Last flap

IAN KLINGER SAT in the Saint Joseph's locker room, his eyes gone red with sweat and heartbreak. His shorts and shirt were soaked through, and he stared into space and turned over the last few minutes of the game, the last few minutes of his college basketball career. The Hawks had come so close, pushing UConn into overtime before joining March's vast collection of the eliminated. When the clock had finally counted down to zero, Klinger had been on his knees in a corner of the court, his head bowed, his left wing dropped to the floor, his right wing, almost impossibly, still flapping.

For the past two seasons, the 22-year-old finance and accounting major has been the famous Hawk, one of the best, most metaphoric mascots in college sports. Klinger began his service to the team as a student manager before he added the imitation of flight to his responsibilities, the 35th Hawk following the mascot's debut in 1956. For every minute of every Saint Joseph's game since, the Hawk has flapped its wings, a silent, vaguely sadistic testament to faith and endurance. The Hawk will never die, but that's only because Klinger and 34 other young men and women have made it their mission to keep it, like hope, alive.

They refer to themselves as the Featherhood, and they gather at least once a year like Masons, to eat and tell secret stories of the great mascot wars of history, thefts of the Villanova Wildcat's paws (look closely at photos of the 1985 championship celebration) and brawls with the VCU Ram. And they form a long line before every new Hawk's first game, the most senior to the most recent, and they pass along the Hawk's terrifying unblinking head until at last it reaches its latest bearer.

"The head goes on, and the arms go up," Klinger said before the game against the Huskies, his NCAA tournament debut and culmination of so much, including his senior year. For Saint Joseph's, the Hawk is more than an ordinary mascot. The student draped in those 360,000 feathers is considered a member of the basketball team, given a perch near the bench and a full scholarship. Although Klinger's most punishing moments in the costume have taken place away from the court -- a midsummer outdoor pingpong tournament left him wrung out, and he's appeared at more than 30 weddings, flapping all the while -- he was nervous about the bright lights of March Madness. "My pride will keep me going through the pain," he said. "I just can't stop."

His arms, his wings, were already flapping when he appeared before the nearly 20,000 fans in Buffalo for the anthem. He even kept his left wing flapping while the tip of his right wing found a place over his heart. (The UConn Husky played air guitar with its tail, a tradition of somewhat less excellence.) The teams retreated to their locker rooms and then came back out, and Klinger began his now uninterrupted game-time flapping, a feat the former track-team member likened to a long-distance race.

On he flapped, through the Hawks' fast start and early optimism, through halftime and the Huskies' late comeback and every TV timeout, through the Hawks' recapturing of the lead and the Huskies' battle back, and through that torturous overtime, five minutes on the clock but 26 minutes of additional, fruitless flapping. Klinger was struggling inside that suit at the end, emotionally and physically, his eyes and shoulders burning. When he finally disappeared down the tunnel, he had been flapping his wings for two hours and 42 minutes.

And then it was over -- all of it was over. He sat in the pin-drop quiet of defeat with his devastated teammates, and he tried to shower off the considerable funk of old feathers, and then he talked about how he felt in those moments after his last flap.

"This has been such an amazing experience, such a blessing," he said, still fighting tears. "But it's tough right now. I guess that's the meanness of college sports. Most of us don't go out as champions. Most of us leave with this feeling" -- a feeling that will last until next fall, when Ian Klinger will stand second to last in a long line, and in the distance he will hear the familiar echo of cheers, and once again the head will go on, and the arms will go up.

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