In the realm of college sports mascots, there are many a Tiger, Lion, Wildcat, Bear, Eagle and Cardinal, but there is only one Razorback. This fact, combined with the ferocity, strength and fearsomeness the beast embodies, makes the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville’s beloved mascot one of a kind for all time.

 

To those who knew him, be it intimately or in passing, Keith Stokes was also one of a kind. For almost 30 years, the hog farmer from Dardanelle was the breeder, caretaker and handler of the Tusk dynasty of live Arkansas mascots. Beyond that, he is remembered as a loving husband and father, a good friend, and an outstanding supporter of Arkansas agriculture.

 

“Keith understood the Arkansans who lace up their boots in the morning and work with their hands, who aren’t afraid to get dirty to get the job done — the men and women who shower at the end of the day, not at the beginning of it,” said Sen. Tom Cotton in a Sept. 6 address on the floor of the U.S. Senate memorializing his friend and former staffer.

 

“He understood them because he was one of them. He lived on a farm, he worked in pork and forestry industries for years, and he cultivated an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from the crops in the fields to the beetles in the forests to the animals in hunting season. He knew everything about Arkansas, from the soil to the people.”

 

For nearly three decades, regardless of the score or the team’s record, Stokes and the hogs in his care, Tusk I through Tusk V, were central to the Arkansas football spectacle. Every time they appeared, hundreds would line up to see up-close an animal they would go nowhere near if encountered in the wild, all because of the magic touch of the man in the cowboy hat who would somehow turn the menacing into something lovable. Even the beast’s fearsome protruding teeth seemed less scary, curling the corners of its mouth into a smile of sorts for thousands of photos a year.

 

“Keith Stokes represented everything that is right about our state,” wrote Hunter Yurachek, athletic director for the University of Arkansas. “Keith’s loving dedication and selfless service to our live mascot program paved the way for countless fans throughout Arkansas and beyond to connect with their state and their beloved Razorbacks.”

 

John Keith (George) Stokes was born Feb. 17, 1964, in Visalia, Calif., to the late Charles and Barbara Stokes. He spent the majority of his life in Harkey Valley, a serene rural stretch of Yell County southwest of Dardanelle. There he raised hogs: the market variety and a lot of them — 300 pigs at his peak. But his real stock and trade was the kindness and compassion he showed to people in need or going through some sort of crisis, of which there are multiple examples and no doubt many, many more no one saw.

Keith Stokes and Tusk

“With Keith, the thing that stuck with you was his willingness to serve any time you needed him,” said Deacue Fields, head of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “He was definitely someone you could depend on, and he’d always follow through — and he was always willing to help and support the Division of Agriculture.”

 

Stokes served his fellow producers as the head of the Arkansas Pork Producers Association, which he was doing when he got the phone call that would put him forever in the minds of the Arkansas faithful and at the heart of Razorback lore.

 

Former Hog David Bazzel had talked his old coach Frank Broyles into adopting a permanent live mascot as a way to enhance the game day experience. Arkansas’ track record with live mascots had been on-and-off through its history, and Bazzel felt the program was lacking something compared to the more established traditions of Mike the Louisiana State University Tiger or Hairy Dawg of the University of Georgia. Broyles gave his blessing, immediately after which Bazzel had an epiphany – the former linebacker knew almost squat about swine. When a few phone calls to zoos proved fruitless, Bazzel called Stokes.

 

“When I asked Coach Broyles if I could restart the Razorback live mascot program, I had to find somebody that would guide me,” Bazzel said. “I’m so grateful that God led me to Keith. No one has ever been more committed and passionate and given more time to the Razorback athletic program through Tusk than he did.”

 

Stokes did not have the required species of hog lolling around the barnyard, but after a couple of phone calls, he rang Bazzel back and said he had found two candidates. The Russian boars were not what Bazzel had in mind – he had pictured something more akin to a warthog – but he knew enough to trust the porcine expert. Tusk I was introduced in 1997, and both a fast friendship and a state legend began.

 

“I can only hope to live each day moving forward to be as good a man as Keith Stokes,” Bazzel said. “He was the most kind, caring, giving, hardworking husband, father, grandfather and the greatest live mascot handler college football has or will ever see.

“Keith Stokes was Tusk. A lot of times, he had to get up at 3 o’clock in the morning if there was a game starting at 11 o’clock. He had to clean the pen, wash Tusk and get ready. He put in thousands of hours that nobody really saw, and he always deflected the credit, never wanted to take credit for it.”

 

In 2006, Stokes, who would join Cotton’s staff as an agricultural advisor and who was also advising to the university’s mascot program, turned his entire hog operation over to the care of the mascots. As a 2019 piece in The Athletic chronicled, Stokes was a bona fide hog whisperer with a well of knowledge about the animals, their mannerisms, nutrition and, most importantly, their temperament, which could shift in a moment.

 

“Keith would get in the open area with that Razorback and handle him every day to make him more acclimated to fans,” Bazzel said. “He’d send me pictures of how it would slide up against him and cut his leg up because of the tusk on a Razorback, and there was a time when one of the hogs attacked another and killed it. So there was always this underlying current that these things were still very wild and could turn on you.”

 

In his tribute speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Cotton noted the complications of Arkansas’ mascot that other programs did not have to think about.

 

“Other universities have easy, safe and cuddly mascots to raise, like the Oregon Beavers or the Georgia Bulldogs or the Minnesota Gophers,” Cotton said. “Not Arkansas and not Keith; we have a Razorback, a 300-pound wild boar with giant tusks and a well-deserved reputation for a bad attitude.

 

“Keith devoted thousands of hours of his time to domesticate the Tusks so that they could safely interact with fans. Keith would have Tusk follow him around everywhere on the farm and even raised a baby Razorback in his home to acclimate it to human company. Keith was such a good handler that young fans could safely feed grapes to these giant boars. Risk-takers could put an apple in their teeth, and Tusk would gently take it from their mouth— at risk, though, of getting slobber on them.”

 

As dangerous as a huge Razorback can be, especially when cornered or agitated, Stokes led with kindness and trust in taming them to be around the throngs of people and noise that accompanies game day. As The Athletic reported, Stokes acclimated the animal for game day by playing the fight song at home and taking Tusk for road trips to get used to his trailer. The custom trailers themselves were designed with Tusk’s comfort in mind, complete with air conditioning, a 60-gallon water tank and a space on top where Stokes would sleep on overnight trips, all in the name of keeping the animal calm.

 

“That’s the thing. You’ve got to build that trust with him where he knows as long as you’re there, everything is alright,” Stokes said in the piece. “You’ve got to kind of become his blanket. You want to build that relationship and that trust with him.”

 

Stokes had a similar relationship with the fans who would line up every game day for an encounter with the mascot and his people-loving handler. Whatever the team’s fortunes may be that day, encountering Stokes and Tusk made every Razorback game a good experience.

 

“He’d have the trailer up there, and hundreds if not thousands of people would all be asking the same things over and over again – how much does he weigh, how many games has he done, what does he eat,” Bazzel said. “Keith would answer every one of them. He was just so kind to so many people. He was just a really special guy.

 

“He was also very passionate about Tusk, and if he felt the U of A wasn’t doing the right thing about Tusk, he would push back aggressively. He defended that animal because he felt it was so important as the emblem of the university. He took a lot of pride in Tusk because he felt this was the fans’ mascot.”

 

Stokes’ skill in handling Tusk was just part of his reputation among his fellow handlers. His kindness and humility in the face of tragedy was legendary, and, while not something many in the general public knew about, it made him well-respected among his peers.

“Keith Stokes was Tusk,” said David Bazzel, former Hog, in summing up his close friend, here pictured feeding the mascot.

“The other thing that he did that was really remarkable was when another live mascot died somewhere – could be the Air Force Eagle, the Colorado Buffalo, it could be a Bulldog somewhere, whatever – he would write a letter from Tusk and send flowers,” Bazzel said. “Nobody else had done that. He was the first guy to do it, and he did that out of his own pocket. He knew what all the other live mascot handlers would do every day, and he had a lot of respect for them.”

 

Stokes leaves behind his wife of 39 years, Julie Stokes; two children, Chip Stokes (Lori) and Abbey Stokes-Hess (Tanner); beloved grandchildren Colt and Caroline Stokes; a bonus son, Chris Johnson (Stacy); his sister, Karen Rose (Stevie); aunts Mary Lou Laska and Dorothy Haire; and numerous cousins. He is mourned by the thousands of Arkansans who he encountered with Tusk on gameday, at special events or just driving down the road. More than 1,200 jammed into his memorial service, and more than 73,000 cast a prayer skyward at the Hogs’ Sept. 9 home opener versus Kent State University, at which he was honored in a manner that was far more public than he might have wanted but altogether fitting.

 

“Keith was a truly extraordinary man. It’s hard to believe that he had time to do all the things he did,” Cotton said to conclude his tribute. “Few people who lead full and long lives do as much good and spread as much joy as Keith Stokes did in his too-short 59 years with us.

 

“I was blessed to know Keith, and I know he’s looking down from heaven right now, blushing from all this attention, but he deserves it, and his family and friends down here deeply miss him.”

 

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