MINERAL – The Louisa County football team has a lot going for it on a Friday night at its home stadium, “The Jungle.”
The stands are packed, there are fireworks and cannon explosions when the offense scores, and a lion statue sitting just beyond one of the end zones breathes fire, too.
At an Oct. 4 home game against Powhatan, public address announcer Chuck Moss gets the Lions’ fans pumped up.
“Third down in ‘The Jungle’ you know what that means folks, let’s go!” he screams.
The crowd begins to roar. Then there’s the real roar from the real lions.
Yeah, you read that right.
“The Jungle” is home to not one, but two, live lions during Friday home games in Louisa County.
Bubba IV and Sue sit in cages on the track on the Lions’ sideline.
How did these live animal mascots come to be? It all started with Louisa’s 2006 senior class. Prior to the start of the 2005 football season, it approached then-athletic director Doug Straley wanting to do something unique.
“The senior class at that time wanted something special and they came to me and they said, ‘Mr. Straley, we want you to get us a lion at games,’” said Straley, who is now an assistant superintendent for Louisa County Public Schools after serving as athletic director from 2004 to 2008. “[Former Louisa coach Mark] Fischer and I started talking about, ‘Where in the world are we gonna get a lion?’”
Luckily for them, Fischer was a member at Discovery United Methodist Church in Richmond. Its pastor, Dr. Jim Lavender, has had a lifelong fascination with exotic animals and was even the ring master for a circus in a different lifetime. Lavender keeps exotic animals through Dr. Lavender’s Animals, Inc., in Gum Spring on a compound that is federally regulated. He brings one animal to his church each Sunday and runs a program, “Thank God for Kids,” which travels nationwide with the animals and has reached 1.75 million children by his estimation.
Fischer asked Lavender if he could come to the games with a lion and Lavender said he was happy to help out.
“Coach Fischer was a faithful member of our church and a good friend and I wasn’t surprised [he asked me to bring a lion],” said Lavender, who grew up in Mississippi. “He knew all about what we do.”
Community members didn’t believe it at first when they saw Bubba at the first home game of 2005 but quickly warmed up to the idea.
“At first it was a surprise,” Straley said. “We didn’t tell anybody it was coming and then it was here one night, so I think everyone got used to it that first night and thought it was really cool, realized it was in a cage, it’s safe and the handlers were doing a great job with the lion.”
Lavender and the lion have not missed many games since 2005.
“[Dr. Lavender] has been a loyal fan and Bubba has been a loyal fan on the sideline,” Straley said. “It’s pretty exciting to have him here at the game and pretty unique. It sets us off a little bit with the atmosphere, so it’s a pretty cool gig.”
Normally, only Bubba comes to games, but athletic director Mike Parsons was surprised when Lavender and his crew of about half a dozen brought a female lion, Sue, to Louisa’s first home game of the season Sept. 14 vs. Courtland.
“The first home game [Dr. Lavender and the lions] probably didn’t get here ‘til four minutes into the game and [people were wondering where they were],” Parsons said. “Then, two of them showed up. And I wasn’t aware that Sue was coming … I don’t know of any other high schools, at least locally, that have large exotic animals as mascots. We’re fortunate and it’s great.”
The lions have become a hit with opposing teams, too. The Louisa cheerleaders push the lions’ cages – sitting on wheels – around the track surrounding the field during the third quarter. Parsons said opposing teams’ cheerleaders often come over to take pictures with the lions.
Bubba, who has been in the county’s Christmas parade, has even gotten requests to appear at other schools’ events.
“Last year, interestingly enough, Fluvanna’s student government contacted me about the lion because they did a “Chronicles of Narnia”-themed prom and they were hoping to have the lion at the entrance,” Parsons said.
Fluvanna County High School’s principal nixed the idea, according to Parsons.
Bubba IV is 10 years old and Sue, who is going to end up being a mate for Bubba IV, according to Lavender, is 10 months old.
“[Sue] is part of a project that we are doing through the church to build a school for girls in southern Sudan,” Lavender said.
Bubba IV is the fourth iteration of “Bubba the Lion” to attend Louisa games. The others grew old or did not enjoy coming to games.
“Two of them did not want to do this kind of work,” said Lavender, who emphasized many of the animals he owns grew up in a tame environment. “We let the animal decide. If the animal doesn’t enjoy it, we don’t make them do it.”
Sue is getting used to the spectacle that is a Louisa home game. But Bubba IV, despite all the noise on this night, looks peaceful and nearly falls asleep.
The crowds at Louisa games are anything but peaceful, however. Under Fischer in the mid-2000s, Louisa football experienced a resurgence. The 2006 team made it all the way to the state title game before losing to Amherst. Along with Bubba and the team’s success came a raucous atmosphere. The program soon added the other elements that make Louisa County an interesting place to be on a Friday night.
“With Mr. Straley’s imagination and the talent we had come through at that time, [Bubba] was a great fit,” Fischer said via email. “The wins started building and the fan base grew as well. It was a case of being at the right place at the right time.”
Fischer, who left Louisa to become the coach at St. James High School in Murrell’s Inlet, S.C., near Myrtle Beach after the 2010 season, was diagnosed with bone cancer last year but is in full remission.
Louisa’s current head coach, Jon Meeks, was the defensive coordinator on Fischer’s staff and estimates there were probably less than 500 people at games in 2002, when he started coaching at the school. That soon picked up.
“We do a lot of good things to get the fans here, whether it’s the lion, or the tunnel or the fireworks, or the cannon, or the fire-breathing lion,” Meeks said. “I think [we] do a good job of making it a family friendly atmosphere.”
Eric Church was part of Louisa’s 2007 class and a tight end, kicker and linebacker on the 2006 state runner-up team. He now lives in Baltimore but tries to make it back to some games in Louisa, which he called a special place.
“I thought it was pretty awesome [having the lion], especially with everything else that was going on with the fireworks, the fans, the [lion statue] breathing fire, and [Bubba] just added another aspect,” Church said.
Church played football at VMI. Having a live lion mascot at his home high school football games was a good conversation starter for him.
“When I went to VMI, I showed pictures to my buddies and they couldn’t believe it,” he said. “They thought that was just the wildest thing they had ever seen.”
Lee Downey, now the principal at Louisa County Middle School, was the athletic director between Straley and Parsons. The winning continued during his tenure and the legend of “The Jungle” grew.
“The atmosphere is what I would consider one-of-a-kind in high school football,” Downey said. “I did a presentation at a national athletic director conference [when I was AD] about marketing a successful athletic program. Bubba the Lion was part of that presentation talking about things you do to bring fans in and traditions you kind of set.”
From the 2008 through 2010 seasons, Louisa County lost just one home regular season game, to Orange County, and one home playoff game, to Broad Run, to end the 2010 season.
“The different times that we make the playoffs, people don’t want to play here because they know the fan support we have, and the atmosphere we put on,” Downey said. “It’s a hard place to play if you’re a high school football player.”
As Louisa County began dominating the Central Virginia high school football scene, people around the state took notice.
“Some of the actual Titans came from T.C. Williams High School [the film ‘Remember the Titans’ is based on them] did a ceremonial coin toss for one game and gave a presentation to our students about being good kids and doing well in school,” Downey said. “They fell in love with [the atmosphere]. They came back on their own from Northern Virginia to be a part of this.”
Sometimes, people don’t know much about Louisa or even where it is located, but they have heard of the atmosphere at “The Jungle.”
“Bubba the lion is unreal. I went to Warrenton and played a pickup game there,” Louisa senior running back and defensive back Deion Johnson said. “I told them I played at Louisa County. They were like, ‘I don’t know where that’s at.’ I was like, ‘We’re that school that has that lion.’ They were like, ‘I know you guys. I saw you guys on a website. Your atmosphere is amazing. I wish I had that.’ [Also,] the field is amazing. It feels like I’m running on clouds out here. I’m so glad I was born in this county to play football here.”
In addition to a wild atmosphere, Louisa was selected as the 2011 Best School and Parks Football Field in America by the Sports Turf Managers Association in Long Beach, Calif.
“I’ve been on the jungle turf crew for three years,” said Quinn Parsons, a senior at Louisa. “Each week we make the field look like it does and we help the pump the crowds up. It’s the place to be on Friday night.”
Passionate fans, fireworks, cannons, a crazy atmosphere, a nationally recognized field — and don’t forget the two live lion mascots, Bubba IV and Sue. Louisa is a place all football fanatics should check out. You might not believe it until you see the lions with your own eyes or hear them roar.
“I think if you were to ask regionally what’s is the most exciting place to be for Friday night football, most people would say Louisa is a pretty cool place to be,” Parsons said.
Louisa County has two more home games this season: Friday against Orange County and Nov. 8 vs. Monticello.