Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Madison Clinger was the first female student to ever portray The University of Miami's mascot. According to UM, there have been other female mascots but the school said Wednesday it hasn't kept official records.
Last week, Madison Clinger finally got to share a secret she’s closely guarded for three years.
Clad in fluffy yellow boots, the final graduating student announced at the University of Miami’s commencement ceremony skipped across the stage, leading the crowd of thousands in one final ‘C-A-N-E-S’ cheer.
The raucous display officially revealed Clinger as the first female student to portray Sebastian the Ibis, Miami’s iconic school mascot, in some time. It also shocked many of the Fort Myers native’s closest friends who were clueless about her feathered alter ego.
“It’s a big secret on campus to protect Sebastian’s identity,” Clinger said. “At graduation, everyone was asking, ‘How did I not know?’ It was unexpected to be flooded with so much love and support.”
Clinger got her costumed start at age 14, dressing up as ‘Little Zach,’ the mascot for Zaxby’s after her mother Rusti Clinger opened the chain’s first Southwest Florida location in 2014.
“When you own a family business and need someone to jump in, it’s your own child that gets handed the chicken costume,” Rusti Clinger said. “It was surprising to see how much she embraced it. The rest is history.”
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At Miami, Clinger made the exclusive team of students that serves as the university’s costumed ambassador as a sophomore. She then spent the next three years juggling creative excuses for why she couldn’t attend Miami football tailgates or sit in the stands during games with her sorority sisters.
“People would see me on the field before the game, so I told them I was working with the athletic department, helping with the equipment, or doing social media,” she said. “It was tough to keep the stories straight.”
Being Sebastian involved a lot more than just attending Hurricanes sporting events. The legendary character is a coveted guest of honor at children’s hospitals, elementary and middle schools, bar mitzvahs, weddings and everything in between.
While every student puts their own spin on the mascot’s personality, Clinger said she felt most at home during events with children.
“In my group, I was known as the kids or community ‘Seb’,” she said. “I just loved the kids to death. They would get so excited for me to be there and the parents would too.”
Clinger, who entered Miami planning to go to medical school to be a children’s neurologist, left with a bachelor of science in psychology and criminology. This fall, she’ll begin pursuing a master’s degree in social work at North Carolina State University and wants to work as a clinical social worker. She said part of her decision to alter her career path was prompted by her experiences as Sebastian.
“Being Sebastian did help get me there,” she said. “It got me connected in schools and other areas where I saw kids in all different walks of life.
“I knew I wanted to help kids who were underprivileged. It’s not fair that they don’t have the same access to resources that other children have when their future could be equal. I want to help break that cycle.”
Clinger said what she’ll appreciate most about her time as Sebastian won’t be running across the field inside packed stadiums or the opportunity to travel across the country.
“I’ll remember how happy I made people feel,” she said. “For me, that was the best part.”
Connect with Dan DeLuca: @News-PressDan (Twitter), email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: 'Big secret on campus': University of Miami mascot revealed at graduation