I also learned a lot more about Richmond because of the community events that I’d go to as Rodney.”
The most thrilling and death-defying of Hiser’s Rodney moments came hundreds of feet above ground and will always be part of Rodney lore. Hiser was serving as an intern for the Special Olympics when the organization was planning a major fundraising event, “Over the Edge,” in which local celebrities and mascots rappel off the top of the SunTrust building in downtown Richmond. Hiser noticed Rodney wasn’t on the list of participants and volunteered his services.
Hiser said professional climbers overseeing the event typically put on the suits of mascots to rappel down the building. However, when the climber suggested Hiser do it herself on the morning of the event, she agreed. Wearing the suit and assorted equipment, she “hopped down the building,” enduring one scary moment when the slackline got caught and messed with her helmet but otherwise managing an unforgettable climb down.
“That was such a cool experience,” she said.
Hiser said people assume that the person inside Rodney is male, and that occasionally led
to some awkward moments. For instance, she remembers trying to get into the women’s bathroom at a hotel during a wedding reception and a woman at the door refusing to let her in.
“Everyone always thought I was a guy,” Hiser said. “I guess I was a good actress.”
Hiser, who today is an occupational therapist at Johnston-Willis Hospital, said she had some particularly fun moments as Rodney on the dance floor at weddings. When it was her turn to tie the knot, she, of course, invited Rodney to join the festivities.
“When I made my speech, I told everyone that it wouldn’t be the same if we got married without this one guest, and then Rodney came out and danced with everyone,” Hiser said. “It was great.”
Ronald Young (2002-2007)
Before Ronald Young was Rodney the Ram for five years at VCU, he was Henry the Hawk for four years at Hayfield High School in Alexandria, Virginia. Serving as a mascot is natural to him, in part because it gives him a license to act crazy – in fact, it calls for it.
“When you put the mask on and the outfit, there's a level of silliness that people will allow for that they wouldn't otherwise – without it, they'd be like, ‘That guy is crazy,’” Young said. “I used to tell people that being Rodney was just like being me ‘turned up.’”
VCU basketball was on the rise during Young’s era, and he said that only made him take his role more seriously. Young said serving as a mascot means “being anointed the avatar for the school.”
“It sometimes felt completely unreal to be the mascot and to be a part of the things that were happening with VCU basketball then,” he said.
Young’s memories are rich with highlights, including running onto the court after one of VCU’s most iconic sports moments – Eric Maynor’s last-second jump shot to defeat Duke in the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
“There was nothing as exciting as that,” said Young, now an audio producer who makes podcasts. “I’ll never forget it.”
Sometimes, Young’s Rodney became a central part of the action. During one raucous home game against Hofstra, the Hofstra lion and lioness mascots – Katie and Willie Pride – stole the VCU cheerleaders’ “Go Rams” signs. The lion and lioness then proceeded to break a sign, and one of them mimed wiping their rear with it during a gamebreak, Young said. The VCU fans booed lustily, and Young looked to a nearby VCU administrator and motioned toward the court, seeking permission to enter the fray. When the administrator gave him the “go ahead” motion, Rodney went scampering after the lion and lioness.
The crowd erupted in Young’s ears as he approached at full speed across the court. The lion and lioness retreated behind a curtain barrier, much to the amusement of VCU’s fans. Young, feeling the adrenaline, knocked over the barrier with a single push and menacingly approached the lion and lioness. Security interrupted what Young now remembers as being no more than “a brief interaction,” and he was escorted off the floor to a hero’s applause and made to remove his suit for the rest of the game.
In the immediate aftermath, the Rams mounted a furious comeback from a large deficit, energized by a highly charged crowd fueled by Young’s actions. When the crowd chanted, “We want Rodney. We want Rodney,” Young pleaded to put back on his suit and return courtside, but he was denied his request. VCU’s comeback ultimately fell short.
“It's one of my biggest regrets that I didn't just put on the suit and go back out there,” Young said. “If I’d gone back out there, that crowd would have gone crazy. A lot of us still firmly believe – and we have no empirical data for this – that with that type of electricity behind the team, we would have gone on and won that game. I know it's irrational for a mascot to feel personally responsible for a loss, but I still do.”
Young said being Rodney in the madhouse of a basketball game was always “a trip,” with interactions with everyone from rambunctious fellow students to wide-eyed, awestruck young children to opposing cheerleaders and mascots. Through it all, Young knew he was lucky to be doing what he was doing.
“It always felt like a privilege to me,” Young said.
Gary Gauldin (1982-83)
Before Rodney, there was just “the Ram.” When Gary Gauldin started as VCU’s mascot in 1982, the character wasn’t yet called Rodney. In Gauldin’s memory, the character of the Ram mascot – someone actually dressed in a Ram costume and cheering for the university’s sports teams – was not yet a prominent presence, though the Ram had been the official mascot of Richmond Professional Institute, VCU’s predecessor, as far back as 1963 and of VCU since its founding in 1968. In fact, when VCU’s cheerleading coach asked Gauldin to take the role, there was no suit available for him to wear.
Gauldin remembers the university’s fashion department designing and making the Ram costume from scratch. He said his outfit was a kind of jumpsuit made out of a “carpet-like material with a zipper down the back.” Gauldin eventually dressed up the Ram by adding a VCU jersey given to him by Gerald Henderson, a former Rams’ star who was playing at the time in the NBA.
As a relatively fresh character, Gauldin found kids gravitated to him. “I felt like Santa Claus around them,” he said. With no knowledge of any previous Ram mascots, Gauldin tinkered and worked to carve out a niche.
“I was always trying to figure out what to do with the costume and with the character,” Gauldin said. “I was working with a blank slate, which was fun.”
One way that Gauldin distinguished himself was by bringing an athletic flair to the role. Gauldin, a former high school high jumper, would routinely dunk a nerf ball in full costume during breaks in basketball games, amazing the crowd. He managed the dunk over and over again despite not being able to see well through his mask.
“I had to get really good at counting my steps just right,” he said.
Gauldin had been tapped to serve as the Ram without a tryout. When his tenure ended, he remembers a tryout session with a host of candidates ready to succeed him.
“I thought to myself, ‘I really started something here,’” he said.
Gauldin, who also worked as the Diamond Duck mascot for the Richmond Braves, today owns an audiovisual company. He previously had a team-building business for 20 years, and he attributes his time as the Ram to some of the success he had in that field.
“It gave me the drive and the ability to want to be in front of people and to command their attention,” Gauldin said.
Now, when Gauldin watches VCU in person or television, he marvels at Rodney, inevitably admiring the person inside the suit and their work. He feels a sense of pride at the role he played decades ago in the Ram’s emergence. He might not have been the first Ram, but he believes he helped plant strong roots for what Rodney has become today.
“I got to be the guy who got the ball rolling, and that means a lot to me,” Gauldin said. “I will always feel as though it was my claim to fame.”
Gauldin still has the Ram head he wore during his mascot days, and he loves to surprise visitors with it. Few know about his mascot past. He calls the head one of his most-prized possessions and an ingenious creation involving a bicycle helmet, foam and fabric. When people see it, they can’t stop grinning, Gauldin said. It’s the magic of the Ram – of the character they know today as Rodney.
“People just love him.”
Subscribe to VCU News
Subscribe to VCU News at newsletter.vcu.edu and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox.