You wouldn’t likely recognize Michael Springstead if you saw him on the street, but you’ve met him if you’ve been to an Albany Conquest game.
Or a Tri-City ValleyCats game.
Or an Albany River Rats game.
Springstead is the man behind the mask or masks, in this case. He’s the giant-headed Roman in a football uniform known as Kid Quest, the pumped-up ValleyCat known as SouthPaw and the half-human, half-rodent known as Rowdy the River Rat.
That’s right. Springstead is a professional mascot.
I guess I have Peter Pan syndrome,` Springstead said. `People ask my age, and I’ll ask, ‘Chronologically or maturity?’`
For the record, Springstead is in his mid 40s, and when he’s not entertaining sports fans at Pepsi Arena and Joe Bruno Stadium, he’s teaching sixth graders at Loudonville Elementary School.
None of which was planned, by the way.
`A lot of my family members were in education, and I swore I didn’t want to follow them. I wanted to be the next Donald Trump,` said Springstead. `But I’ve always had something about working with kids. My wife and I were at the beach one day, and she saw how I was playing with some of the kids ` organizing games and such. My wife turned to me and said, ‘Why not go into teaching?’`
Going into teaching might have been his wife’s idea, but becoming a mascot? Where did that come from?
`When I first started teaching, we’d go sing the National Anthem (at sporting events),` Springstead said. `I thought it would be cool if when we first did it at a Rats game, I’d be Rowdy. So I called and asked, and they said they already had somebody playing Rowdy, but would I be willing to be Santa Claus because they needed a Santa. So I wound up playing Santa for them, and I guess I did a good job because they wound up asking me to be Rowdy.`
Once Springstead got a taste of being a mascot ` the handshakes from adults and kids alike, being involved in on-ice promotions such as T-shirt tosses and contests and just having good, clean fun ` he didn’t want to let it go. He went from playing Rowdy to playing Homer the Diamond Dog (back when the Albany-Colonie Diamond Dogs inhabited Heritage Park), Wolfgang (from the short-lived Albany Attack indoor lacrosse team), Kid Quest and SouthPaw.
`You become the character,` said Springstead. `Once that suit goes on, you’re not Michael Springstead. You’re Rowdy or Kid Quest or Wolfie (Wolfgang’s nickname).`
Those mascot suits aren’t light, either. Depending on the material being used, becoming one of those characters means wearing more than 10 pounds of clothing, including the head. But Spring-stead is used to it by now.
`It’s almost become like a second skin,` he said. `Even with the floppy feet, I can still run down the stairs.`
Running down the aisles at the Pepsi Arena is one thing. Skating on the ice as Rowdy ` as Springstead does routinely during the AHL season ` is another matter entirely. However, Springstead said he’s mastered that, too.
`I swear to my dog that I can skate better as Rowdy than when I skate as myself. It’s weird,` he said.
Springstead’s athletic ability inside one of those mascot outfits has something to do with his upbringing. As a teenager at Shaker High School, he ran on the boys cross country team coached by his father Ed.
`I loved it,` said Springstead. `Some of the best memories were the car rides to and from school and the practices.`
`He was a good runner in high school,` Ed added.
Not that being a mascot isn’t a sport in itself. Springstead approaches every game almost like the athletes he cheers for ` he eats lightly before a game, he keeps plenty of water and Gatorade stashed in his locker room to replenish the fluids he sweats away and he even wears the same athletic underwear that the players wear.
`The most I ever drank (during a game) was two gallons of liquid,` said Springstead, who added that he loses an average of eight pounds per game.
The athletes take notice of Springstead, too. Prior to the Conquest’s most recent home game June 17 against Louisville, an injured Conquest lineman stopped by Springstead’s locker room to talk about the progress he was making from shoulder surgery ` a procedure Springstead had himself two years earlier. During the game, Conquest players returned Kid Quest’s pats on the shoulder or back when they lined up in the end zone for a kickoff.
`It’s pretty cool, it’s fun, and in all honesty you’re kind of like a behind-the-scenes celebrity,` said Springstead.
Interacting with the players isn’t as fun as interacting with the fans, though. No matter which character Springstead plays, he always makes a point of being in the crowd to get the fans going ` or at least have some fun with them.
`My best friend told me not to use this quote, but (wearing a mascot outfit is) wearable alcohol. It allows you to do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do,` he said.
There is a price to be paid for all the fun Springstead has, though. After spending entire games in near-constant motion, his energy level takes a hit once the adrenaline wears off.
`You’re beat,` he said. `You don’t have the aches and pains that the players are taking, but I’m about as spent as they are, if not more spent.`
Springstead also has had surgeries on both of his knees in recent years. But he forgets about that once he hits the field.
`You get the energy from the suit and the crowd, and you don’t feel the pain,` Springstead said. `Between the braces (on both knees) and the adrenaline, you don’t feel it.`
Plus, Springstead doesn’t want to disappoint his biggest fan ` his 4-year-old son Mikey.
`He absolutely loves it,` Springstead said. `We were in Hollywood Video the other day, and there were these ValleyCat schedules at the counter. My son pointed to the schedules and said to the cashier, ‘That’s my daddy,’ because he saw SouthPaw.`
Springstead’s only regret is that he can’t watch the games with Mikey. That job is left to his wife Eileen.
`It’s hard on her. She brings Mikey to the games, which is what a father usually does,` said Springstead. `That kind of makes me sad. I see him sitting up there, and it’s cute and all. But you’d like to be up there with him.`
Still, to do all the things he gets to do as a mascot is what makes it all worthwhile to Springstead.
`This is when you know you’re having fun as a mascot ` when you pose for a picture and you’re smiling under your mask,` he said. `It’s kind of weird because you know no one can see you smile, but you’re smiling anyway.`