In 1968, Ball State’s beloved mascot entered the world as a person wearing a papier-mache creation that somewhat resembled a cardinal’s head.

A 1968 photo shows the first Charlie Cardinal mascot, wearing a papier-mache head.

Charlie Cardinal has come a long way since his papier-mache introduction during the 1968 football season. (Ball State photo)

Charlie Cardinal has come a long way since then, but one thing hasn’t changed: The students behind the mask have to be good at keeping a secret.

“As is the case with most university mascots, Ball State wants to keep our equity in Charlie Cardinal and focus on the mascot, not the person inside,” said Shawn Sullivan, assistant athletic director for marketing and fan engagement. “It’s important that their identities are kept a secret so there’s continuity from year to year. That’s always been the case here.”

In a typical year, eight or nine students are approved to be inside the Charlie costume, though never more than one at any time. While the most common place to see Charlie is at a Ball State athletic event, he also makes regular appearances at local elementary school functions, community events, nursing homes and various fundraisers.

Sullivan says it’s about the “mystique” of Charlie as a character, not just a costume.

“Another reason we ask students for secrecy is the sheer number of appearances that Charlie does,” said Sullivan. “And while we greatly value the commitment our students make for us, Charlie must always be the star attraction.”

Auditions to be Charlie Cardinal are at the start of each school year, and applicants are evaluated on criteria such as their skill with props, dance moves, improvisation and even an in-costume relay race. If a student does well in this phase, only one item remains.

Charlie Cardinal interacts with fans during fall 2016 Homecoming festivities.

Charlie was active during this year’s Homecoming festivities, when he made friends with a young fan. (Photo by Don Rogers)

“Once we make a preliminary selection, we absolutely want the student to convince us that they can keep their participation a secret,” Sullivan said. “It’s a bit of an arbitrary process, but we’ve become pretty good at it over the years.”

With that discretion in mind, Ball State Magazine spoke to two current Charlies.

Mystery Charlie No. 1, a junior, said living under an alias is part of the fun for her.

“We are allowed to tell our parents and our boyfriend or girlfriend, but that’s absolutely it,” she said. “I constantly need to craft my interaction with my professors and friends to keep my identity a secret.

“Right now, I don’t have a steady boyfriend,” she continued. “So there’s times when I’m asked out on a date and can’t because of a Charlie commitment. In those cases, my go-to response is that I need to study. That usually works OK until I can get back to them.”

Mystery Charlie No. 2, a senior, said he has kept the secret now for almost four years.

“To be honest, a few more people than I’d like know I play Charlie,” he said. “But overall, I think I’ve done well. One of my best memories was when my parents brought my favorite aunt and uncle to a football game. They asked my parents if I was in the Charlie outfit that day since I wasn’t around to meet them, and my folks said I was at my internship and would be there after the game. Now that’s dedication!”

Charlie Cardinal directs the pep band at a basketball game.

And a one and a two! Charlie “conducts” the basketball pep band during a men’s game at Worthen Arena in January 2016. (Photo by Domenic Centofanti)

So what happens when a Charlie Cardinal student mascot graduates? For Jason Fragomeni, who was Charlie from 1995-99 and is now a graphic designer in Ball State’s Division of Strategic Communications, it’s like a 10,000-pound weight off his shoulders.

“Once you graduate, you can reclaim your identity,” he recalled. “I wouldn’t trade those years for anything, but at the same time, you always have to be planning and scheming to keep the secret. It can be a burden at times, but once you can tell whom you want, combined with the fact you did something fun and important for the university that you love, it makes it all worth it.”