By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
SEATTLE — So, a tiger shows up to a Husky football practice.
No, that’s not a start to some joke.
Sheena, a 16-month-old, 300-pound Bengal tiger, greeted University of Washington football players Tuesday when they walked through the gate of the East Practice Field.
She was caged, not running free, but it still was a slightly scary sight that few people have experienced.
“When I ran out I was like: ‘Ohhh! There’s a tiger here!” linebacker Travis Feeney said. “I thought, ‘Why is there a tiger here at practice?’”
There is a logistical reason.
On Saturday, when the Huskies face third-ranked LSU at Tiger Stadium, they will be greeted by more than 90,000 screaming fans and a live Bengal tiger as they walk onto the field from their locker room.
Mike the VI — 800 pounds of him — will be sitting in his massive cage on wheels right next to the entrance. It’s a little form of intimidation that the LSU Tigers like to use against their opponents.
“It can all be kind of a distraction,” said defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who coached against LSU when he was with Tennessee in 2010.
So instead of having his players distracted by seeing a live tiger just a few feet from them on Saturday, Sarkisian brought a tiger to them.
“I thought it was a pretty neat deal Sark did that,” Wilcox said. “I think the kids thought it was pretty cool.”
They also understood the message.
“The whole emphasis is just to get used to it now, so when we get down there no one is surprised or gets distracted by it,” center Drew Schaefer said. “It’s to focus on the task at hand.”
The players were all quite intrigued Tuesday. While most of them didn’t have much time to check out Sheena before practice, a big crowd gathered around after the workout. Offensive tackle Micah Hatchie seemed to be having a staring contest with her for minutes on end.
“That thing is cool,” he said.
Sheena was brought up from “A Walk on the Wild Side” — a non-profit game preserve and refuge in Canby, Oregon. At just more than a year old, she is still growing into her massive paws.
“She will double in size,” said Steve Higgs, Sheena’s handler and manager of the preserve. “She will be more than 600 pounds.”
The tradition of a live Bengal tiger mascot at LSU dates back to 1936. The actual decision was made in 1934 when a small group of individuals, led by athletic director T.P. Heard, raised $750 to purchase a 200 pound, one-year-old tiger from the Little Rock Zoo.
The tiger was originally named Sheik after its father. LSU officials changed his name to Mike to honor Mike Chambers, the athletic trainer, who came up with the idea of getting a live mascot.
The original Mike I served as mascot for 20 years before dying of pneumonia in 1956. Mike II’s reign was just two seasons before dying of pneumonia.
Mike III has northwest roots. He was acquired from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle after a national search. In his first year (1958) as mascot, LSU won the national championship. He served as mascot for the next 18 years before dying in 1975 shortly after a 5-6 LSU season. Three more tigers follwed.
Mike VI has been the mascot since 2007. He lives in a massive 15,000 square foot habitat across from Tiger Stadium. Before games, Mike rides around Tiger Stadium in his cage with members of the cheerleading teams.
Will bringing a live tiger to practice really help Washington win on Saturday?
The Huskies are after all a 24-point underdog to a legitimate national title contender. LSU has NFL-caliber players at just about every position and NFL-caliber players in reserve. In the end, seeing a tiger at practice won’t make Washington’s offensive line more capable of stopping LSU’s All-American defensive ends. It won’t help the linebackers tackle LSU’s cadre of talented running backs.
But it was still something different and something fun on a very tough, intense day of practice.
“It’s pretty cool,” offensive tackle Erik Kohler said. “It’s not every day you are face-to-face with a tiger.
Princeton Fuimaono (concussion) wore the yellow no-contact jersey at Tuesday’s practice. … Kohler and Mike Criste both took first-team reps at right tackle, but Kohler will likely be the starter. … True freshman Erich Wilson II and walk-on Willis Wilson got some reps with the first-team offense as Bishop Sankey’s backups.