Rob Wicall waited 200 Spurs games for Oct. 31, 2009. He bought a fishing net and set out a batman costume. He studied the rafters in the AT&T Center. He listened for clues on his ear piece.
And when, at last, the bat swooped down on Halloween night, Wicall jumped into action. In the first period of a game between San Antonio and Sacramento, the Spurs mascot emerged from the tunnel, not as the Coyote, but as a super hero. He wore a costume and stalked a flying mammal to the strains of “Batman!”
This was a gag, right? The players scattering on the floor didn’t think so. Manu Ginobili didn’t think so, either. He tracked the bat, swatted it to the floor, lifted the wounded creature by the tail and carried it off to a thunderous ovation.
From my courtside seat on press row – I covered that game for the Associated Press – I marveled that the Coyote appeared as “Batman” before Ginobili’s famous smackdown.
Seven years later, Wicall explained his secret. He’d observed bats flying through the AT&T Center during the day and figured one would take flight during a game at night. “I knew the moment would come,” he said. “And when it did, I threw on the costume and ran out.”
Wicall spent 20 years as the Coyote before an arthritic condition, ankylosing spondylitis, or AS, forced him to retire last May. He’s not sure about his next gig. But he hopes to take lessons learned as an entertainer and use them to inspire. One is preparation and planning.
“Eighty percent of my job as the Coyote was preparing for what I was going to do in costume,” Wicall said. “That Batman bit was a testament to years of preparation, years (of) waiting for one moment.”
At age 45, Wicall is pivoting from costumed character to inspirational speaker. Saturday, he stirred an audience of more than 600 at the Witte Museum with a 10-minute TED Talk, “Life According to Fur.”
Wicall is as likeable out of costume as he is in one. The man is a TED Talk come to life – a passionate, compelling story-teller with an irresistible edge. He’s got no job but lots of energy. He lacks clear direction but has lots of ambition. As Wicall puts it, “I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to do when I grow up.”
He grew up with a zeal for drama, athletics, and making people smile. If he wasn’t playing soccer or running track at New Braunfels High, he was teaching himself to juggle or ride a unicycle. He performed in theater. He learned to tumble and walk on his hands without taking gymnastics. He figured out how to balance a chair on his chin.
“I was the kid who stood in front of a mirror and tried to raise one eyebrow,” he said. “I would flip in the grass until I learned to land on my feet. I performed for anyone I could. I was the Coyote before I was the Coyote.”
He became a water ski performer at Sea World and the mascot for the Washington Capitals. He served as the Spurs’ “backup Coyote” before assuming the role full-time in 2004. The character, you could say, came naturally to him. In 2005, Gameops.com named him Best Mascot of the Year. In 2014, the Coyote was named NBA Mascot of the Year.
His stunts became legendary, and many of them went viral. He ziplined across the court and bounced off trampolines to dunk basketballs. He climbed into a washing machine in a gag with Tim Duncan and teased Mark Cuban with a baby rattle. He sometimes lost his green eyes, or, after a bad call, would take them off and hand them to an official: Do you need these?
Performing took its toll. Wicall suffered a litany of injuries – once, he fell off five-foot stilts and landed on his shoulder – before the arthritic condition kicked in. His legs grew stiff, his hips began to freeze. Unable to work, he retired. His wife, Leigh-Ann, works as a government contractor, and the two run a small janitorial business. But that business is not his passion.
Lifting spirits and helping others drives him, which is why he started a local leadership board to support the Arthritis Foundation and raise awareness for a crippling disease. The foundation will hold a 5K fundraiser – The Jingle Bell Run – on Dec. 10 at Valero Energy Headquarters. Wanting to inspire with words, Wicall began jotting down stories. He created a website and started a blog.
“I want to get out there and build a brand, just like I did with the Coyote, but as Rob,” he said. “I want to find that voice.”
Wicall gives a humorous voice to one of his favorite life lessons, or “Don’t lose your head,” as he calls it. No matter the circumstance, regardless of the pressure, always, always, always, he says, try to keep your cool. Because once, Wicall lost both his head and his cool.
He had flown into Paris in October 2006 for a connecting flight to Lyon, where the Spurs were to play a preseason game in France. Somewhere in the airport, Wicall misplaced the Coyote’s head. He checked security, a restaurant, and up and down corridors – Nothing. Compounding his lapse, Wicall had wrapped the furry head in a black plastic bag, which someone might mistake for trash and toss.
He spoke, in vain, to person after person who did not understand English. He raised his voice, made wild hand gestures, and frantically ran from place to place. How was he going to tell the Spurs they had a headless mascot? ”I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” Wicall said.
Breathless, he returned to security and pleaded in English with a woman who spoke French. She stared at him blankly until, out of the corner of his eye, Wicall spotted the black trash bag at the end of a long hallway. He pointed and jumped and exclaimed, “There it is! There it is!” The woman broke into laughter. At the end of the episode, a crowd had gathered. Tongues wagged. Heads nodded. Wicall knew what they wanted. He opened the bag and put on his head. The place erupted.
“Making other people happy,” he said, “makes me happy”
Another lesson he learned centers on authenticity. Wicall remembers performing at a game in Mexico City. The fans weren’t familiar with his reputation or his antics. “They (didn’t) know me from Adam,” he said, “but by the end of the game they loved me. Why? Because I authentically created a relationship with the people. That’s a skill set a sales person needs: how to create a relationship with someone in a short amount of time. Being authentic and being real is hard to find. But that’s what made the Coyote who he was. And that’s the positive impact I want to spread.”
Remember the bat in 2009? Another one flew into the AT&T Center in 2015. A security guard tipped off Wicall before player warm ups. He raced to get his gear. This time, with a “bat clock” ticking on the Jumbotron, Wicall captured the creature with his fishing net. “You cannot imagine my thrill,” he said. “That was testament to a decade of preparation.”
After so many years in costume, Wicall developed a “fur-losophy of life,” a set of core values he used to build a beloved character. If preparation was one cornerstone, dedication was another. From 2000 to 2016, he never missed a game – preseason, regular season, or postseason. He performed while he was ill, injured, and in severe pain. “So it’s weird not to be at games now,” he said. “How can it not be?”
Wicall misses performing but embraces new opportunity. He watches games with his wife and three children, ages 12, 7, and 3. He dreams of his next adventure. After he delivering his TED Talk, people told him they were inspired. A few asked him to speak at forthcoming events.
“I feel like that’s going to be a catalyst,” he said. “The trampoline that’s going to put me in the air to the next dunk of my career.”