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First Reggie Redbird shares spirited memories

As the fall sports season takes off at Illinois State University, mascot Reggie Redbird is everywhere, making community appearances, sharing the cheering duties at games in multiple sports. It's a lot. There are, in fact, multiple Reggies. It wasn't always that way.

The job has grown over 40 years. And it wasn't always Reggie. The very first Reggie Redbird took the field and court in 1981.

Bob Goldstein started at ISU in 1979. He and his friends lived in Watterson Towers. They liked sports, they tried to go to all the games together. And they noticed what was to them a glaring lack.

“I remember at the time, the mascot costume was pretty sorry. It was kind of like a paper mâché head with some stray feathers. I mean, it looked like a bad high school project,” said Goldstein.

By one account, the bird looked as if it were molting. Goldstein was pretty vocal about these deficiencies. And then in the spring of ‘81, flyers went up around campus about tryouts for the Redbird.

“I was out at my classes and by the time I got home, my dorm mates had taken out 20-30-40 of them down from different places and taped them to the door of my dorm room. Basically, saying put up or shut up,” said Goldstein.

Goldstein went. He had a minute and a half to show school spirit. He had a secret card to play. Goldstein had worked out with Gamma Phi Circus, clowning and such. He said he brought a paper bag with him.

“I had drawn a beak on it and cut a couple of eyeballs. And I had a football, a baseball and a basketball and I juggled them while I was moving around,” said Goldstein.

Keeping the secret

Success! Shortly after that he got word, they wanted him to do this.

“But the first criteria is you can't tell anyone,” said Goldstein.

The identity of the bird was to be a secret. Remember, Goldstein was used to going to all the games with his dorm mates? Yeah, how to explain that? He fibbed.

Man sitting in front of photo of Reggie Redbird and Ronald McDonald
Bob Goldstein
The first Reggie Redbird, Bob Goldstein, said kids liked him better than Ronald McDonald at the ribbon-cutting for the first McDonald's restaurant in Normal.

“I said it's getting harder, you know. I've got a lot more studying I need to do. This is just getting serious and I’m less than two years away from having to sit for the CPA exam, all this stuff. And I would leave to go to Milner Library. They thought it was curious. Later that year when I finally got to take off my head, they claim that they knew. But they didn't,” said Goldstein.

Now, remember this was before Reggie was Reggie.

The bird was just a bird unnamed, and until Goldstein took over, perhaps unloved. Along with the tryouts, ISU decided to revamp the bird. The Vidette college newspaper held a contest to name the Redbird. There were a lot of entries.

“I personally voted for Robert not because my name is Robert, but I thought there was a lot of fun you could have with Robert Redford and Redbird versus Redford, and instead of movies like 'The Sting,' you'd have ‘The Wing,’” said Goldstein.

It's been Reggie ever since. The costume got a refresh, too. A donor gave $2,300 for a new getup. In 1981, that was a lot. At the first game, they whipped up the crowd and Goldstein emerged from a present-shaped box after a ribbon and bow were pulled off. There was a big cheer, and it was on!

Goldstein said when the costume came in just before the first football game, it was almost identical to the Louisville Cardinals suit. The Louisville mascot head had an open beak with gritted teeth, a meaner look that the ISU bird. Goldstein said the apparatus was heavy, basically shag carpeting on top of canvas with, effectively, hula hoops sewn in to give the body shape. He needed cheerleader help getting in and out because his hands were in the carpet wings. The head was strong fiber board with large holes cut into it. Yellow foam rubber was formed over the holes for the beak.

“Now, nowhere in that description did I mention eye holes. It was taller than me. Basically, I'm looking through the beak,” said Goldstein.

When the sun was shining in, Goldstein was effectively blind. Once, when he ran out at the start of the game, it was directly into the sun.

“I'm running. I'm running. I can hear the crowd. I can hear the players next to me. And then all of a sudden, a thud. I had run into one of the defensive linemen and tackled him in the entry of the visiting team. You know you can only imagine the reaction,” he said.

Early in the football season, it also was hot.

“It just was brutal inside the costume, and I would lose 5-6-7 pounds while I was in the suit. I never felt I would pass out. It was just arduous,” said Goldstein.

Cheerleaders would stick water bottles into the bird head during timeouts for him to drink.

Bob Goldstein as Reggie Redbird
Bob Goldstein
In his final appearance as Reggie Redbird, ISU student Bob Goldstein was allowed to reveal his identity and remove the head of the costume.

Early guidance was scant. Don't speak. Don't tell anyone who you are. Be kind. Over time, Goldstein developed a routine. He would mimic the moves of the dance squad and jump in on their line kicks. He always looked for the kids because they wanted pictures. He watched other mascots. He went to mascot camp. He figured it out.

“Sometimes, in basketball, I would like to mess with the opposite coach, particularly Dick Versace, who was the Bradley coach. Some of the clowning with opposing players, especially the officials, was always fun, to come up behind an official but to do it, obviously, in a cartoony kind of fun way,” said Goldstein.

Becoming a fan favorite

He did it for two years and said Reggie was well received on campus and off.

“The very first McDonald's in Normal opened up then. And Ronald was there for the ribbon-cutting as was Reggie. And the kids wanted to hang with Reggie more than they wanted to hang with Ronald,” said Goldstein.

Goldstein is retired now, but credits the mascot for being a big part of his life.

“I probably got the job because of Reggie,” he said, noting when the corporate recruiter came to campus for interviews, a lot of students were in the mix.

“He goes Reggie Redbird! You're up next! He didn't call my name. He called Reggie Redford because that was on my information sheet I had to fill out,” said Goldstein.

The interview started with a discussion of Reggie and Goldstein said the business guy was into it. He spent his entire career with a single accounting firm, KPMG. Goldstein said the lesson is having things in your life that make you stand out in a positive way — that can make a difference when all other things are equal. Those things might put you over the top.

He still watches mascots. Goldstein said he does community service work with the Baltimore Public Library that had a recent event with a star player for the Baltimore Ravens football team. The team mascot is a raven named Poe, named for Edgar Allen.

“Of all the pictures that were taken, I never got a picture with the football player. But I got a picture with Poe because that's where my attention was,” he said.

Goldstein said there's a freedom to being in the suit because nobody knows who's in there. He said that helped not only doing mascot work, but in his career, too, because it gave him confidence. His time as Reggie also cemented warm feelings about ISU that he said he still has today.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.