The true story of Sebastian the Ibis, a fire extinguisher and a near arrest

Miami's mascot nearly got arrested before FSU game in 1989 (1:53)

Andrea Adelson details how Miami's mascot Sebastian the Ibis got detained by police for trying to extinguish the Florida State spear before the game. (1:53)

This tale begins, as many college pranks gone wrong do, with a few cocktails.

Every Sunday, John Routh -- aka Sebastian the Ibis, Miami's mascot -- had friends over to his house. They'd sit by the pool and have a few drinks, and inevitably talk would turn to the upcoming football game.

Routh, ever the showman, always had big plans and big ideas.

Sebastian wore fatigues in 1986 against Oklahoma -- before Hurricanes players made that move famous before the Fiesta Bowl against Penn State. In the 1988 Orange Bowl, he made a toy Sooner Schooner wagon and lit it on fire to celebrate a 20-14 victory.

But Miami-Florida State was different. It was the rivalry game of the season, often with national championship implications. It was 1989, and the No. 2 Hurricanes were heading up to Tallahassee to face the No. 8 Seminoles.

Routh knew he had to up the ante for this one.

He can't remember whether he or someone else suggested it, but the idea of putting out the flaming spear FSU's mascot, Osceola, plants at midfield took hold. Ed Hudak, a Coral Gables police officer (and now chief of police), offered to get a fireman's jacket and hat. Routh had a fire extinguisher in his house.

The plan was in motion.

With help from University of Miami equipment personnel, Routh got all the gear he needed up to Tallahassee. When he walked onto the field pregame to fill the extinguisher with water, no one said anything to him, further emboldening him when he got ready to run onto the field for kickoff.

But the police presence inside Doak Campbell Stadium would always build up just before kickoff, as Routh would soon learn.

'I thought I was going to jail'

Routh took his usual spot in the tunnel next to Miami coach Dennis Erickson. He was in full Sebastian the Ibis gear, wearing his fireman's jacket and hat and holding the extinguisher.

It looked as if his prank might actually work.

As Erickson shouted, "Let's go!" and led his team out onto the field, Routh's race to Osceola had begun. But after just two steps, the Ibis found himself in serious trouble. A police officer whipped him around and screamed, "Give me the fire extinguisher! Give me the fire extinguisher!"

With the Miami band playing, the fans on their feet screaming and the team rushing past him, Routh felt chaos envelop him, still unsure what was happening. He clutched the extinguisher tighter and screamed back, "No!"

"Of course, nobody could hear me because the band was playing and I'm in a bird costume," Routh recalled.

As he tried to jerk away, he accidentally squeezed the handle on the extinguisher and sprayed another officer in the chest with water. He got a few steps closer to the corner of the end zone before three more officers grabbed him and slammed him up against the fence. The officer with the wet uniform threw an elbow to the back of his head, forcing the fireman's hat to fall to the ground.

One of the officers grabbed the Ibis' beak and tried to yank the head off, likely not knowing there was a chin strap keeping the head attached to Routh. The tugging nearly choked him. The officers started screaming at him again: "When one of my officers tells you to do something, you do it!" Another officer pulled out handcuffs.

"I thought I was going to jail," Routh said.

'Excuse me, gentlemen, what are you doing to our bird?'

Miami Herald photographer Joe Rimkus heard the commotion, looked over and saw the Ibis pinned against the fence. He happened to be in that corner of the end zone to get a picture of Osceola and his horse, Renegade, but instead snapped one black-and-white image of the police and the Ibis before his vantage point got blocked. Rimkus was the only photographer in the area before moving to his preferred spot for the actual game.

Miami cheerleading coach Bill Rose also heard the commotion. At this point, the Miami fans had started to boo and throw trash at the police. Rose stepped up to the officers and said, "Excuse me, gentlemen, what are you doing to our bird?"

"The police were saying you can't discharge a fire extinguisher, that's against the law to discharge a fire extinguisher," Rose recalled. "I think at that point they realized this is a little strange. They were just trying to save face. What were they going to say, 'We were afraid of the Ibis?'"

Miami freshman wide receiver Lamar Thomas remembers watching it unfold from the field. "I didn't think it was real," he said. "I thought it was a prop to play up the game. After that, I was like, 'He's one of us! He was all about this culture.'"

The police loosened their grip but held the Ibis against the fence until Osceola had planted the spear. One officer kept his hand on Routh's chest and told him not to move. They emptied out the fire extinguisher and then, for unknown reasons, gave it back to Routh. Before releasing him, they offered up one more warning: "If you step one foot onto that field during this game, we're going to throw your ass in jail!"

"Needless to say, I kind of egged them on the rest of the game," Routh said. "Every time Miami would do something, I'd look over and wave to them."

Rimkus nearly forgot to send the pregame photo. When he went to process his film to choose shots for the next day's newspaper, he remembered the fracas and sent it in. "You just react to it, but it was quite unusual," he said. "I didn't realize what was going on until afterward. Then it blew up."

Then Miami quarterback Gino Torretta, who started that night in place of injured Craig Erickson, said, "Even if we weren't bad boys, it added to the mystique that, 'Man, look, even their mascot's getting arrested.'"

And that is where Routh is quick to offer a correction.

"Detained," Routh said. "I was detained. I was never arrested."

Miami lost the game 24-10, but it almost became a footnote, especially since the Hurricanes went on to win the national championship later that season. Once the Miami Herald published the photo and interviewed Routh for a story, the events of that evening were memorialized forever.

"John was the master of getting people riled up, whether it was our side or the other side," Rose said. "That was a great spoof on Florida State. You couldn't be more brilliant than to go in with the flaming spear, to know what that symbol meant, and here he has a fire extinguisher and they think he's going to put it out."

Routh said Miami athletic director Sam Jankovich sent a letter to Florida State president Bernard Sliger asking what the university planned to do about their officers "assaulting our mascot."

"While I regret that you feel that security officials responded inappropriately to your actions, I hope that you will recognize that their paramount concern, and mine, is public safety," Sliger wrote back. "I think you can imagine the reaction of our team and fans if it was perceived that you had intentionally caused the injury to their beloved mascot or to innocent bystanders on the field."

Routh couldn't help but laugh at the response.

"I'm thinking, 'Wait a minute,'" he recalled. "Here's a horse that's got a guy sitting on top of him with a flaming spear in a stadium with 65,000 screaming people, with the band on the field and two football teams running by, and a guy in a bird costume is going to scare him? That didn't seem right."

Leon County Undersheriff Larry Campbell replied to Routh's request for an apology by saying, "He's not going to get one. He's fortunate he's not in jail."

Routh never got the names of the officers, but the next time he went to Tallahassee, he was reminded not to go onto the field pregame. There was always a heavy police presence around Osceola and Renegade so they could be on the lookout to avoid anything that might spook the horse.

Including a man dressed up as a bird.

"I'm sure after that incident everybody keeps an eye out for the Ibis, and he has earned that reputation over the years, but I don't think anyone is specifically assigned to watch what he's doing," Florida State spokesman Rob Wilson says today. "Just the 30,000 people in the end zone."

To this day, Routh hedges when asked what he would have done had the officers not noticed him carrying a fire extinguisher onto the field.

"I realize I would not have gotten out of Tallahassee alive had I actually tried to put the flame out. I'm smart enough to know that," Routh said. "I think it would have been more squirting the crowd as opposed to really actually putting the flame out. Of course, I like the fact they still think I was actually going to do it."

Routh eventually left the Ibis costume behind to become MLB's Billy the Marlin. He now is the executive director of the University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame in Coral Gables, where Sebastian's fire extinguisher and a copy of the photo are on display for everyone to see.

"It's part of the rivalry," Routh said. "For 100 years, people will be talking about the time Sebastian got detained. It's nice to be remembered, even if it's for something as silly as being detained by the police in a bird costume."