A FEW DAYS after the most infamous mascot fight in college football history, Sean Stazen (aka Brutus Buckeye) sat down in his Columbus, Ohio, apartment and opened his laptop, hoping to get some homework done. The first thing that popped onto his screen, however, were news stories from China and Australia.
The stories featured the hilarious, dreamlike and now ubiquitous photos of the battle royal between Brutus and Ohio University's Rufus the Bobcat just before kickoff on Sept. 18, 2010, inside OSU's Horseshoe. There was a New York Times headline describing the sneak attack concocted by Rufus (aka Brandon Hanning) as a "Student's Machiavellian Plan" that was two years in the making and full of more twists and turns than a fourth-quarter flea-flicker. And just in case Stazen wasn't fully aware that he had been unwittingly thrust into one of the first great viral moments in sports -- one that divides college football fans to this day -- there were links to Ohio State coach Jim Tressel joking that Brutus was "probable" for the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes' next game, blog posts by Ohio State grad students calling Rufus "Generation Y's version of the Unabomber" and solicitations from several Columbus attorneys asking whether Brutus needed assistance pressing assault charges.
After giving up on the idea of homework, Stazen, a senior communications major, turned his TV to ESPN's PTI, where Tony Kornheiser and guest host Bill Simmons were debating ... the Rufus-Brutus fracas. "That was the craziest moment," says Stazen, who now lives in Columbus with his wife and 7-month-old son. "I'm sitting there watching myself on TV, wondering, 'Is this real life right now?'"
It was hard to tell.
Meanwhile, in Athens, Ohio, and throughout Big Ten country, Rufus was being hailed as a hero of college football have-nots. There was talk of a statue. And the photo of him socking Brutus in the puss was already being printed on T-shirts, displayed in Ann Arbor bars and used as screen savers across the college football landscape.
"We are the little guys, but we also think we're a lot cooler than Ohio State," says Terry Smith, an Ohio U. grad and editor of The Athens News for 34 years until his retirement in May. "So we've always had this kind of weird, underlying superiority. And to see Rufus come out and manifest it the way he did was pretty great."
In the end, the Rufus-Brutus brawl became the most reliable litmus test in college football. How you interpret the mascot melee -- whether you think it was (A) awesome, or (B) an assault -- depends almost entirely on your feelings about Ohio State and the untouchable (and sometimes unscrupulous) powerhouse level of college football it represents. "Either everybody loved it or everybody hated it," Hanning said of his ambush at the time. "It's never been anything in the middle."
And so to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Rufus' epic attack on Brutus and, at long last, the return of Big Ten play and the Buckeyes' much-anticipated 2020 season (beginning Saturday vs. Nebraska at noon ET), that's exactly how we decided to present it. Alternatively from both perspectives: Ohio State's and everyone else's.
Sean Stazen grew up in northeast Ohio, in the heart of Buckeye Country, where as a kid he attended most home games with his dad -- also an Ohio State grad. Sean's bona fides as a Buckeyes nut are easily verified on his Facebook page: a family portrait (complete with PBR tallboys) outside Columbus' infamous Little Bar. There's also a classic snapshot from the 1973 Ohio State-Michigan game at the height of the Woody Hayes-Bo Schembechler rivalry, when the Buckeyes ripped down the M Club banner unfurled at the 50 before a game in Ann Arbor.
In the spring of his freshman year at OSU, Stazen was riding a campus bus and saw an ad for Brutus tryouts. Potential Bruti must endure an intense two-day tryout that includes gauging how candidates work and move inside the giant, awkward nut head; performance of an original skit; various hypothetical practice scenarios Brutus might face; and a formal job interview conducted by a panel of coaches and Brutus alumni. (Stazen now serves as an alumni rep on this panel.)
The mascot screening process at Ohio University (2010 enrollment: 21,508, compared to OSU's 56,064) was slightly less involved.
A month before school started, the Bobcats' cheerleading coach called Hanning.
"Wanna be Rufus again?" he asked.
"Sure," Hanning replied, not bothering to mention one critical detail about his enrollment.
After not making the cut as a freshman, Stazen reapplied the following year and made the team. It would become a life-changing experience. "Brutus does a lot of events on top of just games," Stazen says. "He goes to children's hospitals here in Columbus and visits kids who are fighting some crazy battles, and helping to bring smiles to those kids' faces -- that's the No. 1 thing I'll remember from being Brutus, not the big games or Rufus but that stuff with the kids."
Hanning grew up in Pomeroy, a village just outside of Athens, as a self-professed Buckeyes hater. In 2008, as a senior in high school, he watched the Bobcats travel to Columbus and nearly upset the No. 3 Buckeyes. Ohio State's last loss to an in-state school came in 1921, when Oberlin nipped the Buckeyes 7-6. After wearing O-S-Who? T-shirts at their Friday walk-through, the Bobcats came aggravatingly close to shocking the world, leading 14-12 in the fourth quarter before eventually falling 26-14. The Bobcats would have to wait until 2010 for another shot at the Buckeyes.
At the same time, there was a string of wild mascot donnybrooks -- Coastal Carolina's Chauncey the Chanticleer vs. James Madison's Duke Dog; IUPUI's Jawz the Jaguar vs. Oral Roberts' Golden Eagle; the Oregon Duck vs. the Houston Cougar -- making the rounds on a rapidly growing video site called YouTube. Frustrated and powerless while watching his Bobcats come up short in Columbus, with an endless loop of mascot melees swirling in his teenage boy brain, Hanning blurted out his idea to his buddies, who of course thought it would be freakin' awesome. "I remembered seeing the Oregon Duck beating up another mascot, and I thought it would be really funny if Rufus beat up Brutus," Hanning told ESPN in 2010. "I didn't know exactly how it would happen, but that was the whole reason I tried out for the Rufus job. That was it."
In his book "Yes, It's Hot in Here," AJ Mass, a fantasy sports editor with ESPN who served as Mr. Met from 1994 to 1997, writes about a kind of mascot mania phenomenon where, much like a goldfish growing to fit the size of its bowl, a mascot's ego sometimes expands to fill its giant oversized foam melon. "The people who get dragged into the mascot world, there's performers, there's professional gymnasts, there's right-place, right-time kind of people and then there's guys who are just 'look at me, look at me,'" Mass says. "But they're the most interesting ones, unfortunately."
Says Stazen: "All I can picture is this guy's dorm room looking like Ray Finkle's bedroom wall in 'Ace Ventura,' with diagrams everywhere of his master plot and pictures everywhere with Brutus with devil horns."
As a freshman at OU, Hanning not only secured the Rufus duties, he even attempted a dry run during a game in Buffalo. "I was thinking I should go ahead and try out tackling another mascot," Hanning said. "He's a bull. I brought a red square cape thing, like in a bullfight. He was just playing around, acting like he was charging me. I tackled him and put him on the ground. It was pretty funny and no one got upset because it wasn't Ohio State."
The next summer, however, Hanning decided to drop out of OU to work and attend a local community college. With the game in Columbus just weeks away and his dreams of bashing Brutus seemingly dashed (most every NCAA mascot is a student), Hanning said that's when he got a call out of the blue from the Ohio cheerleading coach -- who had no idea he was no longer enrolled.
A few weeks later, on Sept. 18, 2010, Hanning boarded the team bus to Columbus and announced, "I'm gonna beat up Brutus."
Everyone just assumed he was joking.
The sheer financial dominance of the Ohio State football program literally keeps football programs at Ohio and the rest of the Mid-American Conference afloat. Before COVID-19 hit, the MAC was scheduled to earn more money from its 11 Big Ten guarantees ($10.5 million) than from its entire TV revenue ($10 million). In exchange for budget-saving paydays between $1 million and $2 million, all the Buckeyes get in return is a virtually guaranteed warm-up W. In the past 60 years, the Buckeyes are 27-0 against the MAC, with an average victory margin of 30.1 points, which could easily be twice as large (they humiliated Miami by 71 in 2019 and crushed Bowling Green by 67 in 2016) if not for Ohio State's uncommon restraint and sportsmanship.
"It's just like if people hate the Yankees or people hate the Lakers -- the more success a team has, the more, naturally, you're just gonna have haters that want to see you fail," says Adam Widman, the Chicago Bears' director of media relations and an OSU graduate who was an assistant sports information director at the school in 2006 and '17. "Brandon had hate for Ohio State; that's how this whole thing started, and it's like, 'Well, if we can't take OSU down on the field, then I'm gonna beat the crap out of their mascot.' It just comes with the territory."
The ridiculous top-heavy economics of college football force smaller Division I schools like Ohio to actually grovel and be grateful for the beatdowns and accompanying crumbs they receive from Ohio State. Over time, this Theon Greyjoy-type scenario creates a deep resentment that Rufus tapped into. "Our team was preparing to sacrifice itself at the altar of college football for some big-time publicity and a paycheck," Smith wrote in The Athens News in 2010. "Hanning did the only thing that could possibly allow OU to escape Columbus with some self-respect. He launched a surprise attack, and brought down one of the sacred symbols of Ohio State University, that ridiculous Buckeye."
To make matters worse, the Bobcats were also forced to humble themselves before a football factory that dares to refer to itself as "The" university in Ohio while playing in a place called Ohio Stadium, as if the actual Ohio University, founded six decades before OSU, didn't even exist. "There's football and then there's everything else," Smith says. "And as an OU grad and an OU student, like a lot of other Bobcats I always felt superior to Ohio State because of everything else."
For many, Rufus' form of public service didn't end there. An overlooked subplot to the saga is that two days before the game, Athens was hit by a tornado. The storm killed one resident and destroyed several homes along with the Athens High School football stadium, which was rebuilt and recently renamed Joe Burrow Stadium. "At the time," Smith says, "people around here really needed something to laugh about."
At the iconic Ohio Stadium, opposing mascots actually share a locker room near the Buckeyes' entrance to the field. Stazen always tried to use this time to play gracious host. "But this time, when I went in to get changed, Rufus had already been in there, changed and made his way out to the field," Stazen says. "So I was like, hmmm, strange, OK, maybe he's just a very punctual guy or whatever.
"Brutus runs the team out onto the field, leading the way with another cheerleader, carrying a big OSU flag. So I'm doing this, and all of a sudden out of the corner of my eye, well, my mouth -- Brutus sees through his mouth -- I see Rufus standing on the sidelines, staring, and then he just takes off running right at me, and I'm thinking, 'This is bizarre. What's this guy doing?'"
It's a complete coincidence, but as Rufus charges toward Brutus at midfield, the eyes of each mascot appear to have been stitched in a way that perfectly fits the moment: Rufus has the angry, bulging eyeballs of a rage-ridden feline strung out on catnip, while Brutus' massive dilated oval eyeballs give him the shocked and traumatized expression of someone who just inadvertently Googled a phrase that yielded not-safe-for-work results.
After contemplating the scheme for two full years, the day before the game Hanning finally decided on his course of action: linger inconspicuously with the OU cheerleaders on the sideline around the 20-yard line, then spring on Brutus at midfield. The ensuing scrum is supposed to create a natural roadblock -- like the marching band scene in "Animal House" -- turning the Buckeyes' glorious, grand entrance into one massive, chaotic human car crash. "I was way up in the press box when it happened," Widman says, "and all I remember is one of my student workers yelling out, 'Whoa, Rufus is going after Brutus!' It was just a crazy scene."
"I didn't have a plan beyond that," Hanning said.
Powered by what Hanning described as "a ton of adrenaline," he bravely charges toward midfield, lifting his giant cat paws like someone trying to run in scuba fins. He lunges wildly at Brutus, nearly taking him, the cheerleader and the giant Ohio State flag down to the turf. But then, mere milliseconds before the entire plan is about to unfold perfectly, the unthinkable happens. His Rufus head starts to fall off, and without realizing it, Hanning's mascot training kicks in. "That's why I let go," he said. "After a year of being a mascot, it was instinct to try to keep the head on."
From Brutus' perspective, after all the buildup and bravado, when Hanning arrives at midfield, he appears to lose his nerve. Instead of executing a Ray Lewis-style blowup tackle, Rufus flails meagerly to the side, wrapping himself around Stazen's hips like a scared child. Using the cheerleader and the huge flagpole for support, Brutus is able to brace himself, stay upright and shake off Hanning. "After I said to myself, 'OK, I guess this is happening,' I kinda lower my shoulder and sidestep him, and we hit, but I'm able to get my one arm over the top of him and throw him down to the ground," Stazen says.
To add insult to injury, Hanning then commits the cardinal sin of mascotting by allowing his head to pop off, the mascot equivalent of getting pantsed in gym class.
"If it was a better tackle, it could have been a lot worse, with all these players piling up behind us," Stazen says. "Instead, Rufus got a tackle but Brutus got a beheading."
Instead of punting the Bobcat head into the end zone, Brutus, as the bigger mascot, politely allows a dismembered, embarrassed and vulnerable Rufus to collect himself. This is Stazen's favorite photo from the entire ordeal, standing triumphantly over a headless, humbled Hanning. That's what happens when a boy messes with a man is how Stazen once captioned the shot. After a dismissive shoulder wipe, Brutus continues undaunted, leading the Buckeyes down the field to the north end zone. "I just figured that was the end of it," he says. "And then all of sudden, I feel someone jump on my back and I'm, like, not angry or anything, just annoyed, like, 'Dude, come on, what are you doing?'"
"He missed him and Brutus just shrugged him off," Widman says. "I think Rufus panicked and was like, 'I can't go out like this.' So he got up and followed him all the way down to the end zone and jumped him from behind. I mean, come on. Put those two in an octagon where there isn't a sucker-punch situation and I'll put my money on Brutus nine times out of 10."
No one outside of Columbus cares if he makes the tackle. Going after Brutus in front of more than 105,000 fans inside the famed Horseshoe is a legendary move regardless. And the way Rufus sees it, it was Brutus who fled. That left Hanning with no choice. He reattached his head and took off in pursuit of the cowardly nut "to finish what I started."
In the end zone, between a line of Ohio State cheerleaders and a row of players solemnly praying at the goal line, the mascots clash one last time as boos begin to rain down from the crowd. An exasperated Rufus pulls Brutus down from behind and begins punching him in the face. Brutus, however, is still bound by a higher calling -- and a partial scholarship. "So now it's like, 'I gotta get this guy off me,'" Stazen says. "My first thought with the way he's positioned is to flip him hard over my head, but I realize he can probably grab my head and pull it off, and Brutus Buckeye losing his head in front of 110,000 people at Ohio Stadium is not what we want."
Hanning: "Neither of us said anything, but I could definitely tell he was pretty pissed off about it. I was pretty much just hitting his foam head. I didn't want to hurt the guy inside. I just wanted to make him look stupid." Mission accomplished. During this flourish, Rufus manages to sock Brutus right in his big bulgy eye. It is, perhaps, lesson No. 1 on viral memes: Though it doesn't accurately represent the entire incident, this image is the one that takes root and spreads across the globe, the one being tweeted and reposted to this day.
"Growing up in Columbus, you have so many family and friends that went to OU or have ties to OU, so this became their ultimate moment of glory, blowing up all of our phones," Widman says. "My brother is an OU grad, and so of course he was just texting me every photo and video he could get his hands on. And I had another buddy who renamed his fantasy football team Rufus Haymaker. Even Michigan fans were having fun with memes and GIFs and whatnot. And I don't blame them one bit. We'd probably do the same thing to them if the situation was reversed."
As if Rufus hasn't embarrassed himself enough already, as the lame wrestling match in the end zone fizzles, a gassed, desperate Hanning attempts one final low blow that, thankfully, doesn't land. An Ohio State official steps in and escorts him away, telling him to stay away from Brutus the rest of the game, which the Buckeyes win easily 43-7. Afterward, OU coach Frank Solich quips, "Obviously, we needed to tackle the guy with the ball, not the mascot."
Later that night, back in Athens, Hanning finds an open door at the school's arena. He throws the Rufus costume into an office and simply walks off campus, never to return. The next day, OU bans Hanning from all athletic events in perpetuity. The next week, when the OU cheerleaders are not at the Bobcats' game against Marshall, some speculate that it's punishment for not reporting or preventing Hanning's plot against Brutus.
With Brutus declining legal action and remaining silent and OSU deciding not to make a fuss, the entire incident is about to blow over when Hanning decides to go public with his evil genius: that he had been planning the attack for years; that it was, in fact, the only reason he had bothered to don the Rufus getup in the first place; that his one hope was to end up on "Tosh.0"; and, if the school was planning on disciplining him, good luck, he had dropped out just a few days earlier. The increased coverage and the embarrassing lack of mascot oversight forces OU to issue a formal statement apologizing to Ohio State and its fans. In a letter to the editor, the previous Rufus also declares Hanning's actions to be "an absolute embarrassment to myself and many other Ohio fans."
Not everyone handles the fracas with the same kind of aplomb as Brutus. A good portion of Buckeye Nation is rather slow to see the humor in Hanning's stunt. Just because you're in a mascot suit doesn't mean the law still doesn't apply, one Columbus lawyer writes to Stazen. There is talk of a "Send Brandon Hanning to Jail" Facebook page. The mascot community is downright appalled, to say the least. (Mascot fights are supposed to be staged and agreed upon by both parties beforehand, with the explicit understanding that the home mascot always wins.) "There was a premeditated assault with a lot of foresight and malice attached to it, and that shouldn't be celebrated," says Mass, the former Mr. Met. "I'm not going to equate it to a terrorist attack, but it had that kind of planning attached to it. He used the best access point with the most attention on it for the maximum amount of exposure and pain."
"The whole 'bad taste' thing seems a little snooty," Smith says. "When something is so far out in left field that it's so odd and unusual, come on, it's just funny. Which is why Brandon lives on as an antihero in Athens, like Robin Hood or something." This summer, Hanning told an ESPN producer he was training to become a tugboat captain. His Facebook page lists his current residence as Barbados. And the pinned tweet on Hanning's Twitter profile is a play on the Colin Kaepernick Nike campaign. There's a black-and-white silhouetted portrait of Rufus pounding Brutus next to the caption "Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything" and the hashtag #LegendsNeverDie. Perhaps that's true. "That's gonna be his claim to fame for a good long time," Widman says. "He's gonna be able to tell his grandkids someday, 'I took down Brutus Buckeye.'"
"I do remember at the time wishing I had thrown him for a huge suplex or something, but that would have been my last day as Brutus, and instead I got to keep being Brutus until that next April, and I wouldn't trade those memories for anything," Stazen says. "We never spoke. We never met. I never saw him or spoke to him or heard from him. It's just this crazy, hilarious thing that happened before a football game that has lived on for a long time. I can't believe it's been 10 years already. It's something people remember and laugh about and got a moment of entertainment out of. At the end of the day, as mascots, that's kinda what we're there for."