Cover Story: In the Clutch (Web Extra Video & Photos)

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In the tunnel next to the lounge under the expensive seats at the Toyota Center this past March, Robert Boudwin ripped the head off of his costume and collapsed to the floor in exhaustion. Boudwin, the man behind the Clutch the Bear mascot costume for the last 17 years, had just performed the final part of a bit with Memphis Grizzlies mascot Grizz that took hours to plan and required perfect execution. The last time Boudwin performed it was 2007, except that time he collapsed in the tunnel for a different reason: he was hurt...badly.

For this week's cover story, I went behind the mask to talk with Boudwin and some of his fellow mascots and find out just what it is like to work as a professional mascot. In short, it ain't easy. From the outside, it looks like a bunch of clowning around, and at times it is. But, what some think is only a part-time job is, in actuality, a brutally physical, time-consuming gig.

The day of the aforementioned gag, Boudwin performed at MacGregor Elementary in Galena Park, encouraging kids to stay in school. He and his righthand man, Dominic Davila, do more than 80 such school shows every year in addition to Rockets games and another 100 or so events. After the Friday night game, Boudwin prepared for a charity boxing match against Eric McMahon, a.k.a. Grizz from Memphis. It was boxing, in fact, that helped Boudwin get into the kind of shape that allowed him to run the Houston Marathon followed by a 5K Rockets fun run the following week...in costume.

In just about eight months, Boudwin dropped 75 pounds at Slava Boxing Gym on Houston's near north side. He runs about four miles every day in addition to the physically taxing efforts inside the suit. He has boundless energy and a playful personality that translates perfectly to his persona as Clutch.

It seems an odd juxtaposition that the man behind the cuddly teddy bear would be a boxer, but, for Boudwin, it's about keeping himself in peak physical condition. At 37, he is one of the longest-tenured mascots in the NBA and he intends to keep at this as long as he is physically able.

Guys like Rocky from the Denver Nuggets and Jazz Bear from the Utah Jazz, both in their mid-40s, have suffered a myriad of injuries doing this job that they love. McMahon survived cancer and only missed a year of action. Boudwin nearly broke his back in a fall in 2007 and was back on the floor two nights later, albeit delicately.

Much like the players, these guys battle through injury and illness to work every night. Anyone who thinks this is a part-time job for a teenager doesn't see the effort behind the scenes, and it is substantial.

Back at the Rockets game, before the collapse, Boudwin and McMahon coordinated a gag that stretched out over the entire first half of the game. From Grizz tying Clutch up in his dressing room and pelting an innocent Rockets fan with silly string to Clutch escaping and tackling Grizz like a linebacker onto the Toyota Center hardwood to, finally, leaping off a trampoline and belly-flopping onto Grizz like a pro wrestler, the setup and execution were nearly flawless. The crowd laughed and, within minutes, it was over.

Just another day in the life of an NBA mascot.

Read "In the Clutch," this week's cover story.

Here's video:

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