On game day vs. Duke, a UNC fanatic tagged along with Rameses, the Tar Heels' live mascot
It’s a cloudy Saturday afternoon. It's another game day in this college football season.
And I’m standing between a centuries-old farmhouse and a big three-story barn at Hogan’s Magnolia View Farm just north of Chapel Hill.
For almost 100 years, this is where the Hogan family has been raising one of my favorite local celebrities, Rameses, the name given to the Dorset rams who have served as the live mascot at UNC-Chapel Hill football games.
This is Game Day with Rameses. And it starts with bringing him in from the fields.
The Keepers of the Ram
Don Basnight rattles a plastic barrel of sweet feed against a long metal gate. In a pasture about 30 yards away, a 250-pound Dorset ram with Carolina blue painted horns suddenly stops grazing, and gallops toward him.
"When you rattle the food bucket, he literally comes-a-running," says Chris Hogan, Basnight's cousin.
Together, Basnight and Hogan are Rameses' primary caretakers.
"I'm one of the Keepers of the Ram, if you will," says Hogan. "I'm 65 years old and I've been doing it for as long as I can remember. And next year, we're going to celebrate 100 years of doing this. We're in our fourth generation. I think that's pretty impressive, myself."
Basnight gives a handful of feed to the ram, whose name on the farm is Otis.
"Once you start painting his horns blue, he becomes Rameses," Hogan says, laughing.
Rameses the First
This is a routine Basnight, Hogan and their cousins have been repeating before each home football game for decades — and their fathers, grandfathers and uncles decades before.
In 1924, UNC-Chapel Hill head cheerleader Vic Huggins suggested the school needed a live mascot, according to UNC. Huggins said it should be a ram in honor of UNC's star fullback at the time, Jack Merritt, whose nickname was "The Battering Ram."
"My grandfather was a football player at UNC, a lineman in 1921," Basnight says. "He was one of four boys who lived here on the farm."
Rameses I made his debut at UNC's game against the Virginia Military Institute on Nov. 8, 1924, according to The Daily Tar Heel, but died before the next season. Basnight says his great-uncle, Glenn Hogan, was one of the original caretakers, but the first rams might have lived on campus before taking up residence at the Hogan farm.
In the 1970s, Basnight recalls being recruited by his uncle to camp in the barn with his cousins, Chris and Rob Hogan, all of whom would protect the ram on nights before rivalry game days.
"We'd have our BB guns and our little lanterns up there. We'd take our sleeping bags, and we'd try to stay awake all night to watch and make sure that the rival school didn't come (to steal him)," Basnight says. "He'd been stolen a few times. He'd been over to the Duke campus. He'd been to ECU and stayed in a frat house for a week."
There have been no successful attempts at taking the ram since then, he says.
By Basnight’s estimation, the current mascot is Rameses XXII.
Ann Leonard, the widow of Rob Hogan, says caring for Rameses is the most beloved of their family traditions.
"The family has been farming the land for nine generations, so it's a bicentennial farm. And I think it really says a lot about the effort that's gone into this over 100 years to maintain the tradition of the ram in the family," Leonard says. "I've literally never taken him somewhere when I don't see everybody's face just light up. It's like ‘Oh, there's the ram!’"
"Well, hello, handsome! Howdy, howdy, howdy," UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore Olivia Biddix says as she gives the ram a kiss on his snout. Biddix and fellow UNC sophomore Emi Gilmer volunteer to look after Rameses on game days. They both plan to apply to veterinary schools.
"I want to show people he's not a violent creature," Biddix says. "He's well loved. He loves to be hugged and he's okay with getting kisses. He's so docile and he was trained for this."
Basnight secures a leash on the ram and leads him to a spot in the back yard among about 30 other friends and family who have come to help groom and prepare Rameses for today's game.
"He can't stand Duke," says Basnight.
Me either, buddy.
I should cut in here to say — if it’s not already clear — I’m a Tar Heel. I got my undergraduate degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, and I was the kind of student who painted his entire body Carolina blue on game days, the same blue that Basnight is using to touch up Rameses’ horns.
"You just get a little bit of paint on your brush, and then you move with him because if you try to hold him still, he'll fight," Basnight says.
Rameses is still a ram, after all. And his horns are a permanent extension of his skull that constantly grow like human fingernails. In other words, touch but don't grab.
Rolling with Rameses
Riding with Rameses through Chapel Hill before a big game is what I imagine it's like to ride with a movie star to a premiere.
The ram gets a homemade UNC blanket made by Chris Hogan's mother, Carolyn Hogan.
Then, after a last-second snack, Don Basnight and Chris Hogan escort Rameses into a small open-air trailer. It’s roughly shaped like a Carolina blue and white chariot with a metal gate on the back. There’s just enough room for me to sit on a hay bale in front of him.
"All right, Will. Get up in there, buddy. If he comes loose, just stay in the wagon," Basnight jokes with me. "He won’t bite you, but he might pee on you or step on your foot."
I slowly scoot around Rameses and sit next to Gilmer, who is also riding in the trailer today.
The ram's swirly horned head slowly bobbles between us as he takes bites out of the hay bale. One of them jabs me in the side.
Rameses' handlers make sure to drive him slowly through campus on their way to a pre-game event. It's a busy night on a Franklin Street full of Tar Heel fans who want a picture with Rameses.
"We’re coming to an [alumna's] birthday party. Her mom and dad are both UNC graduates and they invited us to the tailgate, so we’re going to get some sliders and beers and whatever the ram’s going to get to eat, we’ll see," Basnight explains.
Rameses does not get to enjoy sliders nor beer. But it turns out this birthday party is for another member of the extended family, Caroline Basnight Collier, his niece.
Don Basnight says these kinds of appearances outside the football stadium — for family or others — have become part of Rameses’ routine.
"His most recent non-football outing was a bagel party on campus. He also went to the State Fair. Best that I can tell in my research, we have the oldest active live mascot program in the nation and that's something to really be proud of," Basnight says.
Rameses and his posse reload the trailer, make the short drive up the hill to Kenan Stadium, walk through the tunnel, and onto the field.
The chants of "Tar!" and "Heels!" reverberate among a sold-out crowd of more than 50,000 people.
Rameses stands just beyond the corner of the north end zone. Chris Hogan points out the ram is by far the calmest creature here.
"It never ceases to amaze me," he says.
As for the game itself, it was an instant classic. It had the extreme ups and downs fans hope for in a rivalry game.
The Tar Heels jump out to an early lead, as quarterback Drake Maye completes awe-inspiring passes and hurdles over a Dookie for a first down.
Duke recovers an onside kick in the fourth quarter, then takes the lead with less than a minute remaining. The Tar Heels bolt down the field for a game-tying field goal at the end of regulation.
"This is why you love college sports," Chris Hogan says.
This is why I'll be "a Tar Heel dead" earlier than I'm supposed to.
You can see a lot from the field, including the thousands of stressed-out faces behind you.
Carolina scores in double overtime on what Duke fans will forever dispute is a botched call on the two-point conversion. Then, the Blue Devils score a touchdown, but fail at their own two-point conversion.
A 47-45 win over Duke, prompting fans to rush the field and quite literally scaring the poop out of Rameses. Chris Hogan holds him tightly and escorts him off the field without incident.
It's the fifth straight season that the Tar Heels have won the coveted Victory Bell, the trophy awarded to the winner of the annual Duke-UNC football game.
'I'm not just a student'
On the way back, Rameses takes a victory lap down Franklin Street where patrons waiting to get into crowded bars cheer and scurry to his trailer for more photos.
We arrive back at the Hogan farm just before 1 a.m. Rameses' chariot gate falls, Chris Hogan removes his blanket, and Rameses trots into the barn.
It’s been about 9 hours, but it was one of those days that felt like it went by way more quickly.
I didn't think I could be grateful to a farm animal for evoking a little bit of joy, and a lot of nostalgia.
But he’s not just any farm animal. He’s Rameses.
It might sound corny, but for many Tar Heel fans, he's the living embodiment of joy and nostalgia, and represents the idealistic pursuit of being a part of something larger than yourself.
"I'm not just a student. I'm a UNC student," sophomore Olivia Biddix said earlier in the day while she groomed Rameses. "And this is one way I really feel like I show that."
Thank you, Rameses.