Life inside the ‘Cat suit: Northwestern alum Peter Keller shares the furry facts

By Christopher Miller
Medill Reports

Peter Keller never imagined that he would be standing, sweaty and naked, behind a stadium concession stand. But there he was, in San Diego with friends holding towels in front of him as he changed out of his Willie the Wildcat suit after the 2018 Holiday Bowl. Being a mascot at a major university is a tiring, anonymous, often thankless and unpaid job. Yet Keller, a 2019 Northwestern graduate, describes his three years as a Willie were the best of his life. Keller, now a 22-year-old assistant producer for Travelzoo, even performed during the 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and the 2018 Big Ten Football Championship. Recently he shared what it was like to be a fan-favorite feline.

When and why did you decide you wanted to be Willie?

At the beginning of my sophomore year, a friend shared a Facebook post in a group text about tryouts. I thought it’d be cool, so I emailed the coach not expecting to hear anything back. She replied to my email in like five minutes, and sure enough, I found myself going forward and doing it.

What was the tryout process like?

It was broken up into three parts. The first part was silent communication and showing emotion. They’d say, “Give me a super sad reaction or act stressed.” In the second part I was given a very random prop – a cone, a stress ball and a pony on a stick and had to basically improvise with it. The third part was dancing. And, of course during the dancing part the speakers at Walsh-Ryan weren’t working so we had to use a phone to play the music which was super awkward.

Did anyone know your true identity while acting as Willie?

Yeah, a few people did. My closest friends – all the people who convinced me to tryout — knew, but we were supposed to keep it secret.

A Northwestern tradition for all former Willie the Wildcat’s: Wearing the hands and feet of the Wildcat during their graduation ceremony. Keller earned a degree in communications in June 2019. (Courtesy of Peter Keller)

Did it ever feel as if you were living a double life?

Oh, yeah, definitely. There were some weird moments after a game when you walk out of the football stadium and see some of the same faces you were just high-fiving, and you want to do it again. But then remember they have no idea who you are. It is also nice that they don’t know who you are, too, because if you mess up during a performance it’s like, “Who the hell cares? They don’t know me.”

Did your perspective on fans and fan interaction change after your experience as Willie?

I don’t think so. We always look forward to interacting with the home fans. We always felt that Northwestern never used Willie enough compared to other schools. Goldy the Gopher at Minnesota, they put him on everything: billboards, their school store, the locker room. On game days Goldy would have a grand entrance into the football stadium, and it was just a bigger deal. We always wanted Northwestern to get Willie out there more, too, so I tried to be as available as possible.

How did they determine who covered what sport? What events did you cover?

We would rotate events and sometimes our coach would choose when we worked certain events. If you wanted to make it a priority and work extra games, you could, which I did, and also by seniority. I covered a little bit of everything: football, basketball, golf, soccer, field hockey, swimming, birthday parties and public events, which I really didn’t like.

Keller debuts a Willie the Wildcat’s golfing attire for the first time at the East Lake Golf Cup in Atlanta, GA in 2017. (Courtesy of Peter Keller)

Did you get paid to be Willie?

No, but you do get really nice Under Armour gear, plus free food and snacks at some events. We also would get put up in the dorms during [three weeks of] summer practice, which was nice to not have to worry about rent. At Penn State, for example, mascots change every two years or so, and they get a full ride. At some other Big Ten schools, mascots got scholarships and stipends, but we didn’t.

What were your favorite road events you experienced as Willie and why?

Definitely the run to the men’s 2017 NCAA Tournament. For one, that was my first year on the team. For two, we were only allowed to bring one mascot per school, and my coach chose me. For me to say that I was the first ever mascot to perform at the NCAA tournament the first time my school has ever made the NCAA Tournament was really cool. It makes me emotional.

Also, our first game against Vanderbilt, I remember my coach telling me they were going to do a mascot dance-off challenge at halftime. I’m not a bad dancer, but dancing in front of all those people at mid-court is intimidating. Willie won the dance-off. That was definitely one of the most fun experiences as my time as Willie.

Another highlight was last year, the Big Ten Championship game for football. I remember tearing up when Northwestern took the field [against Ohio State]. I was just so proud of my school especially after how the [2018] season started [with the loss to Akron].

What were your favorite home events you experienced as Willie and why?

It was sophomore year with basketball. One of the upperclassmen who usually worked the games had to cancel last minute, so I took the game [against Michigan]. It was the game where they had the pass from Nathan Taphorn to Derek Pardon with .7 seconds left. They stormed the court and it was the first time Northwestern had more than 20 wins in a season. I was literally standing right behind Nathan Taphorn when he passed it.

What was the most challenging part of the job?

The first thing that comes to mind is the exhaustion that comes with being in the suit, but I won’t necessarily call it challenging. It’s just something you have to deal with. They are out there giving their all on the field or court, so I always felt I had to do the same.

We’ve had moments where people have gotten sick or severely dehydrated after games. You have to be smart with drinking fluids and eating when you need to. It’s about pacing yourself and being smart with your performance. We are lucky. Our head allows us to drink while wearing it.

How tough is it to see in the suit?

You see through the eyes [with Willie]. With most mascots, you see through their mouth which is easier. You get used to it, especially if you’re working a lot of events. But if you ever take a couple weeks off, it’s hard to get adjusted again. It’s like tunnel vision. You don’t want to knock a kid over, which I’ve done before. You just don’t see them because they’re so small and not in your line of sight.

Walking up and down steps is very difficult, too. It’s just about being aware of your surroundings. I’ve tried on other mascot heads when we visit. Willie’s is one of the worst in the Big Ten for seeing. Herky the Hawk, for example, has a huge mouth where you can literally see everything. Willie has a smaller head, which helps with performing but makes sight more difficult.

How bad did the costume smell?

Bad. We were lucky that we have five costumes [for the four of us], but they all smell. What really smells is the head because you can’t wash it. Everything else, you can throw in the washer, but you don’t want to do it too often because the fur gets matted. We had a special bottle that was vodka mixed with water and we’d spray the suit after every time we wore it, especially the head. This was a way to sanitize it and deodorize it.

What was the most rewarding part of the job?

Just being right there, being able to be on the sidelines for all those different sports. But probably traveling was by far the coolest thing I got to do. It was cool because it allowed me to go to places that I would have never been able to go to. I got to go to Salt Lake City [for the NCAA Tournament], San Diego for the for the Holiday Bowl, Atlanta and other schools that I’ve never been to before, like Maryland and Rutgers.

What’s one element of the job that might surprise people?

There is a lot of planning and strategizing, especially for away games and home games, too, when we’re playing opposing teams with rowdy fans. We always want to make sure we have at least one person with the mascot because opposing fans like to get really rowdy with the mascot. We had an incident at Michigan, this was before my time, but when the teams were leaving the stadium and a fan leaned over and ripped the mascot head off. It messed up our mascots neck, and he had to go to the ER and everything.

Also, people really love to grope the mascot and spank or grab your butt. So, there is some really weird stuff you have to deal with.

You also have to get creative on where to change after games because we don’t get to use the locker room or shower after games.

Do you ever get injured when acting as Willie?

I did during practice. We were doing shoulder stands, and someone was standing on top of my shoulders. We were trying to time a dismount and he jumped off too early, and I threw my back out. For two months I had a problem with my back. I was still able to perform, it just really hurt.

Would you do it again if you had the opportunity?

Yes. I would totally do it again and try out my freshman year if I had known about it. It was one of the most fun things I have ever done and by far the best thing about my college experience. My closest friends are the people I met through cheerleading and Willie. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Do you enjoy Northwestern sporting events more when acting as Willie or a regular student?

I enjoy sporting events more as Willie because you get exclusive access, and you get to be a part of the game in a way. As Willie, you’re part of the gameday experience. Plus, [as Willie] you feel like a celebrity, everyone wants to high-five you, take a picture with you, interact with you. As a fan, you don’t get that same experience.

What was the most memorable experience as Willie?

My favorite thing to do was always the team run-on for football games. I loved when Willie ran out with the “N” flag. During football games I worked every first half for football just so I could run the flag onto the field. Then, after every touchdown, I’d run the flag.

Keller runs the Northwestern flag across Ryan Field after a Northwestern touchdown in 2018. (Courtesy of Peter Keller)

What’s one thing about the experience you know now that you wish you knew before you started?

I wish I would’ve known that I would have become part of a family that would change me for the better. My coach, the cheerleaders and the other Willies have helped me grow in so many ways. It is so gratifying to be a part of something bigger than yourself, and there is nothing better than representing the school you love with so much pride and passion. And, “mascotting” allowed me to do that.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Keller cheers on the Northwestern football team from the student section at Ryan Field in 2018. (Courtesy of Peter Keller)