Being the Tree: The life and times of the nation’s most endearing mascot

Dr. Saturday

Jim Weber runs Lost Lettermen, devoted to keeping tabs on former college athletes and other nostalgia. This week, he catches up with Stanford mascots past and present.

Usually, the first reaction to Stanford's unofficial tree mascot is confusion. What does a tree have to do with Stanford, or its mascot?

A lot more than you might think. The town of Palo Alto, Calif., home to the university, is actually named after a local redwood tree that stands over 100 feet tall and is believed to be over 1,000 years old. It was discovered by Spanish explorers in the 1700s and named "El Palo Alto" — "The Tall Stick." After the school dropped the longstanding nickname "Indians" in 1972, it held a contest three years later for a new school mascot. Students eventually adopted the nickname "Cardinal" (as in the color, not the bird) and Stanford adopted the tree as part of its new logo. The mascot soon followed, beating out a steaming manhole and a giant french fry, among other candidates.

But that hasn't stopped the tree from consistently ranking among the most absurd-looking college mascots. Each year, the tree's outfit is created anew by the student selected for the honor, and always ends up looking like a bad Halloween costume. With just the student's legs showing beneath the fabric, the tree is also known for its ridiculous freestyle dance moves.

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"The spirit overtakes you and you just go," said former tree Erin Lashnits, now 28.

For all those reasons, the tree can normally be found at the top of lists for the worst mascot in sports. But if the measure of a great mascot is school spirit and crazy stunts, then the tree should be considered one of college's best.

The tree is not an "official" school mascot, as it's technically part of the Stanford band, no stranger to controversy itself. A competition of ridiculous stunts to determine the next student tree dubbed "Tree Week" is held each February and has just three rules: Don't go to jail, don't go to the hospital and don't light yourself on fire. (Apparently rule No. 2 didn't quite cover that.) Bribery is welcomed.{YSP:MORE}

In the past, the panel — consisting of band members and the incumbent tree — has seen contestants like the one who covered his back with leeches, another that bit the head off a live snake and even one who cut off his pinky toe to win approval. Wait, what about the "no hospital" rule?

[Related: Top 5 College Mascot Fights]

"There's a lot of pre-meds at Stanford, it was fine," said Lashnits, who described the response to save the pinky toe as "very inspirational."

This year's tree, Michael Samuels, impressed the judges by allowing them to take turns zapping him with a stun gun while he was in a duck costume.

"It was basically the 10 or so people that pick the tree each got a couple turns with it," Michaels said. "They had fun with it."

[Related: VIDEO: Colorado's live buffalo mascot knocks down handlers]

Lashnits, who was also a diver at the school, took it a step further. She put on a fireproof suit, covered herself in lighter fluid, lit herself ablaze and took a slip-and-slide off a 10-meter diving platform. Doing flips in the air, she landed in a pool covered in lighter fluid, which then set off fireworks by the poolside.

Why didn't she just jump off the board?

"There was a blazing trail along the 10-meter tower," Lashnits said. "I didn't want to just run off, that would have been lame."

[Related: VIDEO: Stanford's tree, Cal's Oski brawl during 1995 game]

Predictably, the tree has become synonymous with ridiculous stunts and debauchery. There was a brawl with Cal's Golden Bear mascot, Oski, at a 1995 basketball game, a 2006 incident in which Lashnits infamously was suspended from duty for being intoxicated on the job and another one just weeks later when the new tree was ejected from the NCAA women's basketball tournament for dancing in an "undesignated area."

With their combined history of tomfoolery, the Stanford band and tree certainly belong together and have set the bar high for future generations. Would it be a disappointment if the Stanford tree didn't live up to its outrageous reputation?

"I don't think it's ever happened," Lashnits said, "so I wouldn't know."

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Jim Weber runs He's on Twitter: Follow him @LostLettermen.

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