The outrageous life of Cameron Hughes, professional fan

LAS VEGAS -- Cameron Hughes is sitting in Section 15 at T-Mobile Arena, waiting to make a few thousand dollars for taking his shirt off.

It's halfway through the first period of the Vegas Golden Knights' game against the San Jose Sharks. Despite it being opening night in the NHL, the energy level of the home fans has waned.

That is why you hire Cameron Hughes, professional fan, to attend your game.

There's a timeout with 10:28 left in the period. Music begins pumping. Hughes jumps to his feet and starts dancing wildly on the concrete stairs. He's wearing black shorts and a Knights T-shirt, which he deftly removes ... to reveal a second shirt layered underneath it. He flings the first shirt to a row of fans, many of whom have their phones pointed at him. He repeats the shirt trick three times before running to high-five those seated closest to him. Shirt four comes off, and he drapes it over a child's head. He does the same with shirt five before tossing shirt six to another child nearby. Hughes sprints up the aisle, clapping his hands to the music, before removing a seventh shirt and handing it to a woman near the top of his section.

(Shirt eight, mercifully, remains chest-bound.)

The horn sounds. Timeout over. Hughes returns to his seat calmly, like a werewolf transforming back to human form under a clouded moon -- at least until later in the game, when he's back on his feet, bouncing around, a shirt wrapped around his head like Rambo as he leads a different section in pro-Vegas chants.

"I don't know if I'm the original guy, throwing T-shirts. I just know there were no T-shirt cannons when I started doing this 26 years ago," Hughes told ESPN. "I get called 'T-Shirt Guy.' But I get called a lot of things."

While most spectators play along, Hughes occasionally hears it from a crowd. From fans who don't appreciate his exuberance. From fans who aren't hip to the fact that event organizers have hired him to act as if he's one of them. He gets strange looks. He gets taunted. One time he was almost assaulted for being paid to wear the home team's jersey.

"I've had death threats in different cities," Hughes said. "You have to try and block them out. I could sit here and say that I don't care what the crowd thinks, but that would be the biggest lie I've ever told. I care so much that I can't, at my age, just go 80 percent. It has to be 100 percent."

Hughes is well north of 40 years old. His ankles are sore -- he sometimes has a team athletic trainer tape them before performances. Massages have become more frequent. Bounding around the stands takes its toll. "I don't know how much longer I can do this. I know there are still some gigs I want to do, and then ... I can't do it much longer," he said.

But when you watch the most famous professional fan in sports patrol the upper deck in Vegas, clapping and dancing and squatting and getting the Golden Knights fans to their feet, you don't see that wear and tear. You see someone with a singular gift for connecting with others and a performer who can't stop starting the party.

"For me, the bit never gets old," said Kerry Bubolz, Golden Knights president. "With Cameron, the fans are always like, 'he's our guy.' And even if they know the truth, because they see him on SportsCenter or something, they think he's their guy."

Here's how Cameron Hughes comes dancing into your arena:

"I get hired by the director of entertainment. They call and ask if I have any original ideas, anything I want to do differently," Hughes said.

He is flown to games and paid an appearance fee. Upon arrival, he's given a place to suit up with his layers of T-shirts -- "instead of saying 'make noise,' the T-shirt is like a rallying cry," he said. He's as much a part of the game operations plan as the kiss cam and the moment when they honor the military. Teams tell him which timeout is his cue to perform.

"But after that, it's just 'go!'" he said.

His editorial control varies from venue to venue. Some teams want him to pop up and get the crowd going. Other teams, including the Golden Knights, want something more elaborate. Hughes has collaborated with Blue Man Group and done a "Mission: Impossible" parody with the Knights. He once dressed as an arena usher who tore his clothes off to reveal a Knights jersey.

Bubolz used Hughes when he was an executive with the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers before reuniting with the Golden Knights. "When I was with the NBA, we'd bring in these halftime acts. Some of them were outstanding. But people didn't connect with them like they connected with Cameron," Bubolz said. "When he performs, he's not viewed as being an outsider."

Even as a fan ringer, there's a sense of authenticity to Hughes that can't be matched by other arena gimmicks. Take the Edmonton Oilers. Hughes said they reached out to him when Rogers Place opened, saying, "We get a better pop from you than we do from making a video for a week. Because the fans feel something when they see you."

The same goes for the players. Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur was a Cameron Hughes fan at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, watching him sprint up and down the stairs during breaks in the action. According to Hughes, Brodeur once told him, "you should get the third star tonight." Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi had a fanboy moment with Hughes at the NHL All-Star Game. Connor McDavid is both a fan and a friend, having hung out with Hughes before reaching megastar status in the NHL.

"It's amazing how many people this guy knows. There are always these weird connections. He's one of those guys that makes friends with people really quickly," said Jeff Jackson, McDavid's agent. "He's a crowd igniter. And he's really good at it."

There was a time when Cameron Hughes would dance like a fool at the game for free.

Hughes was on a "timeout" from his studies at Bishops University -- his term for getting booted due to bad grades, though he eventually graduated in 1996 -- when he attended an Ottawa Senators game in January 1993.

The crowd was dead. Hughes was bothered by this. So he took action. "I stood up and started to dance like a lunatic in front of 10,000 people," he said.

He gesticulated wildly with his arms while moving up and down the rows of fans, who sat wide-eyed, wondering when the asylum he escaped from would come back to collect him.

Then the fans started cheering him on. Loudly. So loudly, in fact, that Senators executives heard them and tracked Hughes down after the game to ask him if he'd consider coming back to the Civic Centre for another performance.

The Senators paid him in free tickets and signed merchandise that first season. He got $250 per night during 15 home dates the following season.

They say the NHL is a copycat league. Quickly, other teams wanted the dancing fool in their arenas, including the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals. Soon it was other sports. Before Hughes knew it, he had a burgeoning career as a hype-man plant.

It wasn't until around 1998 that Hughes met the agent who represented other sports novelty acts, such as "Little Elvis," "Krazy George" and "Morgana, The Kissing Bandit," while performing in Buffalo. His eyes were suddenly opened to new possibilities.

The agent told him that rather than $800 per game, he could be making north of $1,500.

"I was like 'to do WHAT?'" he said with a laugh. "I didn't realize you could make money at this. Like, real money."

From this group of sports carnies, Hughes always admired "Krazy" George Henderson, the hand-drum pounding super fan who claims he invented the wave. Hughes met Henderson at MLB's winter meetings in 1999.

"I went up to him and asked him what he does to prepare, what he does to protect his voice. And he said," Hughes recalled, dropping his voice several octaves into a gravel pit, "'Preparrrre? I ain't done anything for 45 years!'"

Although he started in hockey, Hughes has been seen in the stands for a variety of sports -- baseball, the NBA, rugby, soccer, tennis' U.S. Open -- which has led to countless surreal situations. He once fell down the stairs at a Mavericks game in front of Mark Cuban, who later said Hughes could attend his games, "but I will never pay him." One year, in San Jose, Hughes had a bout of dehydration so severe that a woman watching him called an ambulance out of concern. That woman was Janet Gretzky. At the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, she saw Hughes in a hotel lobby and gave him a ticket for Team Canada's game in the men's hockey tournament.

At the 2015 U.S. Open, Hughes was hired to work his magic to get the New York crowd fired up (OK, more fired up). One night, Novak Djokovic called out Hughes and praised him in a post-match interview, calling him "a true dancer."

He invited Hughes down to center court. Security briefly intervened but soon relented, and the 16-time Grand Slam winner and the professional fan had a dance-off that eventually led to both donning "I Love NY" T-shirts.

"He's a true entertainer," Djokovic said after the event. "Each year, I see him in one of my matches, dancing, taking down the layers of the T-shirts. It never gets old."

But it doesn't translate to every venue. Hughes likens his challenge to a comedian reading the room before a set.

"It's 100 percent like that. You have to know what works," he said. "The general rule is not to be cheesy. You want to push fans. The whole reason it works in Singapore like it works in Belfast like it works in St. John is because fans want that human interaction."

Human interaction works only if the humans choose to interact. Hughes still winces when he talks about a rugby game in London at which he performed.

"I wasn't allowed to go to half the places I usually go," he said. "English fans are either singing in unison, or they want to watch their game. There's nothing in the middle. But when your job is to get the crowd going, you have to find a way."

Provided that crowd doesn't start to threaten you.

In 2009, Cameron Hughes began dancing for the Devils.

"Lou Lamoriello, against everything that he believed in, decided to do some marketing for the team," Hughes said of the infamously conservative former New Jersey Devils general manager. "The first time I got up, it was just horrific. I mean ... horrific. And the second time was OK. And the third time, I won them over. After the game, Lou Lamoriello says he wants me for 15 more dates."

Hughes would dance up a frenzy, clad in a Devils jersey. He assumed that a number of fans understood he was hired entertainment. But there was a "magician's code" to his endeavor: The more fans who bought the illusion that Hughes was one of their number, the better the experience for all.

"Think about it: There's a reason the Oilers, the Wild, the Cavs, the Raptors and the U.S. Open don't promote me," he said. "Is it because you want a surprise? Or do the Oilers, for example, not want their fans to know that in two weeks I'm going to be doing this in Vancouver?"

Honoring the magician's code means not revealing the tricks to the audience. It's what Hughes asked from a New York Post reporter during that season, when she asked to profile him: that his role with the Devils would be left out of the story, to protect the illusion.

But it wasn't.

"And then the fans found out I wasn't from New Jersey, and they came after me. Like, physically," Hughes said.

He claims that while running around the 300 level of the arena, a man accosted him for being unworthy of the Devils sweater -- a ringer, dancing for money, instead of a true fan. The incident was close to boiling over when security stepped in and escorted the angry fan out of the arena.

But the abuse didn't stop there. Hughes said fans sent threatening messages through his website, saying he wasn't welcome at the arena and he would "get smacked" if he showed up to perform again.

His gig rarely incites that kind of violent reaction, but occasionally fans take offense to his temporary allegiances. There were the Philadelphia fans who saw him dancing in Buffalo and started harassing him. There was the Sabres fan who was ejected from the arena for screaming "you're not from Buffalo!" as Hughes performed.

Things could get awkward with players, too. Remember that Hughes became a fixture at Ottawa games. A few years later, when he was doing a gig with the Sabres, Senators captain Randy Cunneyworth skated by him and displayed what Hughes called "a death stare."

Hughes believes he has always been transparent about being paid entertainment.

"I never pretended otherwise," he said. "I'm truly fascinated by [the reaction]. The minute you put on their jersey, you become part of their community, part of their team. I don't wear a lot of jerseys anymore. I wear T-shirts. The ones that accept it are great. The ones that don't know, they don't know. The ones who aren't sure usually err on the side of fun."

Except when they don't.

"Don't get me wrong: I'm a human. If fans throw stuff at me, I take it personally."

Rather than dwell on these negative moments, Hughes has put a lot of thought into the positive connections he makes with fans, on a philosophical level. He knows "they want to be moved," which is one function of his career. But he suspects there's something more than that to his appeal: Fans are also living vicariously through his uninhibited enthusiasm.

"As I've dug deeper into it, in my thinking, there's a bit of everyone in me," he said. "Not to get too deep, but I think people see me, and they're like, 'I wouldn't do that. Wait, would I do that? F---, I wish I could do that.'"

Would Cameron Hughes, as a child at a hockey game, enjoy Cameron Hughes, the grown-up performer?

"Good question," he said before considering the scenario. "I would, actually. I was fearless but shy, if that makes sense."

In other words, the younger Hughes would admire the way his older self performs without timidity. "I used to dance in the living room as a kid. I danced at school. I danced at my friend's 50th birthday last Friday because it needed a moment," he said. "Get up, and do your thing. Don't look to your left. Don't look to your right. Just take chances."

Hughes took a chance 26 years ago and has carved out one of the most unique careers in professional sports. (He's working on a book to detail it, naturally.) He estimates that he has performed for more than 10 million fans in four countries.

He has rallied crowds in small minor-league arenas and massive stadiums and during events such as the NBA Finals. In fact, after LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the championship in 2016, Hughes joined former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar and rapper Machine Gun Kelly in the victory parade's most eclectic car.

He has been a Cavaliers fan. He has been a Raptors fan. He has been a Wild fan, a Coyotes fan, a Knights fan, a Leafs fan, an Oilers fan, a Devils fan, an Avalanche fan and a Blackhawks fan. That he's rooting for one team on Tuesday and another on Saturday isn't the point. What's more important, according to Hughes, is that he's rooting for you. To be inspired. To cut loose. To dance in the aisles. That's the spark he wants to ignite in the crowd.

"My whole thing, my entire thing is simple: When you're at a game, just cheer. Have the confidence. The crowd wants you to succeed," he said.

"At the end of the day, no one's going to care if you make a fool out of yourself."