Riding a High Horse : Saukko, Better Known as Tommy Trojan, Saddles Up Traveler for 25th Season at USC

Times Staff Writer

There are few clues to Richard Saukko's "other life" as you walk through his Saugus ranch on a windy late-summer afternoon.

Several white Arabian horses amble across a dusty corral. Up the hill, in front of the house, stands a wire-mesh skeleton of a prancing stallion that formed the headpiece to a Rose Parade float. Saukko himself wears a cardinal-and-gold USC cap.

Otherwise, the ranch looks much like what it is: home to a soft-spoken, retired paint salesman given to raising Arabians and Tennessee Walkers and taking quiet rides along trails in the afternoon.

But there is another ride Saukko takes. It is short, fast and furious. And it has made him one of the most famous men in the history of college football.

On Saturday afternoons each fall, Saukko jumps on Traveler, a powerful white horse, and sprints across the floor of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. On those days, he is not a 65-year-old retired paint salesman. He is Tommy Trojan.

Saukko is the original Tommy Trojan, and Saturday's USC-Baylor game marks his 25th season as the sword-wielding mascot for the USC football team. In the past quarter century he has perhaps become college football's most recognized mascot, having appeared before millions on national television and ridden in about 20 Rose Parades and 12 Rose Bowl games. He has outlasted three Traveler horses, three USC head coaches and five Heisman Trophy-winning tailbacks.

Saukko kicks the dirt with a well-worn cowboy boot.

"It's been kind of an interesting hobby--a conversation piece," he said. "I guess everybody has a little ham in him. This is my way way of getting mine out."

Around the USC campus, Saukko and Traveler are known simply as, "the Horse." They are a fixture at pep rallies and university functions. After every USC touchdown, fans scream for the horse to run onto the field.

While the mascot is predictably beloved by students and alumni, it was the horse's far-reaching notoriety that surprised football Coach Ted Tollner.

"I never really realized it before," Tollner said. "The number of athletes that we recruit who identify us with the Trojan horse is amazing. The kid could be from Iowa and the only time he's seen it is on television. They know the horse and the rider.

"There's a power, a mystique--it exemplifies the tradition of the football program at USC," he said. "Saukko is part of the game, part of our home-field advantage. He can get the crowd riled up to get us going when we're struggling. He's our secret weapon."

Mike Garrett was a Heisman Trophy-winning tailback at USC in 1965, during Saukko's early years. Garrett said he has vivid memories of seeing the horse on the sidelines.

"The horse is the thing. It's beautiful," Garrett said. "It was a great feeling to see the horse come prancing out onto the field, especially after we scored. Or if it was late in the game and we were driving, you would look over and see the horse and it really inspired you. You got turned on."

Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame's football coach from 1963 to 1974, was asked for his reaction to Tommy Trojan and Traveler. "Can you print it?" he quipped.

"It was one of the those intimidating things," he said. "They'd come storming down there with that horse and him riding it. It was right out of the Trojan days."

Parseghian said the horse was such a hated rival on the Notre Dame campus that on the eve of the 1973 USC-Notre Dame game in South Bend, Ind., he had a friend rent a white horse and show up in a Trojan costume at a pep rally.

"We told (the students) we stole the mascot," Parseghian said. "The kids went crazy."

There have been other indignities, too. In 1980, during halftime of a USC-Stanford game at Stanford, the Stanford band marched onto the field with a horse's skeleton ridden by a Trojan-helmeted human skeleton. And Saukko and Traveler often were bombarded with ice, garbage and fruit by student rooting sections at UCLA, Stanford and Berkeley.

"People either love the white horse," Saukko said, "or they hate the damn horse."

It was New Year's Day, 1961, when Bob Jani, then USC's director of special events, first saw Saukko leading a group of white horses in the Tournament of Roses Parade.

Until then, an odd variety of mascots had represented the university. In 1940, George Tirebiter I, a mutt famous for chasing cars across campus, was dragged into the Coliseum and became USC's first mascot. Some years later, he was run over and killed. In 1954, a student rode a rented horse at halftime of a USC-Pittsburgh game. For several years thereafter, Bob Caswell and his horse, Rockazar, rode at games. In the late 1950s, however, there was no mascot.

Jani thought Saukko might be the man to build a tradition.

"I wasn't even a football fan," Saukko said. "I said, 'I'll do it for one year, then you find someone else.' "

Saukko, who has owned white Arabians for 30 years, supplied the horse. The university supplied a leather vest and helmet worn by Charlton Heston in "Ben Hur." Saukko remembers the first game, waiting in the tunnel leading to the Coliseum field with Traveler I, the brother of the Lone Ranger's Silver.

"I hadn't ever seen the Coliseum before," Saukko said. "We got down in the tunnel. It's dark and it's loud in that tunnel. The horse started acting up. I wasn't sure we were going to make it out.

"The roar of the crowd . . . I was scared," he said. "But I figured if you don't get a yell, there's something wrong."

Since that first game, Saukko has grown to like the cheers. He has gone through two generations of Travelers, handmade a newer, more comfortable suit (he still uses the original helmet) and become an avid fan of college football. But he says his mascot style has changed little since the first ride across the field.

"They gave me a sword, so I held the thing up and got an ovation. So that's what I've done."

He does watch televised replays of USC games the next day to critique his performance. Keeping his back straight and sword held high are the keys, he says. And he compares notes with rival mascots: the Notre Dame leprechaun, the UCLA Bruin and the Arizona State Sun Devil.

"It's very friendly, there's no animosity," he said.

Pausing to reminisce about the passage of years, Saukko nuzzled the retired Traveler II. He shakes his head. No, there is no one game that is his favorite, no single moment that stands out. He insists that Saturday's silver anniversary holds no special meaning.

"All the games are special to me," he says.

Saukko scoffs at the suggestion that the boy born on a Eureka, Calif., ranch has grown up to be famous. But then, for a moment, he becomes uncharacteristically enthusiastic. He speaks loudly and his mouth curls in a smile.

"As you come out into the crowd, it's just like riding into a blast furnace," he said. "It's so hot and there's so much damn noise, you can't believe it. The players are yelling at me and giving me the victory sign. It's kind of thrilling."

Saukko goes so far as to grow boastful.

"I don't know anybody else that has the excitement and thrills I do," he said. "I know how the movie stars feel."

As Tommy Trojan, Saukko appears year-round at alumni events, civic parades, school graduations and business conventions. He said he is paid expenses--no more.

"I meet a lot of people. I met Ronald Reagan, uh, Tom Bradley, the astronauts. I knew O. J. (Simpson) pretty good and Mike Garrett. Lots of movie actors," he said. "You meet so damn many people, it's hard to remember who they are."

The children, Saukko says, are the ones he remembers.

"They like to pet the horse. I love the kids."

Riding Traveler has not been all movie stars and smiling kids, though. The less-glamorous moments have ranged from embarrassing to injurious.

About 10 years ago, the paint company Saukko worked for was bought out by a larger company. It turned out that Saukko's new boss was Jim Crowley, one of Notre Dame's famed Four Horsemen.

"We laughed it off," Saukko said.

There was a game seven years ago when Saukko and Traveler III were called onto the field in hopes of inspiring struggling Trojan players. As rider and horse sprinted along the sidelines, the players on the field looked up to watch the mascot ride past. The team was late getting the play off and was penalized for delay of game.

At a 1980 USC-South Carolina night game, Saukko and Traveler III slipped on a spot of wet paint and tumbled to the track. The next year, at a USC-Oklahoma game, the horse slipped on a banana peel in front of 90,000 fans and a national television audience.

Miscues away from the stadium have been more serious. In 1979, Saukko was riding Traveler III in a parade in Tehachapi, Calif., when the horse, apparently spooked by a U. S. Air Force band behind him, reared and fell on Saukko, breaking the rider's back. Saukko subsequently missed the 1979 season. A stand-in took his place.

Even vacations from work have taken their toll. Just two months ago, Saukko brought Traveler IV, who will be the next mascot in the Traveler line, along on a vacation in Oregon with his wife, Patricia. The couple went on a trail ride to train the 5-year-old Arabian when the horse broke through a railing and flipped, with rider, down a 10-foot embankment. Again, Saukko ended up cushioning the horse's landing. He spent the remainder of the vacation in an Oregon hospital with a broken hip.

Last week, Saukko was finally off crutches and limping around the ranch, vowing to be ready for the anniversary game.

"I've always said I'd quit when the horse got too old or I got too fat," Saukko said. "Well, I've gone through a few horses and I'm getting a little heavy, but I suppose I'll hang on a few more years.

Saukko is hoping to find a replacement rider in the next couple years. At the very least, he said he will supply the university with future horses in the Traveler line.

The rancher smiles and looks out over his land.

"It's been fun. I'd like to see the tradition go on."

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