Chris Cleary is an Eph. In fact, he's the quarterback of the Ephs, though he didn't even know what an eph was until he enrolled at Williams College in Massachusetts and learned that the school's team name is a reference to its founder, Ephraim Williams. Until then, he assumed an eph was a purple cow because, although Williams's team name is the Ephs, its mascot has been Purple Cows since the student body voted for such more than 100 years ago. Cleary points out that part of his confusion may have come from not knowing what one would call a purple cow, so a mysterious eph sounded plausible.
Williams students aren't the only ones who root for an ambiguously named sports team. The Campbell University Fighting Camels compete in North Carolina, Chanticleers at Coastal Carolina University, and Gamecocks at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. And don't forget the Pittsburg State Gorillas, St. Ambrose Fighting Bees, or the Oglethorpe University Stormy Petrels—named by one of the school's former presidents who admired the small, but spunky seabird.
[Learn about these misunderstood mascots.]
Every school has a history that makes it unique, and students can delve into the past by researching, attending campus tours, or, in Cleary's case, questioning the team name on his football jersey. He says that many other people, especially those unfamiliar with Williams College, are curious about the Ephs, too.
"So many friends ask you, 'What the heck is an Eph?' And when I first got here, I had no idea how to answer," he says.
Across the country in Kansas, Kelli Rappard knew exactly what her school's unusual mascot was before she applied. Having grown up in the area, she knew that the Wichita State University (WSU) Shockers refers to harvesting or "shocking" wheat. According to the school website, the name "Wheatshockers" first appeared in a WSU football game advertisement in 1904. The team's manager chose that name for the poster, because many of the players earned money in the off-season by shocking wheat in the nearby fields.
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The team name was later shortened to Shockers. Now, a century later, many Wichita students are proud to be the only school with such name, which was shaped so much by their school's past.
Rappard, who earned both her bachelor's and master's degrees from WSU and is now the head cheerleading coach, thinks that the city of Wichita has embraced the Shockers name because Kansas has so much pride as a wheat producing state.
Wichita also seems to love WuShock, the team's huge, yellow mascot who represents a shock of wheat and was named by Sports Illustrated as one of the 10 Ugliest Mascots. Wu, whose first name is derived from the school's former name, Wichita University, has his own Facebook and LinkedIn profiles and makes frequent appearances around town, which are documented in the "Where's Wu?" online scrapbook.
Devon Miller, a junior who also grew up in Kansas, is one of two WSU students who sports the WuShock costume. He thinks that a wheat-themed mascot may seem strange to out-of-staters, but it means a great deal to people in Kansas.
"The fact that we can incorporate a lot of the surrounding agricultur[al] life into our school says a lot about how Wichita State tries to connect with the community around it," Miller says.
Much like how Cleary's friends at other schools don't understand the Ephs, Miller says he doesn't expect people from the East and West coasts to understand the Shockers. He says that when he and the WSU basketball team traveled to a tournament in New York last year, many people asked what a shocker was.
"We'd be like, 'Well, it's a big yellow thing,'" he says.
Miller, who didn't tend to explain what wheat shocking is, says people were usually satisfied with his abbreviated answer.
"[W]hen you're in a city like New York, it's sort of a culture difference. So they don't necessarily understand what we're talking about. Farther to the east and west coasts, it's not relevant to them," Miller says.
[Take a college road trip to New York.]
Eva Folkert is an East Coaster who wound up at a school that, at first glance, didn't seem like a logical fit to her. A born-and-raised New Yorker and a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, Folkert traveled to Holland, Mich., to attend Hope College, which was founded by the Dutch and is associated with the Reformed Church of America, a Protestant denomination. The Hope College men's athletic teams are the Flying Dutchmen, and its women's teams are the Flying Dutch.
Folkert, who didn't think much about the team name as an undergraduate in the early 80s, is currently the co-athletic director at Hope. Now, she says, the team name makes perfect sense.
"This is an institution that was started by Dutch immigrants. It was natural to call ourselves the Dutchmen, and eventually the Flying Dutch. And we've retained that because it's very much a part of our heritage.
"The immigrants, who came with nothing and started an educational institution so that the future generations could have something, were the grand vision of the American dream. That's what we're proud of," Folkert says.
And Cleary is proud too. As someone who wasn't even sure what his team name meant at first, he is now a senior who feels more a part of his Williams College because he's aware of the Ephs' roots.
"It's a big tradition, and although it's a name that could easily be made fun of by people who don't go to our school, it's something that you take to heart. You think, 'Well I'm part of this huge family as an Eph,' and you start to take a lot of pride in it," Cleary says.
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