Ex-football player dances with wolves

(This story was originally published for The Statesman on May 3, 2012.)

It’s the biggest basketball game in Stony Brook history. Thousands of fans fill the arena in the Indoor Sports Complex, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, transforming the rows of light brown bleachers to a mass of red. They’re cheering on the men’s basketball team as the Seawolves take on the University of Vermont in the America East Championship game.

But the Seawolves are losing. They’ve been behind the entire game and the pressure is starting to wear on the fans. It’s well into the second half and they’re not standing on their feet anymore. They’re not cheering as loudly anymore. It’s as if the thousands of Seawolves supporters are ashamed to be wearing red. They’ve given up hope.

Now there’s a media timeout with four minutes left in the game. Wolfie, the mascot of Stony Brook University, runs onto the court dressed as senior basketball player Bryan Dougher with members of the pep band, who are wearing large, cardboard cut outs of the heads of some of the other players. They begin dancing to Haddaway’s “What is Love,” and the crowd begins to cheer. They laugh. Smiles begin to come back to the sea of red.

The pep band contingent is dancing to a montage of songs, laughing behind their cardboard costumes. And there is Wolfie, just as always, front and center and feeding off the crowd’s attention.

The cardboard heads keep dancing and laughing behind him. Wolfie stands still, straightening his shoulders. His red eyes are staring into the crowd, which begins to grow silent as it watches his every move. They are waiting to see what he is going to do next as his knees begin to bend.

This is what Wolfie does; this is what he prides himself on. He grabs the crowd’s attention, giving it entertainment and laughter when it needs it most. He is the lifeblood of the stands, the face of the university.

When the costume comes off, this dancing Wolfie is Matt Brevi, a senior sociology major who transferred to Stony Brook after his freshman year at Florida State University. This is Matt’s first year as Wolfie.

Very few people know that Matt is Wolfie, as the identities of those who don the suit are kept secret. But Stony Brook’s student body knows Matt, and it knows Matt well.

Matt is a wide receiver for the university’s football team. He played in all 13 games this past season and started 12 of them. A top scorer for the team, Matt has the most touchdowns of any Seawolf since 2006.

This is his claim to fame. This is what Stony Brook sports fans think of when they hear Matt Brevi’s name. In their minds, they see his tough jaw, the scruff on his face. They see his broad-shouldered, six-foot-two-inch frame in a Stony Brook football uniform making a Hail Mary catch that became a top ten play on ESPN.

But in the Wolfie suit, he is no longer just a prominent campus figure. He is the most prominent campus figure, the face that every student knows.

“You develop what I call a Peter Parker complex, like Spiderman,” said Chris Murray, manager of marketing and game day presentation. Chris is a former Wolfie who is credited with developing the mascot’s current personality and prominence. “You’re walking around campus in a suit, and everyone wants a high five, everyone wants an autograph. You’re the center of attention, you’re a celebrity. You take that suit off and you’re just some kid.”

It’s this “Peter Parker complex” that Matt loves.

“On the field, it’s you,” Matt said. “You drop a pass and everyone hates you. Being Wolfie, you mess up a routine and no one notices.” Matt said he loves “being able to do whatever you want and no matter what you do people love you.”

And people do love Matt as Wolfie.

Kaitlyn Cozier, Chris’ counterpart in Stony Brook’s Athletic Department, described Matt in the words of John Leddy, director of athletic bands, as having “swag.”

“He goes out in the suit and he is Wolfie,” Kaitlyn said. “He doesn’t care what people are going to think about him, he doesn’t think about what they’re going to say. He is Wolfie.”

Matt became Wolfie by accident. A friend who worked in the Athletic Department was looking for people who could fill out the suit. Matt agreed to go to the auditions as a joke.

But when he showed up, he knew he would like the job. “I’m just a funny person, it fits my personality.”

Matt’s and Wolfie’s personalities are a definite match. Always smiling and slightly laughing when he speaks, it’s easy to see how Matt brings to life the 20-pound wool suit, which has been known to overheat its occupants with the nearly unbearable temperatures the inside of the suit can get to.

Wolfie’s personality is “kinda like a little kid who always wants to have fun but would never antagonize anyone to any extent,” said Chris, who gave Wolfie his “mischievous, benevolent attitude.” “Wolfie is never there to act maliciously, he’s there to add to an event.”

And this is exactly what Matt does.

“His first game he jumped in there and jumped on the court during a time out and had the crowd doing the wave,” Chris said. “It’s one of those things that within five seconds I knew he was going to be good.”

As a senior football player, Matt was only able to be Wolfie for a matter of months beginning in mid-November when the basketball season started.

“It’s been fun just because it’s been non-stop doing something,” Matt said. “I’m the type of person that doesn’t want to sit around and do nothing with my life.” He added that being Wolfie “gives me a chance to have a good time, joke around, be the person that I am. It lets me be me…it gave me something to do, something to look forward to.”

That “me” part of Matt that becomes Wolfie is not very different from the football player Stony Brook students know him as.

“On the field, he’s very energetic, very active,” senior psychology Chris Fenelon,  a fullback on the football team, said. “Honestly, it fits him. He has a lot of energy and Wolfie is very energetic.”

Perhaps the only visible difference between Matt on the field and Matt as Wolfie is that he’s “very vocal” while playing football, Fenelon said. Yet when he pulls on that Wolfie suit, Matt becomes silent. Wolfie is not allowed to speak, as it would ruin the illusion and give away the identity of the handful of students who share the role of the mascot.

Instead, Wolfie communicates with fans through body motions and signs.

“It’s funny because I go from doing one thing to putting on a suit and dancing around and making fun of myself, pretty much, and making people laugh. It’s different from football because you’re putting sweat, blood, tears into everything you do, and here you’re just having a good time, you’re just going with the wind. Whatever happens, happens. If you fall, you get up. It’s just a whole different atmosphere.”

Yet, it is an atmosphere that still requires a good amount of time and effort, which Matt was not expecting. “It’s weird because I thought you just get in the suit and dance around and that’s it. But it’s scripted out, you have to do what’s planned.”

Matt began playing football when he was 6 years old. Being from Tampa, Fla., football was an important part of growing up.

“My entire life I’ve played,” Matt said. “It was one of those things that everyone wanted to play little league and I had friends that played and I just played nonstop. It just went up from there.”

Matt played football for fun. He never took it seriously until his sophomore year of high school, when he started playing well.

When his brother, who also played football for Stony Brook for two years, got a football scholarship to the University of Iowa, Matt realized it could help him get in to college.

“That’s when I turned it on. That’s when I started training after hours and in the mornings, at night, waking up early and running. Doing all the stuff I should be doing. It didn’t click until junior year, and that’s when it blew up.”

And blow up it did. Since he began playing for Stony Brook, Matt has always been in the limelight. His first season here, he played in all 11 games.

In his 2010 season, he set career highs and was king of the receiving corps with a total of five touchdowns. His senior season was his best, scoring more touchdowns than he has in any other season.

But Matt’s college football career is ending after three years of being one of the best players on the team. He will be graduating in a few weeks and leaving college football, and Wolfie, behind.

Matt hopes he’ll be playing in the National Football League after graduating. He took part in the NFL Combine, a day where college football players showcase their talents for professional scouts. He said it went well and that scouts from the Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed interest in him. Matt hopes for the Bucks.

“Playing for them would be a dream come true. It’s my hometown. I grew up loving them.”

But he’s not too hung up on going to the NFL. With a slight grin and a shrug of his broad shoulders, Matt said “It’s not in my hands anymore. I did everything I could, now it’s just up to whether or not they want me.”And if it doesn’t happen, he says, “then its life. I’ll still graduate in May, I’ll still have a degree.”

Come next fall, the fans will feel the loss of Matt as Wolfie, but not as much as those who knew Matt personally during his reign as Stony Brook’s most lovable Seawolf.

“Matt’s amazing,” Chris said. “Matt’s one of those rare guys who just jumped straight in and took off running with it and went above and beyond.”

Kaitlyn added, “It’s a shame he only got to do it for one year.”

But the future of Wolfie looks promising. At last week’s Wolfie tryouts, two students braved the Wolfie suit with the hopes of becoming the next Peter Parker on campus. Down in the dance studio in the Indoor Sports Complex, reflected in the mirrored wall, their personalities shined through the fur, making Wolfie come to life with fresh Seawolf blood.

“Without the people in the costume, Wolfie is just a lump of fur in the corner,” Chris said. “They really are the spirit, the mentality, the mind and the soul of Wolfie.”

It’s the end of the media timeout. With the cardboard-clad pep band assembly fanning out from his sides, Wolfie stands waiting. He is proud. He is spirited. He is ready.

Wolfie takes a few steps forward, straight towards the media bench with members of the pep band still dancing behind him.

He points to the crowd, making sure it’s looking at what he’s about to do. He swings his paws backward gaining momentum, and then throws his arms up over his head. His legs follow and for a moment, his red sneakers are in the air and he is vertical and upside down.

Wolfie has just landed his first back flip.

The crowd’s roar is deafening.

Waving to the laughing crowd, Wolfie walks off the court.

It is a walk filled with Stony Brook swag, with pride. It is a walk that comes to Matt naturally.

The same walk that can be seen as he goes from building to building on a regular class day, with a backpack over his shoulder, one hand grasping the strap, the other tucked into a jean pocket, a slight smile spreading across his face.