Buff the Bison needs his protein.
It’s another sweltering day in Searcy, Arkansas, and although summer break for Harding students has commenced, duty calls for the University mascot. In a few hours, he will suit up in a furry costume that will make this 90-degree day feel like a 130-degree sauna. During an average football game in early fall, Buff the Bison may lose 5 to 7 pounds roaming the sidelines. So on this afternoon in late May, as he engages with athletes competing in the Special Olympics Arkansas Summer Games, the bison cannot afford to let his nutrition slide.
But Buff is distracted. The lunchtime conversation revolves around his favorite subject — sports — and the beef dip sandwich he ordered remains mostly untouched. Fortunately, his mascot handler, who doubles as his mother, stays on mission.
“OK, Buff, eat some protein,” Robbie Dunning instructs.
Her son keeps talking, now about the Harding softball standout who recently transferred to a Division I school. While chagrined at the team’s loss and the inevitable impact on its season, Buff understands the student-athlete’s desire to play on a bigger stage. Buff had once made a similar decision himself.
“All right, Buff, you need some protein there,” Robbie chimes in again. Apparently, you can lead a bison to meat, but you can’t make him eat.
Buff’s path to Harding has been long, arduous and unexpected. A 30-year-old student with autism, attention deficit disorder and a learning disability, Buff would not be where he is today — en route to a college degree and galvanizing an entire community along the way — if he had not both received tremendous opportunities and seized upon them.
“I’m eating!” he replies to his mom emphatically before quickly adding: “But I’m also nervous.” His audience today presents a dynamic different from the familiar boisterous fans he wins over at college basketball, football and volleyball games. He doesn’t know what to expect.
“Just be ‘Gentle Buff,’” he is told. Dial down his usual animated antics, adjust his persona to fit the crowd. Buff nods. At that, he’s had plenty of practice.
The Harding campus teams with bisons.
Yes, that’s bisons with an “s” — a grammatically incorrect plural form of the word thanks to Harding students who adopted the nickname in the mid-1920s and, later, students who insisted it never change. Today, the horned animal flanks banners adorning light poles around campus. They’re charging on a colorful mural in the student center. A majestic, life-sized statue outside Benson Auditorium claims to be the “largest hand-carved oak bison in the world.”
Four decades after the birth of the nickname, an unruly bison calf was brought to Searcy, declared the school’s mascot and given a name: Benny. But Benny never tamed his aggressive ways, spurring school administrators to vow the animal would either “behave or be barbecued.” In 1972, mascot legend has it, Benny was killed and served to students in the school cafeteria.
The first Harding mascot costume emerged soon after that. There was Bobby the Bison. Then Barry. Eventually, in 2003, a student body vote changed the name to Buff. But the Buff that Harding knows today didn’t emerge until seven years later, when a quiet, sports fanatic from outside Baltimore went searching for a college that needed a mascot. Since then, the one, true Buff has gone by a second name: Austin Dunning.
Austin has stamped his way into Harding tradition with a skill set refined over more than a decade of training, an unharnessed passion for every Bison sports team, and an unwavering commitment to his role in Harding athletics. In costume, he exudes an infectious school spirit, whether he’s leading the football team through a pregame parade, high-fiving basketball players during warmup, or emboldening fans to cheer louder for the home team. He’s the last person incoming students meet at summer orientation, welcoming them to Harding with a coveted photo op. Little kids ask about Buff. Opposing teams notice when he’s missing. Referees remember him.
Those close to Austin describe it as a transformation. When he slides into the thick bison costume, he becomes Buff. But at the same time, he also becomes more of himself — the Austin who doesn’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing. The one who is free, even expected, to act goofy without fear and flirt with social norms in the name of entertainment. Mascotting unshackles him from the struggles he experiences daily with his disabilities. And it combats the depression that lingers quietly but consistently deep inside him. “When I become a mascot, that’s my happy place,” Austin says.
The thing that makes him happy makes a lot of other people happy, too. As Harding has gone out of its way to accommodate Austin’s needs — tutors, extra time on tests, a mascot invitation that doesn’t expire — he has given much in return.
Inside the office of Harding President Bruce McLarty, more bison memorabilia abounds. Among the collection are two framed photographs, shot in Yellowstone, capturing the beginning and end of the bison life cycle. One image shows a newborn calf leaning on its mother as it stretches its weak legs for the first time. The other shows an elderly bull bowing for water, alone, battle scars from a long life notched on his horns.
McLarty, like everyone at Harding, knows Buff. In describing the relationship Austin has with the school, the president points to the photo of the supported calf. “I don’t think it’s disconnected to that picture right there,” he says. “You see a community rallying around someone and helping him as he helps us. It’s community in its purest form.”
A connection can be made with the second photo, too, yet it goes unspoken: Austin won’t be Buff forever. He’s still a few years off from graduating, but already the question of what’s next lingers. Eventually, his time as a bison — the bison — will come to an end. Eventually, he’ll need to move on to new pastures, wherever they may be.
He pads through the Harding practice gym lugging a large, lumpy black bag over one shoulder like Santa Claus.
He enters the weight room, which serves as his own personal locker room during basketball games, and sets down the sack, which falls open to reveal a clump of brown fur.
He begins by pulling on a headband to catch the sweat that will soon soak his brown hair. He fastens an ankle brace for a tendon he tore while stomping (a “hoof injury,” he calls it). He slips into a tan vest lined with ice packs, which usually soften by halftime of football games.
Then, he steps into the Buff suit, pulling it up his legs, past his torso and over his shoulders, before pressing the Velcro slabs together over his chest.
After the suit come the brown gloves, then Austin’s all-black, size-6 ½ Nikes. Next, another layer of fur cloaking his shoulders and upper chest. “I call this my Viking fur,” Austin says, giving it a pat.
Robbie stands by, ready to assist. The mother, who moved to Searcy when her son enrolled in Harding, has been the biggest player in making Austin’s mascot dreams possible. It started when he came home from kindergarten and spoke excitedly about the Little Caesars character that appeared at his class pizza party. After that, Austin remained transfixed by costumed characters of all kinds. “It was never, ‘I’m going to be a fireman. I’m going to be a doctor. I’m going to be a policeman,’” Robbie says. “It was always, ‘I’m going to be a mascot.’”
The bison suit she helps Austin into today was custom-made by a professional costume designer in Atlanta. It’s a resounding upgrade from the old Buff costume, which Robbie quickly nixed when she and her son arrived on campus. “It had a snout that looked like it was part cow, part bear,” Robbie says. No, they decided, if Austin was to be Buff, he had to look the part. So the Dunnings financed the costume on their own, crafted perfectly to fit Austin’s slender, 5-foot-3 frame.
Finally, it’s time for the pivotal step. Austin grabs the giant bison head with two hands and pulls it over his own. His gloved hands fumble for hidden clasps to a bicycle helmet that forms the protective base of the head. Then, you hear it: “Click.”
Buff is complete.
Before Buff, he was Freddie. Before Freddie, he was Buzz. He also has been Keyote the Coyote, an unnamed puffin and even the Easter Bunny.
But before any of that, he was a bullied kid longing for respect.
Austin had been fighting battles since birth. Born 11 weeks premature, he weighed 2 pounds when he entered the world and spent 44 days in the neonatal intensive care unit. When he missed developmental milestones his older brother had reached at the same age, Robbie and her husband, Rick, went searching for answers. Some diagnoses came quicker than others. But all confirmed that Austin would have to work harder than most to communicate, to learn, to be independent.
These challenges feed into his depression, which Austin says he’s had for 18 years. That was when the trouble at school began, when he began experiencing difficulty with classwork and became a target for bullies.
On his first day at Western Guilford High School in Greensboro, North Carolina, Austin was thrown into a metal trash can in front of his peers who were filing out of a schoolwide convocation. He remembers being pulled out by a senior on the basketball team named Walter, going home that night to pray about it, and telling his parents only that he had a bad day. But inside, a quiet determination brewed: He would not be remembered as the kid who was thrown into a trash can.
A few weeks later, Austin learned his high school was hosting mascot tryouts. This was his shot. The afternoon of tryouts, he gathered his “Scream” mask and other miscellaneous props, stuffed them into an old gym bag, and snagged a ride to school from his mom. He had a routine in mind that he never had to call on; instead, all he was asked to do was don the black and gold costume of Buzz — which “kind of looked like Georgia Tech’s mascot, but chubbier,” Austin says — and interact with students. Easy.
Inside the costume, no one knew who Austin was. Everyone loved Buzz. Even more, Austin never had to worry that his words could be misunderstood. The No. 1 rule of mascots: Do not speak.
Austin landed the gig along with two other students. Most often, the responsibilities of a mascot are shared among multiple people to allow for substitutions and much-needed rest during long games. But when Austin’s counterparts quit shortly into the season, he endured alone.
Being Buzz brought Austin happiness, so the Dunnings set out to help him become the best Buzz he could be. He needed to learn proper mascot techniques, strategies for engaging a crowd, physical conditioning.
Robbie heard about a cheerleading camp that incorporated mascot training. She raised the idea with the school’s mascot coach, who not only encouraged Austin to go but also urged Robbie to attend and receive coach training. Robbie resisted, but the coach explained he was leaving for another job, and no one else wanted to fill the role.
Robbie’s son needed to be the mascot. The mascot needed a coach. So the mother and Buzz flew off to camp.
Austin flourished as Buzz — a hornet, not a bee, he is quick to point out. He made the character his own through a new flag run tradition, signature dance moves and creative gags (such as Buzz dressing up as a hunter when the Hornets faced the Tigers). He earned a varsity letter all four years of high school, earned three national rankings by the Universal Cheerleaders Association, and performed at three Capital One Bowl games between 2004 and 2006.
After he graduated in 2006, the Dunnings moved from North Carolina to a suburb of Baltimore, and Austin enrolled in a nearby community college. The school had a handful of sports and a mascot. It had no football, cheerleaders or band, but it would have to do.
For four years, Austin was Freddie the Cougar for the community college. But he missed the excitement of competitive sports teams and an avid fan base. He missed his favorite sport, football, and he missed the camaraderie he shared with band members and cheerleaders. No students lived on the commuter campus, so the crowd at games was slim and skewed older. The Cougar couldn’t connect.
Austin wanted something more. A Christian school, he told his parents. And, of course, one that needed a mascot.
The Dunnings’ national search led them to Searcy, Arkansas, where Division II Harding was struggling to find a reliable person to fulfill the role of Buff. Robbie scouted the school out first, flying down for a visit. Upon her return, Austin knew exactly what to ask.
“Do they have football?” Yes. “Do they have cheerleaders?” Yes. “Do they have a band?” Yes. “What are their school colors?” Black and gold — just like the Hornets. He envisioned a stadium like his high school, but bigger, cloaked in those familiar colors. Harding would feel like coming home.
When Buff arrives, heads turn. Little kids tap their parents and point. The brave ones approach.
It’s not every day you see an anthropomorphic bison roll up in a golf cart. Even for adults, the sight induces a chuckle.
“Buff, right,” Robbie instructs. Buff turns, looks down to see a young boy waving at him and returns the gesture. Buff sees through a single grapefruit-sized opening covered in netting between the mascot’s eyes and horns. He has no peripheral vision, seeing only what is directly in front of him. So Robbie guides him, telling him when to look left or right, up or down, when a child is waiting at his feet or when a step is nearing.
“Can this little guy get a picture?” Someone asks, nudging a nervous kid forward. He looks at Buff suspiciously but inches closer, turning slowly toward the camera. Buff strikes his signature pose, raising one hand to form horns with his fingers.
“1, 2, 3, got it! Thank you!”
Every summer Harding hosts the Special Olympics event, but this is the first time Buff has attended.
“He’s got to be burning up,” one lady says as she walks by. She’s right. The summer heat is suffocating under Buff’s dense fur. The ice packs don’t stand a chance.
Still, he works the crowd, posing for every photo, high-fiving the old and the young, pumping his fists, clapping his hands, pointing, dancing, nodding. Buff’s facial expression never changes, but he’s a master at making others smile.
“I feel more comfortable dancing in costume in front of 30,000 people than I would be at a wedding where I’m in a tuxedo with 200 people,” he says later. His inspiration for many of his animated moves? None other than the late professional wrestler, the Ultimate Warrior.
Before long, Buff heads inside the athletics facility, where Special Olympics weightlifting competitors enjoy a break. The empty bench press stationed in the center of the room beckons the bison, and, flanked by event workers, Buff performs one press to cheers from his audience.
Then he’s back on his feet, shaking athletes’ hands, patting their backs and, always, posing for the camera.
Eventually, Buff slips into the hallway and escapes the crowd, where he can safely break character. Austin pulls off Buff’s head, revealing a mop of wet hair, a rosy face and his bespectacled eyes, one of which is squinty. Something is in his eye, he explains, and it hurts. He pulls his lids open wide while Robbie searches for the culprit. He grunts in pain.
Then he affirms what everyone already knew. “I can fight through it,” Austin says in earnest. He pulls the head back on, snaps the helmet and saunters down the hallway.
In that moment, a woman talking on her phone swings open a door just as Buff is about to pass it. He doesn’t see it coming and slams his horned head against it. The woman peeks around the door sheepishly and starts apologizing as Buff turns away and brings his hands to his face, pretending to cry. Onlookers laugh.
Sometimes you plan and practice winning performances. Other times, you crash headfirst into them.
“I just ran into a bison,” the woman says into the phone as she walks away. “Long story.”
At Harding, it seems everyone has a Buff story.
Scott Goode, Harding’s longtime sports information director, tells of his earliest Buff memory. “It was your second Midnight Madness when —”
“I crowd surfed?” Austin interjects. He knows where this is going.
“Yes, and I was scared to death. I was scared they were going to break you in half or let you fall on the bleachers. You went from the floor up to the second level.”
Jeff Morgan, both the athletics director and men’s basketball coach for Harding, remembers freshman Buff entering his office eight years ago with a notable statistic. “I was watching game film for the next game, and he came in and said, ‘Hey, coach, I just want to let you know last night we upped our field goal percentage from like 48.5 to 49.2,’” Morgan recalls. “He had that on a sticky note and gave it to me. I kind of knew right then, this was going to be awesome.”
Andi Haney, a former women’s basketball player who now works in Harding’s advancement office, appreciates all the times Buff arrived as early as the players did before games, then calmed their nerves with encouragement and a high-five at half-court before tipoff. “We’re very thankful for him,” she says.
Buff fans talk about the pretend fights with other teams’ mascots, the stunts with cheerleaders, and the one-arm push-ups he performs when Harding scores. Buff himself likes to share the story of the only time he has broken character in a game: Last season during a Division II semifinals football game, he grew so frustrated by the lack of crowd energy that he verbally begged fans to cheer and slammed his hand against the bleacher so hard he bruised it. He remains baffled by the reticence he sensed that day. “I honestly don’t understand it,” Buff says. “We got that far, you expect to cheer at every moment.”
Buff stories bring laughter. But the Austin stories tend to evoke a different kind of emotion. Those who know him outside of the costume know he is working tirelessly toward his college degree, despite his learning disability, with a doggedness that has kept him chipping away at the academic requirements for a general studies major since 2010. Technically, Austin is a senior, but now that he has reached the upper-level courses at Harding, he takes just one three-credit class a semester. He meets with a private tutor at least three hours a week. He is likely two to three years away from graduating.
Austin knows he doesn’t need a college degree for the career path he hopes to pursue. He has all the training required to be a professional mascot. “I just want to do it to be proud of myself, to say I completed college,” he explains. “My brother did it at Appalachian State. My mom completed college at Middle Tennessee State. My dad got a degree at Nashville State College and then Auburn.” He thinks about his two nephews and the example he hopes to set for them. “Yes, uncle’s job is a little out of the ordinary, but look, he still went to school and still did what he loves on the side.”
“I get choked up thinking about him trying to get through Harding,” Goode says. “I got through Harding, and it was hard. But with the challenges he faces every day …” The SID’s voice trails off. “It’s a struggle. But it’s that struggle that, when he’s totally done with it, that’s going to make it worth every minute.”
The struggle can be hard to spot beneath an amusing, dancing mass of brown fur.
“It could be, why do I study eight hours a week for a test, and I go in there prepared, and I still make a 70? And I studied my heart out, and I memorized everything?” Austin says. He is a member of a social club on campus, but his pledge class and closest friends have all since graduated. He longs for love — and not the kind pouring out of Buff fans.
His journey through college may be harder and longer than most, but without it, Austin wouldn’t be Buff. And as Buff, he’s won something invaluable, something he’s been vying for since high school. Respect.
“That’s what I wanted,” Austin says.
After a long day in the sun, Buff the Bison retreats to his home, a one-bedroom apartment across from campus. He lives there alone, but over the years Buff has led a herd of Dunnings to Searcy. His parents and his brother’s family live just minutes away.
He climbs the steps to the second floor, his legs heavy, and stops at the unit with Harding sports posters taped to the windows. Apartment No. 12.
“Like the imaginary 12th man,” he says.
These days, Austin thinks often about his final game at Harding, though he’s not sure when it will be. Will he speak? Reveal his identity to unknowing fans?
Maybe, he says, he’ll train his successor. After all, you can’t just pick anyone out of a crowd, throw them in a bison suit, and expect them to flourish.
True transformation takes time.