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Great Sport

GORILLA IN OUR MIDST
UMass lacrosse gets back to its dyed-acrylic roots

by Ben Barnhart

Paddy Welch as Garber Gorilla
A CERTAIN ROGUISH STYLE: Trading on his UMass connections, Amherst College student Paddy Welch is the latest incarnation of the legendary "Garber Gorilla." (photo by Ben Barnhart)
SHOULDERS SLUMPED UNDER THE DANK acrylic fur of his gorilla suit, Paddy Welch yanks the mask from his face and solemnly lights a cigarette.

“That sucked,” he says in a smoky exhalation. “That really sucked.”

Welch is dripping with sweat, physically drained, and stunned after watching the UMass lacrosse team lose its season-opener to tenth-ranked Hofstra in overtime. His disappointment is so deep and his attire so arresting that it’s easy to forget that he’s an Amherst College English and music major.

A Jeff dressed as an ape beating his chest over a Minuteman loss? Has the world come unmoored?

No, it’s just the return of one of our oldest and quirkiest sports traditions with an added twist. That big, mangy, loud, irreverent and unofficial mascot of UMass lacrosse, the Garber Gorilla, has begun appearing at lacrosse games again, and the man behind the mask this year happens to be an Amherst student.

By the time coaching icon Dick Garber retired in 1990, UMass men’s lacrosse had long been affectionately known as Garber’s Gorillas. A tradition begun as a silly prank 35 years ago under Garber – whose 300 career coaching victories is still tops in Division I lacrosse – continued during his son Ted’s four-year stint as head coach. But when Ted resigned in 1994, the gorilla seemed to take a hike, too.

Then, almost like Superman, the gorilla materialized out of the blue during last year’s crucial game against Syracuse, and he’s roamed the sidelines inciting the crowd at most home games this season.


LET'S GO MATTY! LET'S GO!" screams Welch to his childhood pal, senior co-captain Matt McFarland, during the Hofstra game.

Prowling the sidelines of Garber Field near “the hill” below Curry Hicks Cage, where hundreds of students sit in the grass in the unusual warmth of a late February day, Welch is in his element.

“Yeah! Clean his clock, Hutch!” he yells to midfielder Paul Hutchen, who sends a Dutchman flying to the turf with an especially hard check.

What the gorilla lacks in etiquette and hygiene – let’s just say his admonishment of the referees is not always gentlemanly and his matted black acrylic fur could use a good shampooing – he makes up for in enthusiasm and a certain roguish style.

A toothy snarl is permanently fixed to his rubbery face and one of his beady red eyes is missing. He wears a ratty T-shirt, faded maroon shorts that likely haven’t been washed in years, and hot blue Chuck Taylor high-tops. Welch carries on a friendly banter with the students who call him “monkey man” and bring him water during timeouts. When, late in the game, he’s approached by autograph seekers, he happily complies, signing himself “Gorilla XX.”

But Welch is the first to concede that he and most of the current players know little of the history of Garber’s Gorillas, or that the bellicose beast began patrolling the UMass lacrosse field years before they were born.


KEVIN O'CONNOR '69 REMEMBERS AS if it were yesterday. He was one of a handful of Garber recruits who brought the UMass lacrosse program to national prominence in the mid-1960s.

Now a middle school counselor in Baltimore, O’Connor says that in 1955, when Garber took charge of the fledgling squad, he was fielding teams “mostly by pulling guys out of P.E. classes.” But with the arrival of O’Connor, who is ranked tenth in career goals and assists at UMass, and teammates Walter Alessi ’68, Steve Connolly ’69, and Tom Malone ’70, Garber’s program began a string of successful seasons that propelled UMass lacrosse into the nation’s upper echelon.

It was O’Connor’s girlfriend, Anne Morel, who was responsible for the nickname “Garber’s Gorillas” – partly to poke fun at their small stature, but also to reflect their new standing among top lacrosse teams. Inspired by a character on a cereal box, Morel sketched a gorilla wielding a lacrosse stick, and O’Connor had the drawing reproduced as a decal that the players sold and slapped on windows, lampposts, car bumpers, and their helmets just before the ’68 season.

Figuratively as well as literally, the nickname on the decals stuck, and over the next two years Garber’s Gorillas went 20-1 – losing, ironically, only to Amherst College.

“It was fun and special to do that sort of thing with Coach Garber,” O’Connor reminisces. “I think it probably made us a better team, too, because if you’re going to do something like that, you’d better live up to it.”

When in subsequent years, someone appeared on the sidelines in a gorilla suit – no one seems quite sure who or when – that tradition caught on, too.
Rich Donovan ’78 played four years under Garber, and was an assistant under him in 1979. Donovan says the volunteer ape, always recruited by the players, was an emblem of the family atmosphere – albeit slightly offbeat – that Garber brought to his squad, and of the respect and affection with which UMass lacrosse players regarded their coach.

“He was a man of great integrity,” says Donovan, who stays in contact with the UMass program and helps current head coach Greg Cannella ’87 scout talent in the lacrosse hotbed of Long Island, where he lives. “Coach Garber always told us, ‘If you don’t care about yourselves, no one else will either.’”

Cannella, for his part, recalls seeing his mentor’s office piled high with gorilla memorabilia.

“Coach Garber had gorilla everything. Balls, mugs, hats, you name it,” says Cannella.

Cannella says he was surprised and happy to see the gorilla make a comeback. The 2001 season, when the team went 12-2 and narrowly missed a bid to the NCAA tournament, “sort of rejuvenated our program,” says the coach. “So it’s good to see the gorilla come back and get people excited again.”


THE PLAYERS, TOO, ARE enjoying the revival of the mascot – so much so that they put the gorilla on the T-shirt they sold as a fundraiser this year. The artist who rendered the image for the shirt is none other than the gorilla man himself: Paddy Welch.

Welch’s pal Matt McFarland, a gorilla-sized defenseman at 6-3, 210 pounds, remembers hearing of Garber’s Gorillas as a kid growing up in Garden City, New York. He says he never really understood what the odd moniker meant, but when his teammates “found” a gorilla suit last year it was the perfect opportunity to bring the beast back.

“I think it was a Halloween costume that someone didn’t return,” says McFarland. “It was passed down to my housemate” – senior midfielder Dusty Smith – “and since Paddy’s always hanging around our house we asked him to do it. We knew he’d be the perfect kid for it.”

They were right: Welch jumped at the chance to don the monkey suit and go crazy on the sidelines.

“Hey, I get to run around and be obnoxious,” he says. “Why not?”

So far, the gorilla’s return to Garber Field has been a good omen for UMass and its quest for a NCAA tourney bid. At press time their record was 9-2 with big games remaining against Georgetown and Syracuse.


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GORILLA IN OUR MIDST

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