September 12, 2009 8:29:00 PM
With the transfer of the fabled leather harness from father to son during pregame festivities Sept. 5 at Davis-Wade Stadium, Mississippi State University''s new bulldog mascot Champ stepped into a role he was born to assume.
The introduction of 3-year-old Champ as Bully XX to the Maroon faithful was a bittersweet moment for the mascot''s official handler, Lisa Chrestman, and the staff of MSU''s College of Veterinary Medicine. Champ succeeded his father Tonka, or Bully XIX, who has served as MSU''s iconic mascot for eight years and is a beloved presence at the veterinary school complex.
Chrestman, who is a certified animal health technician at the college, works with the mascot''s primary care veterinarian, Dr. Margaret Kern, and other medical staff to attend to the animal''s well being. The two supported Tonka''s tenure as Bully XIX, and they now will nurture Champ in the same way.
"I was nervous, excited and a little sad," Chrestman said after the pregame introduction at Scott Field. "Tonka has been my traveling companion and a great representative of the university for eight years. He is retiring while still in good health so that he can enjoy life without the pressure of living every moment as a public celebrity."
As the Famous Maroon Band played its traditional fanfare announcing the arrival of Bully and the players, Chrestman and Tonka made their last run to the 50-yard line. Acknowledging the crowd''s thunderous applause, they approached MSU President Mark Keenum, athletic director Greg Byrne, the Chrestman family and Champ.
"We have a new football coach and a new mascot to kick off the sports year," Chrestman said. "We look for Champ to give many years of service as Bully XX, and we feel that he, like his father Tonka, will be a great symbol of Mississippi State University."
Chrestman''s relationship with Tonka began in 2001 when the 9-week-old puppy from Waynesboro arrived on campus. He was the first bulldog to be owned by the university and blazed a new trail for his successors. Tonka is now the first bulldog mascot to retire in good health and at the peak of his game.
"We have never had a bulldog mascot that has retired and then been kept by the university, so this is a new experience for us," Chrestman said. "While Tonka gets to relax and sleep in late, Champ will begin his schedule of public appearances the mascot makes throughout the year."
Tonka has experienced many years of athletic sidelines, pep rallies, alumni gatherings and public events as the university''s most recognizable icon. He has become what MSU broadcaster Jack Cristil describes as the veteran senior who exudes leadership and good instinct. Champ is the playful, somewhat headstrong freshman ready to show what he can do.
"When Champ was younger, he followed Tonka and he would sleep at Tonka''s side," Chrestman said. "When Champ grew larger and would get rough with his horseplay, Tonka put Champ in his place by teaching discipline and manners as a pack leader should."
MSU''s new Bully is from Elkmont, Ala., part of the Huntsville-Decatur metropolitan area in the northern part of that state. MSU''s stud fee agreement allows the university to have the pick of the litter if it so chooses. Any mother-to-be must undergo a rigorous examination of her pedigree, and the school also evaluates her overall physical soundness.
Like Tonka, Champ departed for MSU at about 9 weeks of age. Chrestman began Champ''s training by introducing him to her family, where he learned to be a member of their pack.
"Tonka is learning to make the adjustment from work to retirement, just as people do," Chrestman said. "When I would pick up the MSU harness for game day or a public appearance, Tonka knew the significance of that action. He may feel a little puzzled seeing the harness put on another dog, but he will act as the true champ he is and remain a great role model for Bully XX."