Names chosen by colleges and schools and by professional sports franchises have become such a part of popular culture that their mention alone brings instant recognition of the institution or franchise they represent. No one hearing “This weekend the Fighting Irish do battle with the Longhorns” pictures the Clancy clan entering a rodeo or envisions an underground skirmish when a TV analyst reports that “the Wolverines tore into the Gophers after losing their scrap with the Badgers.” Likewise, few people seeing the headline “Lakers Overcome by the Heat” assume that it is further evidence of global warming.
The immediate association between nickname and team undoubtedly pleases administrators, regents, executives, advertisers, promoters, and alumni until they are reminded of this paradox: we are living in an age when familiarity breeds both recognition and contempt. Members of the generation who constantly ask “What’s next?” and openly scoff at the passé with the putdown “That’s so last year” are the same distracted multitude clinging to teams whose names are as stale as the Decatur Staleys.
Perhaps the reason I champion distinctive nicknames is that, for many years, players wearing the navy and white uniforms at the high school in my home town were known as the Viltons. Although none of us knew what a Vilton was, we liked the “hail to the conquering hero” sound of a headline like “Viltons Down Hilltoppers 52-37.” Around 1958 that unique name was replaced by the prosaic Cougars, thus joining the other four-footed beasties whose snarling jaws glare at us from gymnasiums and gridirons all over the country.
In the seventh grade, when I began seriously honing my basketball skills around the hoop attached to our garage, I became the fantasy star of an imaginary team whose name I repeated under my breath while sinking crucial jumpers from all over that dusty half-court: “And he does it again! Schulz wins another one for the Falconknighters!”
Even though it has been decades since this sub/fan bid adieu to that kid, I still love to play the name game. So did Paul Rhymer, creator of Vic and Sade, when he populated the fictitious town of Crooper with delightful eccentrics not much different than some of the folks that lived halfway down the next block in our town, one of the most memorable being Jimmy Custard, who sometimes chimed into the action with his claim to be the city callestalker. Don’t bother looking for a job description for that position; instead tune your mind’s ear to my frequency which hears a stadium loudspeaker in Lincoln, Nebraska blaring out these words on a bright October afternoon: “Today the Cornhuskers take on the Callestalkers.”
I may be alone in yearning for some fresh names like the Birnamwood Tree Movers, Key West Keel Haulers, Sedona Sidewinders, DeSoto Explorers, and Philadelphia Pile Drivers to replace some of the trite teams now dotting the sports pages. Someday I may find, hidden in agate on my back pages, a squib about a track squad called the Haber Dashers and their cheerleaders, Ilka Chase and Her Ilk.