The life and times of ROC the mascot


Sarah Cutshall | Staff Photographer

Panthers’ mascot ROC dances on Heinz Field during Pitt’s game against Georgia Tech Sept. 15, 2018.

By Ben Zimmer, Staff Writer

Many people believe they’re the most die-hard fan of Pitt sports, going to extreme lengths to show off how crazily obsessed they are. But despite their efforts, there is nothing one fan can do to match the enthusiasm of the Panthers’ number-one fan — ROC.

ROC, a human-sized bipedal Panther, has been at the center of Pitt athletics for more than a century now, bouncing around the field, waving his arms and entertaining fans with his goofy antics and unassailable school spirit. The mascot came to life in 1909 when the Panther was selected to represent the school. He earned the name “ROC” in the 1990s to honor former player Steve Petro, whose nickname from his playing days was “The Rock.”

To have Pitt’s cheery, energetic mascot for dozens of games and events requires the recruitment of several highly talented individuals to suit up as ROC. This is the ROC team — a group of students who individually become ROC but together act under the same mindset we see all the time from the Panther.

The group is a highly secretive one, as all members past and present want to continue giving the impression that ROC has his own enthusiastic personality rather than risk imposing their individual personalities onto him. It’s all part of the transformation these team members undertake to become ROC.

One former ROC team member, who asked to remain anonymous, explained the purpose of the team’s anonymity as crucial to the overall function of ROC, as well as the extreme pride members of the team take in keeping themselves secret.

“It’s definitely a tight-knit club. We try to keep anonymity and make sure we adhere to that,” he said. “It’s neat when you and three or four other people are the only ones who know that you do it. It definitely is a really cool club that only a couple people are lucky enough to be a part of.”

A current ROC, who also wished to remain anonymous, first became aware of ROC tryouts when a flyer ended up in his dorm during his first week at Pitt. After witnessing ROC’s run-out at the first football game he went to, he knew he wanted to get in the catsuit. He took advantage of the opportunity and started the process.

“We would create situations and put on a dance routine to see how you feel without any training and coaching. And see, ‘Can you put the suit on and be something that you’re not?’ Overall, the process took a month or two with a couple of tryouts and individual meetings with the coach,” he said.

The pride these team members feel for their role as ROC shows in the duties they perform across the University and the entire City. The team, which usually features four or five members at a time, must each commit plenty of time to the role if ROC is to make it to every event where he’s requested. A second former ROC team member, who requested anonymity as well, explained that the role that all members of the team must be ready to accept is a crucial one.

“Essentially, you’re acting as an ambassador for the school, so you show up at a lot of events — not only for sports, but at activities throughout the community,” he said.

No matter when the game starts, ROC must be ready. All team members must put aside the goings-on in their lives and completely adopt the ROC mindset when they are needed in order to keep fans’ spirits up and help Pitt’s teams achieve victory. This means being on site for game hours before, during and after play.

“Ninety percent of the Pitt athletic teams will request ROC at least once or twice throughout the season, so we have to make sure someone is there to meet the fans, greet the team and cheer everyone on,” the second former ROC said.

The busy schedule never brings the team members down, however. The experiences they get to take part in while at the center of Pitt athletics are a chief reason they love being a ROC team member. The current team member mentioned previously described ROC as an extension of Pitt teams, drawing cheers from some and boos from others.

“I went to the ACC Championship football game last year. It was Miami versus Clemson. All the ACC mascots were there … I realized, walking in there, that I was unwanted by anybody there,” he said. “The year before, we upset Clemson and messed their season up. And a week before that, we upset Miami and ruined their perfect season. Nobody wanted to see ROC.”

It was at this game where the current team member also experienced one of the hindrances that can come with getting into character as ROC.

“I walked out and hopped on a bike-taxi. I didn’t expect [the driver] to go anywhere and he just took off. I couldn’t say ‘Slow down!’ or ‘We’re going in the opposite direction of where I’m supposed to be!’ He took me on a little trip around Charlotte and I was trying to use all the body language to get me back,” he said.

Eventually he did return in time to rev up the crowd and experience the distinctive euphoria that comes from being at the core of Pitt sports.

“It comes down to two main things — one is being in the moment at a big game. At that point in time, every student and every fan and the entire emotion, ROC is supposed to capture that. It’s an out-of-body experience. The second thing is for the kids. They have these huge smiles on their face and you know you made their day,” he said.

Being a ROC team member is a challenging responsibility, but those who have undergone the endeavor and come out on the other side believe it was instrumental in their college careers and identities.

“It’s hard to relay that to people because it’s such a niche way to go through college, but it’s the greatest college experience I could’ve had here,” the current ROC said.