From mouse to cougar: Student makes mark in Craig mascot suit

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Frank Schultz
Friday, June 7, 2013

— Ozzie Fernandez recalls his former self as shy and introverted.

“I was as quiet as a mouse,” he said of his freshman year at Craig High School.

Then he became the Craig Cougar.

Today, Ozzie gets random high-fives from fellow students he passes and glowing reports from school staff. He was even chosen for homecoming court last fall.

Fernandez graduated Thursday with the rest of the Craig High School Class of 2013.

He leaves a big, furry costume that someone has to fill after his three years of appearances as the cougar at Craig sports contests and local charity events.

It could easily have been otherwise. He might have turned for the worse in 10th grade when his father died.

Ozzie’s parents had split for a number of years, but father and son kept in touch. Ozzie has the same name as his father and grandfather, Oswaldo Luis Fernandez.

The elder Fernandez’s body was found in the parking lot of his apartment building. It probably was the result of years of hard drinking, Ozzie said.

A month before his dad died, Ozzie got a call from a co-worker of his father’s.

The elder Fernandez had not been at work. He was drinking and needed someone to care for him, the co-worker said.

Ozzie remembers pleading with his father to ease up on the drinking.

His father would not listen.

So Ozzie told him, “I can’t help you until you get help.”

Weeks later, Ozzie learned his father was gone. He was in a daze for a few days, but then he realized he wanted to pass his classes that spring. He returned to school, where he found sympathy.

“I have a group of good friends who have supported me. They’re like family for me,” he said.

By that time, Ozzie was already making waves as his school’s sports mascot.

Curiosity in the fall of 2010 drove him to the cheerleading coach, who gave him a tryout in the cougar suit.

Ozzie mimicked what he had seen others do: waving to basketball fans and trying to get them to cheer.

“At halftime, I thought, ‘I can do better than that,’ and I came out of my shell,” he said with a big smile.

He began doing jumps and goofy dances. The crowd loved it. Ozzie loved it. Something special was happening inside that suit.

“No one knew it was me, so I could do some wacky stuff, and no one would know the difference,” he discovered.

He became a minor celebrity, harvesting high-fives with his paws and inspiring crowds to do the wave. He developed break-dancing moves.

Ozzie found himself becoming more outgoing when the suit was off. Today, he smiles easily and exudes confidence.

“I’m the kind of student that you would probably like if you just talked to me for a short time,” he said proudly.

For quite a while, few knew who the new cougar was.

Winter of junior year, Ozzie suited up for an all-school pep assembly. The plan was that he could run into the gym and take off the head, revealing his identity.

But after running into the gym, he discovered that school officials were doing something that probably had been done few, if any times, in the school’s history. They were awarding a letter jacket to a student who had not competed in any sport.

They presented it to Ozzie.

“My adrenaline was running. I was about ready to cry,” Ozzie recalled. “It was the best feeling ever.”

“He took it and he ran round the gym. He was so excited. It was a real neat moment,” recalled Craig athletics director Ben McCormick.

Assistant Principal Shawn Kane said Ozzie’s positive attitude made him a great ambassador for Craig, and his commitment to the sports program warranted the jacket.

“He deserved it. He has worked hard a long time as our mascot,” Kane said.

“I cannot tell you what a phenomenal job he does,” McCormick said. “He takes such pride. He has an unbelievably positive attitude.”

Ozzie was not a great student in his first year, and some days he could not bring himself to go to school, he said. He was diagnosed in elementary school with a disability that makes it hard for him to focus, he said, and he continues to get help for it.

This year, he is getting mostly A’s and B’s, he said.

Ozzie attributes his success to supportive friends and teachers at Craig: “It’s a welcoming environment. You feel safe. There’s good people you can turn to.”

Special-ed teacher Diana Daluge credits Ozzie’s determination. She calls him a survivor.

“When kids can overcome adversity, I think that’s a life skill that will prepare him for the road to success,” she said. “He’s got such a positive outlook, and he’s come so far.”

Fernandez said he wants to further his education, eventually. He interviewed to be the Beloit Snappers mascot and was offered the job, he said. But he turned it down because the pay was low and transportation was a problem—he has no car.

He hopes to turn his part-time job at the Italian House restaurant into a regular gig, and he has volunteered to coach next year’s Cougar mascots.

“I love this school,” he said. “I’m going to miss the teachers. They’ve been the best. But I have to move on.”

Last updated: 7:55 am Monday, July 29, 2013

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