Arkansas’s wooly, toothsome, fighting spirit incarnate has a long week ahead of him. It’s three days until the University of Arkansas football game in Fayetteville, and Tusk, the beloved Razorback mascot, is getting a bath. See, Tusk’s life isn’t like any ordinary hog’s. From his home near Dardanelle, he’ll be whisked around the state for photos, pep rallies, and game events before parading through Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The Tusk we see today is actually Tusk IV. He’s a direct descendant of the first Tusk who debuted in 1994. Dardanelle’s Keith Stokes and his family have been caring for the Tusk bloodline since the beginning.
While razorback hogs are not native to North America, they have a long history in Arkansas. Wild hogs are an Old World species that originated in Russia and Europe. When the first Spanish explorers began to map the area in the 1500s, they brought Russian-European hogs with them and traveled with their herds. The Spaniards used hogs as a food source because of their ability to forage on the go and survive a variety of conditions. Naturally, some hogs escaped and thrived in America where they had no natural predators. Later, other settlers found a land filled with hogs. The term razorback is a colloquial term the settlers gave these wild Russian-European hogs because of the coarse bristles along their back, from head to tail, that raise on end when threatened.
In Arkansas, these wild boars were particularly widespread and troublesome. They would uproot plants and kill small animals as they roamed the countryside. Unlike their domestic counterparts, wild hogs are covered with muscle and have tendons up to an inch thick. They’re fierce and aggressive, with a well-earned reputation. A headline from The Telegraph in 1907 reads, “The Arkansas Hog, It Can Outrun a Greyhound and Whip a Wolf or a Bear.”
The University of Arkansas hasn’t always called itself the home of the Razorbacks, however. Originally, the university used the cardinal as its mascot. However, everything changed in 1909. At the time, LSU was widely considered the No.1 football team in the nation. The players of the University of Arkansas visited LSU and razed the home team, with a final score of 16-0. Stepping off the train back in Arkansas, coach Hugo Bezdek faced a throng of media, from the local to the national level. When speaking to the reporters, Bezdek said his players played “like a wild band of razorback hogs,” and the name stuck. The next year, students voted to make the Razorback the official mascot.
Visitors and Arkansas natives alike know the iconic Razorback and Hog Call, but few know much about the actual razorback hog. Keith said one common misconception people have is that razorbacks are red. “Red has nothing to do with razorbacks. Razorbacks aren’t red,” he said. Instead, the red color is an homage to when the University of Arkansas called the cardinal its mascot.
Tusk and his forefathers aren’t the first live Razorback mascots employed by the university. Hogs have been brought into the stadium on occasion since the 1920s and continuously since the 1960s. Before Tusk and his family line, the boars were usually domestic red Duroc boars, taken from the University agriculture department. The problem was that the Duroc is a commercial breed that doesn’t resemble the wild hogs of legend.
In 1994, the U of A athletics department and former player David Bazzel contacted Keith Stokes, President of the Arkansas State Pork Producers Association. They asked Keith to find a live boar to represent the team. Keith traveled to nearby Greenbrier and brought back Tusk I, a Russian boar weighing 475 pounds. Tusk I was smaller than a typical commercial hog and closer in form to the original wild boars of Hugo Bezdek’s time. Those wild boars were smaller than domestic pigs, with fierce tusks, a shovel plate on their skull for digging in the dirt, and long snouts.
Tusk I fathered both Tusk II and Tusk III, and Tusk II is the father of the current Tusk, Tusk IV. Of the bunch, Tusk IV is the smallest, weighing in at 300 pounds, and the friendliest Tusk so far. He is also closer in size and form to the original wild razorbacks.
Tusk enjoys an 8,000-square-foot indoor facility with both heat and air conditioning. He can also go outside to a 10,000-square-foot outdoor area full of the mud wallows he loves. “Hogs aren’t dirty,” Keith explained. “They protect their skin with mud.” Hogs have sensitive skin, just like humans.
Tusk IV uses a coating of mud to shield himself from harsh sunlight and protect himself from biting insects. “Mud is wonderful; it’s the most important thing hogs need,” Keith said.
Keith explains that instead of game day, Tusk has game week. A game week starts Wednesday morning with a bath and ends early Sunday morning when they return home. During game week Tusk needs some cleaning up before he’s in the spotlight. On Wednesday, Tusk gets a bath. The process starts with a quick wash from the water hose to clean the mud off. Afterward, he’s not allowed access to the mud wallows until Sunday. On Thursday, Tusk gets a shampoo. “I had a man come up to me at a pep rally and ask my son what I used to wash Tusk,” Keith said. “My son told him that I just went to the store and bought regular shampoo for him.” The man told him that he knew exactly what Tusk needed. A couple of weeks later, a barrel of elephant wash showed up on his front porch. “I’ve been using that barrel for the last 7 or 8 years,” Keith said.
The family leaves Saturday morning, about six hours before kickoff, or Friday morning if they have pep rallies. Tusk rides in a state-of-the-art trailer complete with sound system playing the University’s fight song and cameras to monitor Tusk. He’s pulled by a large Freightliner Sportchassis pickup. Tusk attends every home football game, including the one in Little Rock. They also travel to Dallas for the Southwest Classic and attend most bowl games.
Tusk IV enjoys the ride. “He just loves the attention,” Keith said. “When he sees a car pull up beside us, he’ll run over to their side so they can take a picture.” Once, on their way to Dallas, they pulled over for gas just outside of town. A couple approached them and asked to take pictures. It turns out that they had been traveling the opposite way on the interstate, but turned around and followed the truck for 40 minutes before they pulled over. “We’ve got to take a picture. My grandpa graduated in 1936, and we’ve just got to take a picture,” they said. Keith, in disbelief that someone would go so far out of their way just to see Tusk, said, “Go ahead and take as many pictures as you want.” The family rarely has a fuel stop that lasts less than an hour.
“We never had a bad experience with fans,” Keith explained. “Even the visiting fans. They’ll joke ‘oh looks like bacon, looks like barbecue,’ this, that and the other, but they’ll stay there and talk to you and finally let the cat out of the bag how much they love Tusk in just a few minutes.” While Tuck loves the attention and is very tame, Keith points out that he is still a 300-pound bundle of pure muscle. “More people have been hurt and killed by tame animals than have ever been killed by wild ones,” he said. “When he is in the trailer, me, my son, my wife, or my daughter is with him at all times,” said Keith. He explains that when Tusk is in the trailer he knows nothing bad can happen to him, and he’s going to get snacks.
When the family reaches the stadium, they’ll load a cheer squad and pep band on top of the trailer and visit any pep rallies and tailgate locations. This gives Tusk a chance to interact with fans. About 20 minutes before kickoff they’ll enter the stadium with both cheer squads and human mascots atop the trailer. The trailer can accommodate 70-75 people on top. Keith describes pre-game as organized chaos. “There are about 300 people in our little corner we have to navigate through,” he explained. “And it’s a big trailer.”
After kickoff the family watches the game, and Tusk is ready for snacks. “He gets a grape every time we score, one for each point on the scoreboard,” Keith said. When the game is over, Tusk has another chance to interact with his fans. Even though the game is over, the family still has a long way home. They wait for fans to go home and traffic to clear before leaving the stadium. It’s often 2 or 3 a.m. Sunday morning before they’re home and in bed. “Our game days are often 16 or 18 hours,” Keith said.
While it’s tiring work, Keith said that he and his family love it. “We’re very lucky and fortunate to do what we get to do,” Keith said. For him, caring for Tusk and his line is the one way he can combine his love for animals and his love for the Razorbacks. Tusk, of course, enjoys his life as the state’s favorite hog.