GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Rocky is a typical young Dorset Horned sheep most days, dining on grass and kicking up his heels in the pasture at Magnolia View Farm in Orange County.
But when there is a nip in the air and autumn leaves are falling, Rocky, with his horns painted a particular shade of light blue, is led into Kenan Memorial Stadium in front of a cheering crowd and becomes Rameses XX — the most famous ram in the state.
Like 19 other rams before him, Rocky is the ram mascot for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's football team — the only live animal mascot in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The 8-month-old ram assumed the mantle — really a light blue blanket with the university's interlocking NC logo — this football season, after the untimely death of his predecessor, 2-year-old Bam Bam.
There would not be a Rameses without the Hogan family.
They have been the caretakers of the UNC rams since the live mascot tradition began in 1924. It's a job the new generation of Hogans takes seriously, as did their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers before them.
And the sense of responsibility transcends university allegiances. Several members of the Hogan family graduated from the Agricultural Institute at N.C. State University and others — including Greenville's Lorrie Basnight — have ties to East Carolina University.
Basnight, a pediatrician on the faculty of ECU's Brody School of Medicine, was in charge of Rameses' appearance at the ECU-Carolina game in Chapel Hill Sept. 22.
"There has always been a main individual who had the responsibility of the ram — Clay Hogan, my great-grandfather; Henry Hogan, my grandfather; Bob Hogan, my uncle; and then Rob Hogan, my first cousin," Basnight said. "Rob died unexpectedly in 2010 after a fall on the farm. Since Rob's death, various cousins have taken on the shared responsibility. I most recently took him to the UNC vs. ECU game with my brother, Don Basnight."
What is a typical game day like for Rameses and his handlers?
"Taking the ram to the game is an all-day commitment," Basnight said. "His coat is cleaned and horns are painted either the day before or the day of the game. He has a blanket made by my Aunt Carolyn that he wears to the game,
"The transportation is always fun, as you can imagine, because people are always surprised to see a live animal coming through town" in the bed of a truck," Basnight said. "He is taken to the Bell Tower at least two hours before the game so fans can 'meet' him and have their pictures taken with him.
"We then go to the game and stay with him on the field during the game," she said. "It's amazing to go onto the field — actually the NCAA doesn't allow him on the field, so we stick to the sidelines. It's fun to see all the blue in the stands and to be so close to the action.
"At halftime, we take him outside the field at the base of the stands for more pictures and rubs for good luck," Basnight said. "After the game, he goes home and is released to his pasture. A typical (game) day is about eight or nine hours long."
Despite Rocky's youth, Basnight said he handles his mascot responsibilities well.
"This ram is awesome with people," Basnight said. "He's friendly but full of energy. He likes to lean on you and stay pretty close. He hasn't really figured out how to pose for pictures with strangers, and he'll often walk around while the people are posing. You really have to make sure your photographer is fast! He will learn how to be more settled as he gets older."
How did the Hogan family become keepers of the ram? And how did a live ram become a mascot for a team that's nicknamed "Tar Heels"? That is one for the history books.
"In 1924, head cheerleader Vic Huggins decided that the team needed a mascot," Basnight said. "At that time, there was a football player at UNC named Jack Merritt who had the nickname 'the battering ram' — so a ram seemed like a good idea. Huggins worked with the athletic department to order the first ram, which came from Texas." (One version of the story is that Athletic Business Manager Charles T. Woollen gave Huggins the $25 to purchase the first ram out of his own pocket.)
"Once they got the ram, they needed a place to keep it," Basnight said. "My grandfather, Henry Hogan, was a football player at UNC and his father, Clay Hogan, agreed to keep the ram on their family farm in Chapel Hill.
"My family has kept the ram ever since."
One of the dangers of being Rameses is being the victim of ram-nappings.
On certain dark fall nights, Wolves and Devils, Pirates and Demon Deacons may be seen roaming around the Hogan farm in search of the ram. Throughout the past 88 years, rival fans have tried to grab Rameses in order to repaint his horns with the opposing school's colors before parading him onto sidelines before the game.
In the early 1980s, when I was a journalism student at UNC, I spent a couple of golden afternoons at the Hogan farm chatting with former ram-keeper Jack Hogan, who was 85 at the time. He regaled me with lots of ram-napping stories for a class assignment.
He told me that when he and his brothers Henry, Glen and Hubert were responsible for keeping the ram in the 1950s, several hundred students from Duke would search the farm for Rameses. He was told that former President of the United States Richard Nixon was involved in one of the ram-napping escapades when he was a law student at Duke.
"One time, about 20 years ago (in the 1960s), students from Wake Forest stole a mother sheep from the farm, thinking they had Rameses. Those kids couldn't tell the difference between a male and a female," he said, chortling with laughter.
Another story — this one involving East Carolina University students — was not as humorous to Hogan.
"A couple of years ago (in the late 1970s or early 1980s), the ECU students came to get the ram," Hogan told me. "Because my daughter, Gay (the late Gay Hogan Blocker), teaches there, I was afraid that they had found out where we keep Rameses. We hid him in a paneled trailer. They searched all over the farm until they found out he was in the trailer. Then they just backed a car up to the trailer and stole him, trailer and all."
Hogan said Rameses had never been harmed during a ram-napping, but that his feelings had been hurt. In the early 1980s, students from Duke painted a big navy blue "D'' in Rameses wool; it took several months for it to wear off. Oh, the indignity.
Basnight said she, too, remembers helping protect Rameses from ram-napping incidents.
"We have occasionally moved Rameses from the farm to another location before big games," she said. "I remember having him in our backyard in town when I was a kid.
"No one has stolen Rameses for a number of years," Basnight said.
"Some folks from Duke tried it several years ago, but the sheriff spotted the parked van in the middle of the night and got the person in it — the father of one of the students — to admit what they were up to," she said. "The students were lurking in the yard and pasture but were found by my cousins."
That's just part of the job, Basnight said.
"It's a tradition we're proud of, and take very seriously," she said. "And it's fun."
Information from: The Daily Reflector, http://www.reflector.com