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Thursday, June 24, 2021

The faces behind the famed Gators

Students maintain anonymity in the role of Albert and Alberta Gator

UF mascot, Albert Gator, takes a picture with Gator fans Sloane Jansen, 8, (left) Molly Jansen, 4, (middle) and Brynn Jansen, 6, (right) at the Florida Ballpark at Alfred A. McKethan Field on Sunday, May 2, 2021.
UF mascot, Albert Gator, takes a picture with Gator fans Sloane Jansen, 8, (left) Molly Jansen, 4, (middle) and Brynn Jansen, 6, (right) at the Florida Ballpark at Alfred A. McKethan Field on Sunday, May 2, 2021.

Albert and Alberta Gator’s green, fuzzy heads bob above the Gainesville crowds as they greet enthusiastic Florida fans.

The duo is a symbol of UF, taking photos with students and fans, showing up to UF hosted events and embarking on city-wide community functions. The students behind the beloved characters, however, carry the spirit of the school while their identities remain hidden. 

Ellis Cunningham, 24, embodied the role of Albert — becoming what those in the role call “friends of the gator” — his senior year and endured a season of memories, smiles and sweat.

Cunningham took to Instagram May 2, 2019 with five photos showing off his scaly surprise.

It was  the first time Cunnigham took off his suit head in front of the camera, as Albert and Alberta demand anonymity from their student actors. 

“It was cool to finally be out of the Alligator closet,” Cunningham said.

Students are encouraged to hide their secret mascot identities from the public until they graduate. The secrecy isn’t lip tight though. 

Because Cunningham lived with his girlfriend at the time, he soon told her the secret. The individual decides which, if any, people they tell. 

Cunningham gave countless excuses to friends for his absence, including a marketing internship he was a part of when not in costume.

Being a friend to the popular Gators duo demanded 15 to 20 hours of conditioning and appearances a week, Cunningham said. 

While all eyes were on the beloved Albert, Cunningham’s vision was blurry through the mesh slots. Even in temperatures as low as 40 degrees, sweat was inevitable, he said.

The price paid off for Cunningham though, as Albert left a stronger impression on him than most. 

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The grad student drew inspiration from the role as he ventured into sports management. Cunningham wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his undergraduate marketing degree until he gained exposure to collegiate sports. 

Cunningham described the mascot role as rewarding for his professional life.

He now has a marketing internship with the Florida Gators and is pursuing a master’s in sports marketing.

Cunningham covered every D1 Gators sport in his tenure and grew a particular liking to basketball coverage. Unlike football, mascots can get away with watching the game for a while at the O’Dome, Cunningham said.

Sporting events are one to two hour appearances for Albert and Alberta, Cunningham said.

Football games are the exception. The sport that packs The Swamp requires attention from the couple like no other.

“Best friends” of Albert and Alberta arrive at Ben Hill Griffin stadium four to five hours prior to kickoff to gear up for the event. 

Prior to the 2020 COVID-19 football regulations, the whole team of mascots suited up to go to a myriad of pregame traditions. The pandemic-affected 2020 season didn't allow for such.

For the pregame, Albert and Alberta attended the pep rally near Alumni Hall, greeted fans at Alligator Alley and cheered at Gator Walk, a bricked pathway outside the stadium’s northern stands packed with fans. 

The mascots then greeted guests with exclusive seating in the Skybox Suites as the game kicked off and then went back down to the field at the start of the second half.

During his mascot tenure, Cunningham grew acquainted with UF graduate Charlie Newton, a 27-year-old materials engineer.

Newton was Albert’s friend from 2013 to 2016 — through his sophomore to senior year.

Like Cunningham, Newton experienced game days in The Swamp like no other.

During his tenure, there were only two Alberts and two Albertas, each handling their respective shifts throughout the Gators game. 

One pair would meet at the north end zone of Steven Spurrier Field and cheer as players ran out of the tunnel. They would then walk to Emerson Hall for Gator Walk, a short pep rally prior to gameplay. 

The other pair would be ready inside the stadium for pre-game rituals — such as the Two Bits chant — and took the field for the first half. The groups switched for the second half; group one hit the field and group two walked to the custom box seats.

“Football’s a production,” Newton said. 

Newton’s most enriching times in the suit happened outside of football games, however.

In January 2014, Newton flew to California for the 2014 Farmers Insurance Open PGA golf tournament with pro-golfer Camilo Villegas — a former UF golf player. He also rubbed shoulders with famous golfers like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. 

Newton participated in a skills competition in the summer of 2016 in Orlando for the Celebrity Mascot Games, where all proceeds went to charity.

He also worked an unusual Albert appearance in 2015 where he advertised the Florida Gators door to door inside Beaty Towers. 

A few residents asked Albert to stand over their sleeping roommates as they woke up.

“The person that I woke up in Beaty Towers is never gonna forget that,” Newton said.

Newton also travelled outside of UF’s campus for local community events. 

Most organizations in Gainesville receive one free Albert and Alberta appearance request per school year, Newton said. Because of this, elementary schools, nursing homes and churches are common locations for the duo. 

“People cherish memories and photographs that they take with Albert and Alberta,” Newton said.

Sara Sheffield, a 25 year-old nurse, slithered through her time in the costume a tad differently as  the friend of big, green girlboss Alberta.

The UF graduate played the role from 2014-2018. 

Sheffield traveled to Jacksonville for the 2014 Florida vs. Georgia game  — the Gators won 38-20 — and then to California July 2016 to film a commercial for ESPN.

“Honestly, it's a once in a lifetime experience with so many memories that I'll never forget,” Sheffield said regarding the role. 

What separates Alberta from Albert is her empowerment for women, Sheffield said. Most universities only have one mascot, but UF represents a wider demographic with Albert and Alberta.

"It was really more about the characters than myself,” she said

The role taught Sheffield how to maintain confidence and break out of her shell, she said. 

Unlike most UF mascots — who try out for their sophomore year or later — Sheffield chomped around in the suit all four years of college. 

Sheffield's sister Tricia was a friend of Alberta from 2005-2008 — a time when Gators sports won four national championships — and pushed her to join the team.

Sheffield applied to be Alberta’s friend when she was still in high school.

"I was very nervous because I was in a room full of college students,” Sheffield said regarding her audition for the role.

Spirited, energetic and unmissable — noteworthy characteristics that define the famed Gators. While their notoriety runs the streets of Gainesville, their accompanied mascots run on anonymity. 

Contact Faith Buckley at fbuckley@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @_faithbuckley.

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Faith Buckley

Faith Buckley is a first-year journalism student at UF and The Alligator's swimming and diving beat writer. She is specializing in sports media to one day hopefully work as an NHL commentator.


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