One last cheer. One more hug from a young fan. One final wave to the crowd. James Young’s last hurrah as Skyler, the Fort Lewis College Skyhawks mascot, was anything but ceremonious.
For four years, James Young of Bayfield, a history major at FLC, worked to turn Skyler into the face of FLC. From football and basketball games to various school and town functions, Young took an inconsistent school image and made it synonymous with the quirky, humble NCAA Division II college tucked into the geographically isolated town of Durango in Southwest Colorado.
So when the new coronavirus pandemic swept through the United States and shut down the remainder of NCAA spring sports prematurely March 13, so, too, came the end of Young’s term as Skyler.
“It was definitely a shock,” Young said. “It is one of those moments where you think you are prepared for something to end, you think you’re ready for it, but then it catches you completely by surprise.
“When I found out the rest of school classes were going online because of COVID-19, I hadn’t yet cleaned out Skyler’s locker. The realization of having to do that and turning in the suit, I wasn’t prepared for how it would affect me emotionally to all of a sudden have to do all of that.”
Young was celebrated during basketball senior night Feb. 22, as he received a strong ovation from the nearly 1,000 fans in attendance inside Whalen Gymnasium. It was inside Whalen where Young found trademark moves for Skyler, from running the players out onto the field with a giant flag, often reading from the pages of The Durango Herald while seated at half court during away team introductions, to gliding around the court effortlessly on a longboard during timeouts.
Skyler’s last dance came March 7 at a home softball game, a 4-3 win for the Skyhawks against first-place Colorado Christian University. FLC earned a split in the four-game series against the Cougars, including a 3-1 walk-off win in the opener behind a McKenna Hefley home run. In the weekend finale, FLC erased a 3-0 deficit with four runs in its final two innings at the plate.
Young said he will remember those final games fondly.
“That’s my best memory from this entire year,” he said. “Seeing Hefley hit a walk-off homer to win a game, to see the emotion on her face and that of her teammates, it was incredible. The fans who were there, they were great. In past years, I don’t know if that team would’ve come through and done the same thing. But they pulled it out, and I was so proud of that team and being able to watch their comeback wins was incredible.”
Four years earlier, Young first picked up the Skyler suit when nobody else was available to wear it for a home football game. After he had seen Skyler perform one-game earlier, the 2013 Bayfield High School graduate was confused as to why the mascot was gone. He asked to wear it, and the role has been his ever since that 2016 game.
FLC ordered a new Skyler suit in 2018 because of the condition of the old suit and Young’s willingness to not only attend games but a litany of school functions. Young launched social media pages on Twitter and Instagram for Skyler. He so embodied the role that FLC assistant athletic director Jason Flores said he often would sign his text messages with “Skyler,” written at the bottom. The FLC athletics department announced this week it would conduct a virtual version of its postseason awards ceremony and has named the event the “Skylers.”
“Skyler is Fort Lewis” Flores said in a Dec. 30 article in The Herald. “All of the kids see him and know he’s Skyler the Skyhawk. Kids here grow up around it, and my own daughter has gone from running away any time she sees him to now asking every time we are on our way to the game if Skyler is going to be there.
“He does a lot for the school and especially more since (President Tom) Stritikus has been here. He’s awesome and does it for the love of doing it. It’s going to be really hard to find someone as committed as (Young) once he graduates.”
Stritikus reached out to Skyler on Twitter and said the two would reunite to film one more promotional video together before Young departs the character for good.
You gave us so much joy and excitement. We need to do one more video when this is all over!— Tom Stritikus (@TomStritikus) March 20, 2020
“That meant a lot. It made me realize that my role as Skyler, even though sports are done and the students are at home learning online, it doesn’t mean the character goes away,” he said. “Skyler isn’t done being Skyler. For the president to get in touch made me realize how much a part of Fort Lewis he thinks Skyler is. Whoever takes over after I leave, Skyler and Fort Lewis will continue to go hand-in-hand. I have a lot of gratitude for our president and am thankful he was willing to let me be part of his organization and college.”
For now, Young will finish up classes online. He said he feels online classes, while still efficient enough to get lessons accomplished, do not provide the connection to classmates and professors paramount to higher education.
“A big part of the college experience is the moments you have of discussion in class with your classmates and professors,” he said. “Without that, you’re left only with your own personal opinions and are not exposed to other viewpoints. It harms the process. If you are not having your mind opened through those conversations, you are not getting the full lesson.”
Tuesday, Fort Lewis College announced it would hold a virtual commencement May 29 and an in-person graduation ceremony the weekend of Aug. 29 for those who graduate this spring, provided it is safe to do so at that time. Young said he will be there What isn’t known is whether or not he will wear the Skyler suit to walk across the stage.
“Part of what we do in colleges is walk across the stage and get that little piece of paper that says you did it,” he said. “Eventually, we are going to do that. Whether it’s in the summer, the fall, whenever it is, I am willing to wait until whenever to get that piece of paper handed to me.”
Like any athlete – Young received a small scholarship and was a member of the cheer squad for a few seasons – Young said it was hard to close his locker for the final time. He said the interactions with the fans, players, coaches and even the opposing players are something he will remember forever.
“It becomes a bit part of your identity. Having that unceremoniously ripped away like it was for everybody, it hurt a lot more than I thought it was going to,” he said. “Skyler will always have a special place in my heart.”