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Imagine a crowded stadium filled with screaming, excited fans—and in the middle of it all is you. No, you’re not Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder performing in ripped jeans and a grunge shirt. Instead, you’re a furry warthog, gyrating to the strains of “Soul Man” and whipping the crowd into a collective frenzy.

Sound like a nightmare? To some, it’s an aspiration.

If nothing else, last week’s tryouts at the USAir Arena for Rooter, the mascot of the Washington Warthogs indoor soccer team, proved that no amount of humiliation is beyond the bounds of costumed stardom. What else would account for the urge to don a sweat-soaked, 20-pound warthog outfit and audition for a chance to expose yourself to the abuse of drunken, unruly fans?

“I like being around kids,” explained mascot hopeful Rahell Royal.

But Orioles mascot emeritus Bromley Lowe, who came to provide animal-impersonating tips, downplayed Royal’s fledgling enthusiasm for costumed cheerleading.

“You’re used like a punching bag,” Lowe groaned, recalling inebriated fans who would grope for his privates. “Kids don’t realize I’m not a cartoon….They think they have the liberty to punch you in the groin.”

The grind of the job drove last year’s Rooter into an early retirement. Regardless, no amount of naysaying could sway the four hog wanna-bes from their deleterious mission. The atmosphere in the arena was tense, and the glares between Rooter competitors fierce (think Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan).

The rules were simple: fill out a Rooter application, don’t speak (“Remember, mascots are silent”), and perform a two-minute dance routine to the music of your choice. Then, the final challenge—an improvisation to three “mystery” songs.

Sound simple? Try it wearing a weighty hog head and puffy yellow limbs.

“This is like wearing a mattress,” complained contestant Erin Astolfi.

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She should know. Astolfi performs as Winger, the Washington Capitals’ bald eagle mascot. As might be expected, she had no trouble sprucing up the porcine costume (with a straw hat and flannel shirt) when it came time for her routine.

But first out was Bobby Zoldos, a 25-year-old firefighter from Leesburg, Va. Zoldos dashed onto the hard, kelly-green Astroturf and launched into a patriotic “Star Spangled Banner” routine that quickly degenerated into a gyrating rendition of “Soul Man” guaranteed to titillate even the lowliest swine. Zoldos admitted he badly wanted the Rooter role—in fact, this was the second year he’d tried out. But he still hasn’t mustered the courage to tell his fire-station buddies of his penchant for cross-dressing as a warthog.

Judging the tryouts were half a dozen Warthog officials, including team President Barry Silberman. But their critiques (“nice rhythm” and “how energetic”) were mild compared to the asides tossed around by several testosterone-laden Warthog players.

As Zoldos performed, a few of the players generously offered to slam into the Plexiglas arena wall to simulate a game atmosphere. “Anyone who would try out for this would have to be a fool,” chided Warthog forward Dante Washington. “When are the cheerleader tryouts?”

But teammate Troy Snyder rose to the mascot’s defense, “Aw, come on, it’s a friendly, peaceful-looking thing,” he said.

Next up was Royal, a 21-year-old arena operations worker from Lanham, Md., who prefers being called “Mike Tyson” because of his faint resemblance to the fighter. He slipped on the mascot’s stuffed black pants, which are held up by suspenders, squeezed into the inflated hog chest, then delicately strapped on the fuzzy yellow arms, which by now were matted and damp with the first contestant’s perspiration. Nothing fit—the feet were too big for Royal, and the head lolled loosely during his warmup.

“I need you to strap on my head,” he yelled at a nearby attendant.

Royal, who occasionally substituted as Rooter last season, confided that he was once kicked “bad” in the back during a promotional appearance at a Capitals game. But for the most part, he still considers being a mascot “cool.”

With Royal in the suit, Rooter got funky. He grooved to “Devil With a Blue Dress” and then got busy to James Brown’s “I Feel Good”—except it didn’t look like Royal was feeling too good as he fumbled with the loose, horned head.

“I hope I can get into this contraption,” a worried Lysander McGhee, 22, said when Royal was done. By then the costume had reached total saturation, and McGhee struggled to put on the different attachments until he became a complete hog.

“I got bigger feet than Michael Jordan,” said a startled McGhee when he finally looked down. After a few moments he regained his composure, assuring himself, “It’s all right. I’m good. I’m cool.”

It took McGhee another minute or two to get accustomed to breathing through a horned nose and seeing through big cartoon eyes. “Hey, I only got four fingers,” he said. Burdened by wet yellow limbs, clown-size sneakers, and a colossal tusked head, McGhee grew a bit despondent: “I got rhythm, but I don’t know if I can dance in this thing.”

He couldn’t—not very well, anyway. Just as quickly as it had begun, McGhee’s routine was over. “Get me out of here,” came a muffled yell from the costume. “I’m getting claustrophobia.”

As the soccer players practiced their pre-game entrances, Astolfi, 25, aka Winger, made the final change of the day into the costume. A petite 5-foot-5, she has long since given up handling the hockey fans by herself. After one fan put her in a headlock and refused to let go, Winger got some protection—a bodyguard who accompanies her into the stands. Yet if picked, she said, she wasn’t planning on asking for any muscle to guard the mighty hog.

A true professional, Astolfi didn’t seem to mind sliding into a costume filled with the sweat of three other contestants. “It’s not too bad,” she remarked. “I sweat a lot anyway.”

After that, it was all business. “I need my arms,“ she cried, like an actress yelling for a wardrobe assistant. After transforming the pig into a country swine with a straw hat pinned to its head, she fumbled her way onto the field to dance to “It’s Zydeco” (an unfamiliar tune that she later credited to the latest Sesame Street album).

After an air-guitar rendition of “Born to Be Wild,” Astolfi managed to convince a few judges to twist with her to a Beatles tune. For her finale, she kissed their feet.

“You don’t have to beg to get the job,” said Silberman.

But evidently it will take something along those lines. All that sweating, gyrating and inhaling matted yellow fur came to naught when, the following day, Silberman issued a disheartening fax.

“We feel we haven’t found the right person yet to be Rooter,” it read. “Our search continues.”