ALL IN A DAY'S WORK by Susan Lassetter, photos by Beth Wynn

A metallic clang punctuates every drumbeat. A halting rhythm at first: Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang. But as the excitement builds, so does the speed. Finally, it’s an unbroken, metallic roar.

The unmistakable intro to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” starts. His slightly maniacal laugh. The iconic “aye, aye, aye.” The deep bass beat spilling so loudly from the stadium’s speakers that it reverberates in your chest and raises the hair on your arms.

Just when it seems the crowd can’t get any louder—its cowbells and voices blending into a deafening howl—something stirs in the shadows of the M-Club and somehow the volume grows.

Twin pillars of flame shoot more than 50 feet in the air sending a blast of heat across the already sweltering south end of Scott Field. With that, the Bulldogs rush onto the field, running between the pyrotechnics and members of the Famous Maroon Band toward mid-field where the smallest member of the team waits.

Standing less than 2 feet fall, he’s unfazed by the commotion—the yells, the bells, the percussive booms. By game time, he’s already been working for close to 10 hours but only his heavy panting—brought on, in part, by the unrelenting September heat—hints he might be tired.

More than 55,000 fans screaming in surround-sound, 300-pound linemen running at him, fireworks and thunderous blasts echoing all around—it’s nothing.

It’s all just part of a day in the life of Bully.

The mascot’s journey to his spot on the sideline actually began days earlier at the Wise Center, home to Mississippi State’s College of Veterinary Medicine. There, the reigning Bully, who answers to the name Jak, rests on an oversized, orthopedic dog bed as he waits for Lisa Pritchard, an animal health technician.

“Bully has an office and lets me use the desk occasionally,” Pritchard says jokingly. “I’m his full-time mom, trainer, roommate, whatever you want to call me. He comes to work with me almost every day and hangs out while I see patients.”

The sound of paws skittering across the tile floor starts as soon as Pritchard turns the door handle. In an excited rush to greet her, Jak crashes into her legs and crumples into a heap at the threshold. It’s a comical, canine spectacle not usually displayed by Bully, but it’s OK because today he’s just a dog in a collar. Tomorrow he will be in the official MSU harness—then it’s all business.

Pritchard has taken the afternoon away from her full-time work responsibilities at the vet school to prepare Jak for the next day’s festivities, including a live broadcast of “SEC Nation” from the Junction and Mississippi State’s Southeastern Conference opener against the University of South Carolina Gamecocks. While the football team runs drills and the marching band rehearses, Jak begins his game- day preparations with a quick pedicure.

A Dremel tool with a coarse sandpaper attachment sends up small puffs of dust as Pritchard carefully files down Jak’s nails. He’s so familiar with the process that he doesn’t even flinch at the high-pitched whirring noise that fills the air. He does, however, pull back from the buzzing of the electric razor as she uses it to shave his whiskers—not because it hurts, but more because it seems to tickle.

Pritchard finishes this first phase of grooming with something called the Furminator. She uses it to brush Jak’s fawn and white coat to remove loose hair and help make it shiny. Sprawled across her lap, he endures this part with contented sighs and sleepy eyes.

Pritchard has perfected this grooming routine over the course of her 15 years as “Bully’s Mom.” Although she’s served as game- day handler for Mississippi State’s four-legged Bullies since she joined the vet school in 1993, she only earned this unofficial title in 2001 when the first university-owned bulldog was brought on board.

“I suggested to Larry Templeton that the university needed to have its own dog—get a puppy and train it specifically to be the mascot rather than borrow a dog and throw it into game-day chaos as an adult,” Pritchard recalled. “He immediately said ‘OK, go find one.’”

Templeton, who was athletic director at the time, explained, “We had had great experiences using supporters’ dogs as the mascot, but during the week, if we needed Bully, he wasn’t in Starkville. For the tradition we have with our mascot, I thought we needed to have him here.”

The search began in late 1999 but it was a full 18 months before Pritchard found the dog of her Maroon and White dreams.

“I wanted him to be fawn and white and I wanted a male, but most importantly I wanted a puppy that shared a bloodline with bulldogs we had used previously,” Pritchard explained. “I went to Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida looking for the perfect dog and ended up finding him in Waynesboro, Mississippi.”

When the call came from a Mississippi breeder claiming to have “the puppy,” Pritchard said she was skeptical. But after seeing pictures and reviewing the pedigree, which included relatives of Bullies XV, XVI and XVII, she wanted to meet him.

“The breeder came to the Wise Center with two puppies, both leash-trained at 9 weeks old,” Pritchard recalled. “But one literally walked in the door like he owned the place. He had his head held high and his chest poked out like ‘See me. I’m here.’”

After receiving a clean bill of health from an MSU veterinarian that puppy was on his way to becoming Bully XIX, commonly known as Tonka.

“T-Money,” as friends knew him, served as Bully for eight years until he passed the title to his son, Champ, in 2009. Champ retired in 2015, passing the harness to his son, Jak, who has known Pritchard since the day he was born.

“I literally helped him take his first breath,” Pritchard said. “With bulldog births, we try to have one person for each puppy and I just happened to be the one the doctor handed Jak to. I suctioned his nose and mouth and warmed him up. Once he was nice and pink, I saw he was male and just knew he was going to be the one.”

A statuesque bulldog, Tonka had a stately and stoic demeanor that showed whether he was on duty or off. Champ, however, displayed a more laid-back temperament. He knew when to work, when to play and was ready to flip the switch as soon as the MSU harness was off. Pritchard said Jak seems to be a mixture of the two and is eager to do a good job as Bully.

“I can tell pretty immediately whether they’ll be a good mascot,” Pritchard explained. “I can’t really pinpoint how I know; it’s just a sixth sense.”

Like his father and grandfather, 2-year-old Jak is an American Kennel Club-registered English bulldog. Of the three, he is more trim and well proportioned, and Pritchard predicts he will be tallest and broadest once he reaches his full adult size.

“A lot of people think of bulldogs as fat, lazy dogs, but that’s not what they’re meant to be,” Pritchard explained. “I keep my boys trim and athletic. It helps them stay active and increases their longevity.”

Pritchard takes special care to ensure MSU’s “boys” are healthy specimens of the bulldog breed, which is often troubled by breathing, skin and joint problems. To help with this, Jak gets hydro-therapy that provides low-impact exercise to keep him in shape without stressing his joints.

The underwater treadmill helps stretch Jak’s legs in preparation for busy workdays, like home football games. Not a swimmer by nature, he doesn’t care for today’s water level and lets everyone know through excessive splashing. Draining a couple of inches seems to put him at ease and he completes his treatment with only a mild look of displeasure.

Afterward, he clicks down the hall to his next aquatic adventure—a bath. This water-based fun involves a soothing rub down so he is much less apprehensive standing in the metal tub. While Pritchard lathers him up and sprays off the suds Jak periodically shakes—a movement that starts at his head and ripples down through his tail—ensuring anyone within 3 feet gets damp.

The smell of coconut-scented shampoo follows in his wake as he walks back to the office for a nap while Pritchard makes calls to finalize the next day’s schedule.

It’s 8:30 a.m. on game day and, although kickoff isn’t until 6 p.m., Jak is getting ready. Sitting in the living room with his French bulldog “sister” Pixie and Iggy, a brindle cat, he perks up when Pritchard walks to her bedroom. As soon as she picks up his bag and causes the attached bell to jingle, he’s up and running her way, ready to load up and head to work.

At the Wise Center, Pritchard and her son Austin begin loading supplies onto Bully’s souped-up golf cart to head to the Junction for his appearance on the “SEC Nation” set. It’s already 84 degrees in the shade, so the day’s supplies include a special cooler that not only holds Jak’s water but also pushes cool air out to help keep him comfortable.

“Bulldogs are not meant for the heat,” Pritchard explains over the sound of Jak panting. She’s carefully planned their day to minimize his exposure to the oppressive temperatures while still fulfilling their obligations to the university and its fans.

The golf cart, cooler and anything else needed to keep Bully comfortable and healthy—including medical check-ups and treatments—is paid for through the Bully Fund. This donation-based account with the MSU Foundation not only supports the mascot’s upkeep but also funds his non-sports travel.

It’s early and the Junction isn’t crowded, yet. Still, as the golf cart zips down Stone Boulevard, calls of “Hey, it’s Bully” and “Can I take a picture?” are heard from kids and adults alike. As Jak disembarks, several fans start to approach with their cell phone cameras ready, but he is whisked behind the barricades to his spot on the temporary “SEC Nation” set.

The band plays to pump up the crowd that’s gathered behind the stage. As Tim Tebow and Paul Finebaum analyze the day’s upcoming SEC matchups, Jak waits in the wings for his turn in the spotlight. Unfortunately, that means waiting for an hour on the hot asphalt in the bright sunlight.

A couple of quick shots of Jak posing with the cheerleaders and a few belly rubs fulfill Jak’s television obligations for the morning and Pritchard is able to rush him back to the Wise Center for a much-needed timeout in the air conditioning.

“I can tell when he’s getting tired,” Pritchard says as she maneuvers the golf cart between parked cars. “He’s getting too hot and needs to rest.”

When at an event with Bully, Pritchard’s entire focus is on his well-being and state of mind. She’s his voice, his advocate and his alpha, making sure he feels secure in any environment. And as one of the South’s busiest dogs, he regularly finds himself in a variety of unpredictable situations.

Pritchard explained that Bully attends home and away football games, as well as all men’s and women’s home basketball games and as many baseball and softball games as possible. And if that wasn’t enough to keep his social calendar full, he also keeps busy with pre-arranged photo shoots, attends alumni and campus-based events, and makes goodwill visits to schools, nursing homes and other venues in the area.

“This isn’t my day job—it’s not what I get paid to do and it takes a lot of time,” Pritchard explained. “But I feel it’s important to do these things to help give Mississippi State a presence in the community. It’s a morale booster, too. You should see the smiles on their faces when he walks in.”

Pritchard makes a special effort to visit area law enforcement and members of the military. Bully has visited the pilots at the Air Force base in Columbus and highway patrolmen who were hospitalized after being shot in the line of duty.

“I like to show support and I feel like this is one thing we can do to give back to them,” Pritchard explained. “I make friends with law enforcement wherever we go. Regardless of their college allegiance, everyone loves the dog, and I often have to rely on them to watch our backs and help us get where we need to be on game days.”

The journey back to the Junction after Jak’s cool down isn’t quite as quick as it was this morning. The crowd has grown, more tents have sprung up and the roads are congested with both pedestrians and vehicles unloading the last of their tailgate supplies.

“Excuse us,” Pritchard calls for the third time in five minutes as she maneuvers the golf cart through the masses.

She concedes, “I might have to start using the horn, but this is still quicker than walking.” And she’s right.

As soon as Jak is off the golf cart, fans start to stop and point. He progresses an inch at a time as people bend down to pet him or snag a quick selfie with their favorite mascot. Ever the professional, he’s not overwhelmed by the sea of feet crowding his vision and is unfazed by his slow progress down the sidewalk. It’s his job to look cute and enjoy the attention. It’s Pritchard’s job to help him navigate the crowd to get to the day’s appointments.

“I’ve had to become more assertive in certain situations,” Pritchard explains. “I hate to say no, and we try to take as many pictures and visit as many people as possible, but we have a schedule to keep. Most people are super nice about it once they understand that he has a job to do.”

With most home games, Pritchard and Bully have a packed schedule of appearances: a radio segment with SuperTalk Mississippi, a meet-and-greet at the MSU Fan Zone and appearances at university-sponsored tailgates. As they make their way from place to place, her expertise shines through in the way she firmly, calmly and kindly, negotiates a path through the crowd.

“It’s all about controlling the chaos,” Pritchard explains. “Dogs feed off the emotions of their master, so if I’m anxious or upset, he’ll be anxious and upset. A big part of Bully training is teaching them that as long as I’m with them, they’re safe.”

Training for a Bully isn’t the same as what most dogs undergo. There’s no fetch, roll over or shake hands. It’s all about how to interact with people.

Pritchard explained that from day one she starts exposing Bullies-in-training to noise by playing loud music and ringing cowbells. She then starts teaching the hand-signaled commands for sit and stay that allow her to direct Bully from a distance while on photo or video shoots. They are even taught a certain way to sit for pictures to make sure the camera gets their best sides.

Just as important as what she teaches budding Bullies to do, are the dog behaviors she trains them to not display. Once in his official Mississippi State gear—a leather harness with MSU studded on the front and a small cowbell attached at the neck—Jak, like his predecessors, knows he cannot roll onto his back, rear up or lick a person.

“When we’re at home everything is relaxed and we play, but you put that harness on and it’s all business,” Pritchard explains. “My demeanor changes, his demeanor changes and he know it’s time to go to work.”

Pritchard says her secret to mascot-training success is consistency, and by the time they’re in the spotlight for the first time as MSU’s official mascot, she has complete faith in the dogs she’s trained. At that point, her main concern is their safety.

“I will gladly sacrifice myself for him, even if it means that some football player running out of bounds squishes me like a little bug,” Pritchard says. “My focus, especially in crowds, like at the Dawg Walk, is always on him and making sure nothing happens to him.”

Leaving the Junction to head into the game is no easier than arriving. With one arm securely around Jak, who is perched happily in the passenger seat, Pritchard guides the maroon golf cart into a convoy of police cars to help ensure they make it into Davis Wade Stadium in time for their pregame performance.

One glance into the throngs of people making their way to the stadium gates shows dozens of cell phone-wielding fans trying to snap a picture as they roll by.

“If I had a nickel for every picture taken of Bully, I could have retired years ago,” Pritchard says. “He’s easily the most photographed dog in three states.”

Once inside, a familiar routine takes over. Much like a player might get a high five as he passes a friend or fan, Jak gets pats on the head as he makes his way to the football field.

Following his midfield appearance, Jak takes his place at the back of the south end zone. His day is finally winding to a close. As the game goes on around him, he doesn’t know who is winning, who just scored or who made a big play. He just knows he’s one tired, happy dog soon to be on his way back home to his favorite spot beside the recliner and a nice, cold drink.

And as the MSU faithful leave the stadium tonight with the SEC home opener wrapped in Maroon and White, that’s exactly where he’s headed.

Created By
Susan Lassetter


Photos by Beth Wynn

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