ARKANSAS FOOTBALL coach Hugo Bezdek profoundly altered the Arkansas sports universe in 1909* when—according to local lore—he said his team had fought “like a wild band of razorback hogs.”
The University of Arkansas football team had whipped powerhouse Louisiana State University 16-0. Scrappy play from Arkansas’ undersized players representing an undersized school apparently reminded Bezdek of the skinny, ill-tempered wild pigs found throughout Arkansas and the South.
The U of A football team was known as the Cardinals back then. Some believe Bezdek’s seemingly “eureka” moment was really a clever marketing ploy, that he had long been impressed with the fighting spirit of the feral pigs he had seen since moving to the South and believed the pugnacious porkers would be a better symbol for his gritty team.
Regardless, the nickname was wildly popular with the student body, and the name stuck hard. By 1910, U of A students had voted to make the Razorback the school’s official mascot.
Since 1997, U of A sports teams’ live mascots has been a family line of boars—all named Tusk—descended from Eurasian wild-hog bloodlines believed to closely resemble those fierce feral hogs that inspired Bezdek.
With Tusk V starting his rookie season, we turned to the Stokes family—specifically, patriarch Keith Stokes—to learn a little about the life of the Tusk boars and what it’s like to be responsible for a pig that seemingly belongs to an entire state.
*Editor’s note: It’s worth noting there were several mentions of the Razorbacks before 1909—but that’s a story you can read here: hogdb.com/2012/06/06/the-razorbacks-came-before-bezdek
What are the origins of the Tusk idea?
Former Razorback football player David Bazzel was doing some stuff for [athletic director] Frank Broyles. [After] David created the Broyles Award and the Golden Boot trophy for the Arkansas vs. LSU rivalry game, Broyles asked him for more ideas, and he mentioned that Arkansas’ mascot in the ’80s was just an old farm pig. When David played, they would go out to the university farm and pick up a Duroc boar because it was red. Well, Durocs also have big floppy ears like a basset hound. It makes them look kind of lazy—not very intimidating. David wanted a real razorback.
I was president of the Arkansas Pork Producers, and we were already doing some other promotional things with the university, so he called me up. David had been looking in zoos everywhere—New York to San Diego—and he couldn’t find any razorbacks. I called a veterinarian friend of mine who had a friend in Greenbrier who had two. So I called David and said, “I found you two.” I told him they were in Greenbrier, Arkansas. David said, “I’ve been looking across the country, and you find them in my backyard?” I told him he should have started at home.
What’s the story behind Tusk’s legacy?
David wanted a lineage, where the father sires a replacement. Nobody else does that except Georgia. Uga (the University of Georgia’s live bulldog mascot) is a lineage mascot. Mike the Tiger (LSU’s live tiger mascot) is always a rescued tiger. As a matter of fact, the first tiger mascot at LSU came from Arkansas. The students collected nickels until they came up with however many nickels it takes to make $500 and bought the tiger from the Little Rock Zoo.
The Little Rock Zoo actually kept the hogs for a while, but when the zoo got a new director, he had different plans. So a good friend of ours at Tyson Foods in Springdale said we could bring them up there. There was just one hog then, and as soon as we got Tusk I up there, I found a female in Missouri and brought her in so we could get Tusk II on the ground.
I had a commercial hog farm at the time and had to limit my time around the razorbacks to prevent the possibility of spreading disease from the razorbacks to my hogs. But in 2004 or 2005, I shut my farm down, and Tyson shut its research farm down up there, and the stars were right for me to bring the razorbacks down here so I could handle them every day. And they’ve lived here ever since.
Besides the Duroc in the ’80s, have there been other live mascots at the U of A?
Yeah, there have been several. There’s the story about, I think his name was Ragnar, that they tried to keep on campus. Well, he got loose and killed some dogs and chickens and things. And I think even on back to 1920, someone tried to have one. Before Tusk, the mascots were called Big Red. But now, Big Red is the costumed mascot.
What does Tusk’s travel schedule look like during the year?
We do all home football games and the Southwest Classic. And we do a bowl game … when [the Razorbacks] go. Basketball is tough because they play on weekdays, and it’s a winter sport, so there’s bad weather to contend with, but we try to pick a Saturday game. Once baseball gets here, we’re pretty busy. We do the majority of the home series—not every game, but we try to do one. July is our maintenance month for the truck and stuff. And we do at least 6-8 Razorback Club meetings. Tusk travels around 11,000 to 12,000 miles a year.
Does the Tusk line have personalities different than the fierce animal they represent?
They’ve all been different. Every one of them has got his own little eccentricities.
You always have to remember that this is a wild animal, and he’s a full male. You have to respect him; never turn your back on him. He’s not ferociously going to attack you, but he could accidentally hurt you. We start handling them the day they are born, as much as mama will let us, to get them accustomed to us. They’re not scared of people. A lot of people say he thinks he must be human, but naw, he thinks you’re a 300-pound hog like him, and he might try to treat you like a 300-pound hog. But an interaction that won’t hurt a 300-pound hog will hurt you pretty bad.
They do show their irritation real quick. The reason they’re called razorbacks is because they’ve got a strip of hair that starts between their ears and runs about halfway down their back. When they feel uncomfortable, they raise that hair to make them look bigger. They also have two sets of tusks, and when they feel threatened they will take those bottom tusks—called cutters—and sharpen them on the top tusks—called whetters, like a whet rock you sharpen your knife on. So if he throws that razor up and starts sharpening his tusks, it’s time to step back and let him calm down.
What does Tusk enjoy for R&R?
R&R is mud. They love mud. Everyone thinks hogs are nasty animals, but they need mud. They can sunburn. That mud dries on their skin, but to me, the most important thing—and I wish I’d known this when I was younger and squirrel-hunted in the bottoms—is that mosquitoes and black flies can’t bite through the mud. As far as food, they love grapes and apples, and watermelon. Right now, they’re getting a lot of watermelon.
Is taking care of the most famous pig in Arkansas a stressful job?
It can be, but this is definitely a family thing. We all have different duties. When Tusk is in that trailer, someone is with him 24/7. That means if we’re spending the night, someone is sleeping on top of that trailer with him. He’s never left alone in that trailer.
That’s the key to keeping his trust and why he likes going places. We make sure that every travel experience is a pleasurable experience for him. It takes all of us. It’s a team effort.