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GameDay Greatness: Unmasking Penn State's 'Big Uglies'

Three brothers in their 50s -- David, Paul and John Duda -- have been keeping Penn State fans fired up since the early 1990s. Courtesy of the Duda brothers

Customers can usually spot the gray-haired David Duda behind a stack of books, greeting them at the entrance to his Connecticut bookstore/café with a warm smile.

They see the 52-year-old father of two there on most weekdays, across from the snickerdoodles and "Tale of Two Turkeys" sandwiches. He looks more like a professor with eyeglasses and a collared shirt. But Duda has a secret here -- unknown by most customers -- because they don’t remotely suspect what he does on weekends during the fall.

They can’t know. He doesn’t tell anyone. His longtime friend and assistant, Kelly Pyers, didn’t even know until 10 years into their business relationship. And once she found out?

"Incredulity," Pyers said. "I didn’t even know he was into football."

What they don’t know is that Duda is a super fan of sorts. On Saturdays, during the fall, he and his two brothers will drive between three and six hours to throw on No. 12 jerseys (to signify they’re part of the "12thman"), put on ugly masks and fire up the Penn State football crowd. They’ll dance, lead chants and encourage good sportsmanship from the home bleachers.

Everyone knows of the "Big Uglies" in Happy Valley. At Penn State, they’re almost as well-known as the Nittany Lion. They’ve become football royalty of sorts and a staple of the gameday experience -- ever since they started suiting up about 1992. They began when they were in their 20s, and they just haven’t been able to stop.

"If you do something stupid long enough, you get a little respect," David said with a laugh.

In a lot of ways, David and his brothers are the last people that fans expect when they raise their masks. David is the owner-operator of Book Trader Café, Paul owns his own photography studio and teaches at a local university, and John is a neurologist and one of the foremost experts on Lewy Body Dementia, which comedian Robin Williams is believed to have suffered from.

With the way the brothers sway to the marching band on Saturdays, and how they move around the stadium leading chants, most don’t expect to see crow’s feet and salt-and-pepper hair underneath those masks.

"We’re not spring chickens or anything," said Paul, the youngest brother at 50. "So most people are pretty amazed. They’re like, 'Oh, it’s you guys?'"

Maybe nobody is more surprised by the overall response than the three brothers, who grew up two streets over from Joe Paterno and shared a bus-stop with his children. The trio -- all Penn State grads -- never expected fans to ask for photos or the university to invite them to the annual Thon fundraiser, which earned more than $13 million just this year to fight pediatric cancer. Back around 1992, they just wanted to have some fun.

Their mother picked up three big, ugly Penn State masks at a garage sale for a dime apiece because she figured her sons could wear them to a game. (The masks were created by Hertz as a promo during the 1985 Orange Bowl: Rent a car, get a free mask.) Little did she -- or they -- know what kind of monster they were creating. Gradually, other fans came to know the three by those masks and looked to them to lead the chants.

"I still don’t know whether she’s happy or not that she spent the 30 cents," Paul said.

Still, outside of those Saturday afternoons, few knew the brothers who started the craze. That was intentional. The three grew up during the era of no-name jerseys, and they didn’t want the attention either -- especially John, who thought it best if people didn’t know during medical school.

"A lot of my patients know now," added John, who works at the Philadelphia Veteran’s Administration Medical Center. "A lot of them are surprised because I’m kind of quiet and reserved, a geeky scientist/neurologist. And then they see this other side of me, and they get a kick out of it."

Age has slowed the brothers a bit. David no longer ventures to the student section ever since one overly enthusiastic student nearly knocked him unconscious. (He twice survived cancer and had a hip replaced.) John once ran shirtless onto the field in college -- with a Penn State button pinned through the skin on his chest -- but now enjoys the games, win or lose. And Paul said he can’t climb the stairs quite as quickly as he once did.

But they just can’t quit. They won’t be at every game these days. But they always go to a majority -- and they will make their sixth trip this season for Saturday's home finale against No. 12 Michigan. Sometimes, all three brothers can’t make the trip and a "replacement" Big Ugly will have to be used. But they have still built up a reputation in Happy Valley.

Everyone knows the Big Uglies. And they wouldn’t change that for anything.

"I used to say I’d do it until my kids were old enough to be embarrassed by it," David said, laughing, "but that came and went. So, yeah, we’ll do it as long as people enjoy it. It brings us together as a family."

Added Paul: "I’ve got to admit, it’s the most exhilarating moments that I’ve had in my life. ... We’ll do it until our bodies tell us otherwise. That’s the only thing that’ll stop us."