True story: The Duke Blue Devil mascot once put a Carolina marching band member in the hospital.
That was 90 years ago, when the pitchfork the Devil carried was an actual farm implement, with actual sharp tines, and it landed in the back of a guy marching in the band. When it was clear the injured musician was going to be OK, “the [Duke home] crowd gave much of its sympathy to the unfortunate Blue Devil who had hurled the spear,” according to accounts published in the Daily Tar Heel on Nov. 21, 1933.
Yes, the Blue Devil almost killed an actual Tar Heel, and the Duke crowd worried about the feelings of the Blue Devil. “You’re supposed to be domineering,” says one-time Blue Devil mascot Billy Gist ’19. “Duke’s never the underdog. But be someone who people also can’t help but love.”
The Blue Devil may be the soul not only of Duke athletics but of Duke itself. The Blue Devil – the guy gyrating in Cameron or running through Wallace Wade with a big blue flag, wearing a big foam head? Yes. It’s a coveted job. Only a couple of students don that head every year, and they constitute a rather unusual alumni group. Men’s basketball players are called The Brotherhood; the Blue Devil alums call themselves The Otherhood.
Some history: The Blue Devil actually predates Duke itself. After World War I, what was then still Trinity College began playing football again after a hiatus of a couple of decades. The editors of the Chronicle thought referring to the Eleven or the Blue and White (or the Methodists) lacked pizzazz, when schools like Princeton and North Carolina State had the Tigers and the Wolfpack. In 1922, they invited suggestions and chose Blue Devils, after the crack French troops known as “les diables bleus,” who had toured the United States in blue capes to raise money during the war. The Chronicle began using the name, and it caught on.
Now, of course, the Blue Devil mascot is the beloved connector of all Duke teams. Your favorite player will graduate, but the Blue Devil, with his big rubbery head and musculature, his outsized gestures and pantomime bravado, shows up year after year at exhibitions and championships – and hospitals and fundraisers, the mascot beloved by the entire community.
“I did the Walk of Heroes for Duke Children’s Hospital. Kids who were there, they would run up to the Blue Devil. But hearing their stories? These are the strongest kids I have a concept of. And these people who have gone through treatments for cancer and these horrible diseases, and to be like this embodiment of the creature these kids look up to, that they’re excited to see. I’m not a crier, but I almost cried in that suit, looking at these kids.”-Billy Gist ’19
To become the Blue Devil, students have to perform an entertaining skit to a selection group, usually including current Blue Devils, cheer captains, and the cheerleading coach. As many as 15 students try out each year. The first Black Blue Devil came in 1976, the first woman in 1990. And since the big foam head replaced face paint in the early 1980s, the tradition has emerged that nobody knows who the current Blue Devil is (although in the Chronicle last year recent Devil Stratton Thomas ’22 called this “the worst-kept secret in the history of Duke”).
Some stories you don’t need to come to us for. The story of Blue Devil Evan Berg ’93 losing track of his costume before Duke’s breakthrough Final Four victory over UNLV in 1991 has been told in Sports Illustrated (he got it back in time for the final). Berg’s partner Blue Devil that year, Lisa Weistart ’92, was on the court the following year for The Shot. (You can see her in the big picture on the wall in the Duke Sports Hall of Fame in Cameron.)
“The PG-13 version is that I like to refer to him as a thoughtful and charming jackass. He doesn’t always abide by the rules. He knows where to toe the line, how to cross it in some ways that are usually comical, enjoyable, and fun for everyone around him.”-Ross Winston ’19
Because the Blue Devil got its start in 1922, a get-together of a dozen or so Blue Devils during 2022 homecoming represented the first of what will be many celebrations of Duke’s 2024 centennial. The story of the injured Tar Heel was new to the assembled Blue Devils, but they knew that at that time, apart from flinging around dangerous lawn tools, the mascot, a Duke student in a bodysuit and face paint, looked like something out of a fever dream. Among those assembled were some of the first to wear the big rubber head that has come to be the identity of the Devil, and many who wore the smaller head that has taken its place.
The Blue Devil reunion represented Duke’s most unusual athletic alumni (yes, like cheerleaders, they are considered athletes; they wryly call themselves “halfletes”). They revisited the oversized closet in the Card Gymnasium basement where they keep the pitchforks, extra heads and used duct-tape headbands. Above all, they reminisced about what being the Blue Devil meant. DukeMag, a sponsor of the event, listened in.