Antelope-ology: No one can steal our Thunder
By Cooper Nelson
GCU Today Magazine
Pop quiz: Why is Grand Canyon University’s nickname the Antelopes? What’s the significance of purple? And what’s the backstory of how Thunder got his name?
Don’t know? Don’t worry. Most students and employees know very little about this part of University history — and they’re not to blame. Records are mostly anecdotal, found in old school yearbooks and passed down from longtime employees and alumni such as Faith Weese, chief University relations officer; L.E. “Sharky” Baker, Class of 1956; Mildred Brazell, wife of former baseball coach Dave Brazell; and late theology professor Dr. J. Niles Puckett.
For a GCU history lesson, we spoke with Sharky’s nephew, Senior Associate Athletic Director Keith Baker. The alumnus and 32-year University veteran qualifies as the resident campus historian and knows the answers to those questions, including how an often mocked beast of burden nearly became GCU’s mascot.
“We were close to being the Donkeys,” he said. “The Grand Canyon University Donkeys is not nearly as marketable (as Antelopes), in my mind.”
Antelopes have represented GCU well. The “Lopes” nickname, which has become iconic in Arizona and the Southwest, led to the creation of GCU’s beloved mascot “Thunder,” which is rooted in the rumbling sound of an antelope herd migrating across the plains, and the “Lopes Up” hand symbol, a hit on campus and beyond (you’ve seen the billboards, right?). Antelopes, like GCU, are elegant and graceful yet powerful and speedy. They have a keen sense of what’s ahead.
The antelope also is steeped in GCU tradition — the pronghorn antelope is native to the Arizona Strip, north of the Colorado River. The antelope has athletic appeal — the pronghorn is the second fastest land mammal in the world.
And the antelope is unusual among mascots: GCU is the only university with the “Lopes” nickname and one of only three with an antelope mascot. The University of Nebraska at Kearny calls its teams the Lopers, and the University of Lethbridge (Alberta, Canada) goes by Pronghorns or just “Horns.”
The backstory on all things Lopes
In 1949, the year Grand Canyon College opened in Prescott. Ariz., students chose the Antelope as the official mascot in a schoolwide vote before the first basketball season, Keith Baker said.
Some students wanted an animal mascot that represented the namesake of the University, the Grand Canyon, while others wanted it to symbolize Prescott. Finalists were Antelopes and the offbeat “Beasts of Burden,” venerating the donkeys that transported visitors on the Grand Canyon’s steep and rocky trails.
“Dr. Puckett summed up the vote best, saying, ‘I think the students made the better choice,’” Keith Baker said.
GCU’s school colors and mascot also were decided by students. The school colors had been maroon and gold in Prescott, but when GCU moved to Phoenix in 1951 students voted to change them to purple and white to distinguish them from Arizona State University’s colors. Black and gray were added to the official color family in 1987 when former men’s basketball coach Paul Westphal introduced black road jerseys. Yellow returned as an accent color in 2014.
Purple represents Christ’s royalty and divinity, Keith Baker said.
“Christian schools often selected either red (blood of Christ) or blue (royal lineage),” he said. “Purple is a combination of the two, representing the shedding of Christ’s blood as the ultimate sacrifice from His divine/royal nature.”
Thunder’s arrival was more recent. GCU has had an antelope mascot since 1981, wisely replacing the first mascot, a furry purple blob known as the “Purple People Eater.” But the antelope is believed to have been officially named Thunder in 2008. Before that, he went by “Andy the Antelope,” “Johnny Lope” and simply “the mascot.”
Ruth Nsubuga was the first Thunder, from 2005 to 2012, and she was known for her dance moves at athletic events.
“Thunder started out doing photo shoots and community events, and then we brought him to the entertainment side,” said Nsubuga, an alumna and University admissions representative. “Now he’s rappelling from the ceiling and is way more athletic. To see him grow and become this huge is cool.”
Today’s Thunder is muscular, wears a No.49 basketball jersey (for GCU’s founding year) and is known for his wild antics and dunking off trampolines at basketball halftimes. He has nearly rock-star status, and people of all ages adore him.
Alumnus Taylor Griffin, GCU’s director of in-game entertainment, works closely with Thunder and said the mascot’s growth is part of creating a professional-level atmosphere at home athletic events.
People outside GCU have taken notice, too. Zuper Stars, a touring inflatable-mascot halftime show, performed at GCU last year and pronounced Thunder “the best mascot in the country.”
Said Griffin, “Thunder has kind of become the face of the University. He represents GCU’s rise and professional growth.”
Donkeys may rise from the trails of the Grand Canyon, but it seems that antelopes were the proper beast to carry GCU’s nickname.
● For a slideshow on Thunder’s evolution, click here.