Don’t ask Jonathan Kimble where he was exactly when a tire on his SUVflattened along a Preston County back road. He can’t recall the town or the event—it’s a speck within his dust storm of appearances as West Virginia University’s official mascot.
Tapping into that Mountaineer spirit that feeds on all challenges, Kimble would not let a flat tire stand in his way of making it to the next event.
Draped in his mountain-man costume, he walked to the nearest home and knocked on the front door.
A middle-aged man answered.
“Don’t be alarmed, but I have a gun in the backseat,” Kimble told him about his musket.
Oddly, that statement did not unnerve the man. He helped Kimble remedy his car problem.
Just as bizarre was the stranger’s failure to recognize Kimble as the Mountaineer. That is, until the man’s son came outside.
“Hey, you’re the Mountaineer!” said the boy, pointing at Kimble.
The Good Samaritan “freaked out” and then said, “Let’s get a picture. Don’t go anywhere.”
A WEST VIRGINIA ICON
“The Mountaineer is the perfect symbol for West Virginia. Look at other schools.
Their mascots don’t represent entire states. The Mountaineer is for WVU and the whole state of West Virginia. It fits who we are—hardworking, dedicated people.”
Those are the words of 25-year-old Jonathan Kimble, the man currently playing the sacred role of the Mountaineer.
“The Mountaineer is for WVU and the whole state of West Virginia. It fits who we are—hardworking, dedicated people.”
In February, Kimble was named the University’s 62nd official Mountaineer mascot.
The Franklin native edged out three other finalists through an intense process that involved application essays, interviews, and cheer-offs.
He officially took over as the 2012-13 Mountaineer on April 20 at the Passing of the Rifle Ceremony. The very next day he led the WVU football team out of the tunnels in the Gold-Blue Spring Game.
Kimble didn’t come in clueless.
He had already served a year as the alternate Mountaineer to Brock Burwell.
And on October 6, Kimble made history as the first-ever Mountaineer mascot to burst into a Big 12 Conference stadium.
So far, Kimble has lived up to the task.
“Jonathan stands out from the others who came before him in his outgoing personality,” said Sonja Wilson, Mountaineer mascot advisor. “He never sees a stranger. He is the first to arrive and the last to leave. He has autographed hundreds upon hundreds of autographs and loves every minute of it.”
Wilson has worked with several Mountaineers over the years, and understands what the mascot represents as well as those who don the costume.
“The Mountaineer is unique because he or she portrays the face of our University and the state,” she said. “We are very fortunate to have a school mascot that embodies the strength, courage, and determination of the people of our great Mountain State. Whether in the buckskins or not, he or she represents our University.”
A SUMMER SEND-OFF
Kimble, in his buckskins, gets out and walks inside the convenience store to use the bathroom. A couple hours earlier, he was hosting the Mountaineer Olympics at the Mountainlair.
He even participated, in a losing effort in a musical chairs competition. But that’s OK. The Mountaineer isn’t meant to do musical chairs. He’s here to serve, inspire, and represent. In his first three months as Mountaineer, Kimble made 150 appearances—University functions, sporting events, youth camps, nursing homes, hospitals, and more.
On this July night, Kimble will speak with incoming freshmen and their parents at a Pittsburgh park.
It will be many students’ first encounter with the Mountaineer.
As the van closes in on the park, Kimble makes sure he has a handful of postcards bearing his likeness for autographs. He doesn’t have to put on his game face. It’s practically on at all times. He’s that friendly and outgoing.
After exiting the vehicle, Kimble is asked to pose for pictures.
“Do you know ‘Country Roads?’” he asks about 20 incoming freshmen from the Pittsburgh area. “When you show up at a football game in the student section, you may not know anybody, but by the end of the day, you’ll have your arm around someone singing ‘Country Roads.’”
Kimble shares some advice to the soon-to-be Mountaineers on how to conduct themselves at sporting events.
“We’ll be welcoming teams from the Big 12 this year,” he said. “Be nice and respectful. It’ll be their first trip to Morgantown.” Kimble sits with the students at a picnic table and chows down on a few helpings of meat and potatoes. The position of Mountaineer is not a paid one. So when there’s a free opportunity to feed his Mountaineer appetite, he won’t shy away from seconds.
He makes no qualms about his eagerness: “I try to eat and drink as much as I can.”
Before the day’s over, he leads everyone in a “Let’s Go Mountaineers” chant and fires off the musket.
A SUMMER WEDDING
Kimble’s first summer as the Mountaineer was certainly a busy one. There were some weeks when he drove more than 2,500 miles.
In fact, he got only one week off during the summer. That was the week of his wedding.
Yes. Mascots get married, too.
In the summer of 2011, Kimble stumbled into a pretty blonde accountant at the beach near the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
The mighty game of cornhole brought them together.
“We had our WVU cornhole boards with us and I asked her if she wanted to play with me,” he recalled. “She did surprisingly well, and we won every game. It must’ve been made to be. ” His vacation turned somber. One of his best friends passed away in his sleep during his visit.
That pretty blonde—Christine Zackrison—reached out to Kimble in his time of need.
“His death was a shock to me,” he said. “Christine asked if there was anything she could do. Here was a random girl I met a week ago offering to go to my friend’s funeral with me. We really bonded.”
The two grew closer and soon enough, they got engaged.
Kimble approached his proposal the old-fashioned way. He sought the blessing of the bride to-be’s father first. “I joked around with her about it (before the real proposal),” he said. “I’d get down on my knee but then just tie my shoe.”
Around Valentine’s Day, Kimble decided to surprise her with red velvet cake and M&Ms. Inscribed on the M&Ms were the words, “Will you marry me?”
Kimble got on his knee and proposed. She responded, “Are you serious this time?”
Just a year after the couple dominated the cornhole competition, they stood together at the altar.
There was just one condition for Kimble. He had to trim the beard.
Kimble’s wife is a California native, previously unfamiliar with West Virginia. She’s taken a full-fledged crash course in just a few months, being married to the Mountaineer and all.
“She didn’t know what to expect,” said Kimble, smiling.
The newlyweds are adjusting. She still works in Washington, DC, and they get to see each other only on weekends.
“My personal life has become the Mountaineer life,” Kimble said. He’s not one to overthink and fret, but Kimble said he’s well-organized. To prepare for his duties, Kimble glances over his calendar before going to bed.
He attributes his discipline to a two-year church mission he served in California. During that time, he woke up at 6:30 a.m. every day.
Kimble was 19. He had no cell phone or Internet access. No job. No classes. Just outreach and sacrifice.
On his mission, Kimble would volunteer at food banks, homeless shelters and with various types of community service.
“I was away from family and WVU sports for two years,” he said. “I was separated from my world, in a sense, but I was helping other people. Those life skills are lessons learned that would help me in college. It helped me plan, manage money, and set goals.
“It’s a huge part of who I am, and a huge part of how I’m handling being the Mountaineer.”
I SCREAM. YOU SCREAM. WE ALL SCREAM FOR THE MOUNTAINEER.
It’s the first week of the fall semester. For Kimble, the summer grind morphs into the fall. The only difference is that there are 20,000-plus more students on campus.
Also, it’s the first week of grad school for Kimble, who’s working on his master’s degree in human resources and industrial relations.
It’s a Friday afternoon, and Kimble must attend an ice cream social for international students and then head off to a volleyball game.
He mustered through a workout an hour earlier (not in costume, fortunately for him) and scrambled for a shower and bite to eat before embarking on his afternoon of appearances.
Kimble arrives at the Mountainlair parking garage a few minutes late for the gathering set outside Eiesland Hall. A text message explaining his tardiness reads, “This traffic in front of the Lair is awful. Another reason I need to be riding a horse!”
Dozens of international students are waiting. Many have already helped themselves to the cold, creamy goodness. It’s ripe weather for it, sunny and hot.
Kimble was asked to assimilate these students, from the Intensive English Program, into the WVU community. There’s no better way than to have Mr.WVU do it himself.
He emerges from the sea of college students wandering elsewhere to class, and the IEP students applaud. They’re probably not too familiar with a musket-wielding, coonskin cap-wearing, bearded lad. But the sight impresses.
“Is it possible to be the Mountaineer forever?”
Regardless of where you come from, anyone who encounters the Mountaineer wants their picture taken with him. One-by-one, the IEP students stand in line with their cellphones turned on to the camera function.
As usual, Jonathan takes the time to abide by each person’s photogenic wish. Some try on his cap. One young man sniffs it.
It’s a successful outing for Jonathan—even though he didn’t get to savor any ice cream. They ran out.
THE BIG TIME
West Virginia’s favorite John Denver tune blares out of Kimble’s iPhone at 6:15 a.m. on September 29.
It’s his wake-up call.
Even on gamedays like this, when kickoff is at noon, Kimblewants to make it to Mountaineer Field by 8:00 a.m.
He doesn’t have to be there that early. But he wants to.
It’ll be WVU’s first Big 12 Conference game as the Mountaineers host the Baylor Bears.
His wife stays in bed as Kimble slips into his buckskins. He grabs a Red Bull and three sandwich bags filled with deer jerky, and he’s ready.
Hardcore Mountaineer fans are already out in full force outside the stadium four hours before kickoff. Kimble stops at one tailgate and helps himself to French toast, eggs, sausage, and ham. It’s become a ritual for him at home games. He always has breakfast there.
Once he’s fed, it’s photo op time . . . for the next three hours.
One after another, as Kimble makes his way from tailgate to tailgate, fans swarm him and ask for pictures.
Grown men beg, “One more! One more!” each time Kimble attempts to make a beeline elsewhere. Kimble is too nice and usually sticks around until everyone can snatch a photo, even if they’re making him late for something.
He jokingly keeps a running count on how many times someone asks him how many push-ups he’s going to do. There were also at least a dozen references to the ESPN College Gameday commercial with Kimble and ESPN analyst Lee Corso (half of those references came from fans telling Kimble he “should have shot Lee Corso.”).
Finally, Kimble gets a few minutes to himself before taking the field.
He stretches on a mat in the football team’s weight room. Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” explodes through the speakers and the Bruce Banner version of Kimble begins to transform into the Hulk version.
Because the Mountaineer performs one push-up for every point on the scoreboard per every score, Kimble’s arms and pecs got in a week or more’s worth of a workout.
In WVU’s 70-63 shootout victory over Baylor, Kimble performed 385 push-ups.
In his first two months of being the Mountaineer, Kimble added 15 pounds of muscle from working out with the football players. By the end of the season, Kimble might look like the Rock.
Then, just the same way as his day started, the soothing sounds of John Denver signify the end. Kimble stood in the end zone with the cheerleaders singing along to “Country Roads.” A few football players joined him.
After the stadium emptied, Kimble spotted his wife and parents waiting for him in the stands. He smiled at them and walked over to sit with them and reflect on the day.
It was now about 5:00 p.m. Time to head home, shower, and watch more college football on television.
Two months earlier on his trip to Pittsburgh, Kimble pondered his future after graduate school.
“Is it possible to be the Mountaineer forever?”