In March 2007, the Houston Rockets were home for the New Jersey Nets and a serious injury occurred on the floor, but it didn't involve any of the players. Clutch, the Rockets' mascot, attempted to launch himself in a full belly flop onto Sly, the Nets' mascot, who was lying supine on a conference table that was going to, in theory, snap under the weight of the two. Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, the table was placed too close to the trampoline that was to send Clutch flying.
"I completely missed it and I didn't know it until I was in the air," Robert Boudwin, the man inside the Clutch suit for the last 17 years, recalls. "There's Sly from the Nets laid out on the table and I'm looking at him [thinking], 'Oh, I'm clearing him!'"
He came crashing to the floor, first landing on his giant bear head, which somewhat cushioned the blow. But the second half of the fall was on his lower back. Boudwin had opted for the tight, lycra "muscle Clutch" bodysuit over the normal teddy bear outfit, offering himself little protection against the fall.
"At first, I didn't feel anything but the humiliation of the skit gone wrong," he says. "So, I quick jumped up, threw an elbow on Sly and snapped the table. I jumped up after the elbow and my left leg just went to jelly."
He was dragged off the floor by his assistant, Dominic Davila, and team CEO Tad Brown, who tried to remove the huge costume head in the tunnel, but Boudwin protested, not wanting fans to see him as half man, half mascot. Davila and Brown managed to get him deeper into the tunnel out of the view of paying customers before the head came off again.
The result of the fall was a trip to the hospital and permanent arthritis in his sacrum that still bothers him, particularly when he runs long distances. Despite the pain and a recovery he admits took a month, he didn't miss a game, making it back only two nights later to the Toyota Center, where he gingerly hobbled around during the annual Clutch birthday celebration. "I spent most of my night on the Segway," he said.
Most onlookers might think that all mascots do is throw on a costume and clown around at games, that it's a job a high-school kid could do part time. The truth is, mascots work hundreds of events per year doing brutally physical work that leaves them bruised and exhausted. After 17 years of this kind of wear and tear, it would make sense if Boudwin, now 37, began to limit the skits that have caused him numerous injuries, but that isn't the case. "I dialed everything up this year," he says of the Rockets' current season. "I'm much more energetic." And it's all thanks to boxing.
Yes, boxing. The man behind the lovable, huggable bear is a fighter. Last summer, Boudwin was out of shape and going through a painful divorce. Eight months later and having dropped 75 pounds, Boudwin is in fighting shape and taking his sight gags to a new level of crazy, even repeating the stunt that injured him five years ago.
Of course, he almost didn't make it out of year one.
"Rockets Rat, get the heck out of my way! Where's Turbo?" The first season as the new Rocket mascot was not an easy one. The fans, who were in love with Turbo, the high-flying, dunking-machine superhero in tights, had a less than stellar reaction to the giant teddy bear they had begun calling "Rockets Rat." It didn't help that the team was fresh off its second championship and everyone's focus was on the games, not a goofy bear slinging silly string.
Being taunted on a nightly basis and struggling to make ends meet — like most employees new to pro sports teams, Boudwin had a paltry salary and the hundreds of events he would later use to augment his salary were as yet nonexistent — Boudwin tended bar five nights a week and had virtually no social life. The frustration mounted, and he began to rethink his decision to leave college and take the job.
"I was at home alone on New Year's Eve," he explained, "and I can remember crying on the phone to my parents just because I was so miserable."
It wasn't always this way. The self-described "Mr. Delaware" was a popular fixture on the relatively small University of Delaware campus before coming to Houston. The same was true of high school, where he got his first experience as a mascot. Senior cheerleaders at Boudwin's high school, in a suburb of his hometown of Philadelphia, traditionally recruited the wackiest senior guy to be the mascot for the year. Boudwin, who called himself "the class clown that didn't end up in detention," was the perfect fit, donning a makeshift Trojan uniform of face paint and, as he described it, "the largest girls' cheerleading skirt as a kilt."