By Joe Southern
Andrew Johnson wants to brand a bull.
Specifically, he wants to brand TORO, the Houston Texans mascot.
He doesn’t want to use a hot, metal stick to engrave an image of ownership on TORO’s rump. He wants to brand him as a marketing promotion. That’s what the 25-year-old Kansas City native was hired by the Texans to do. They brought him onboard to coordinate the mascot program. Since his arrival in August 2015, he has barely let the blue, fuzzy bull have a break.
“We keep incredibly busy with our appearance commitments,” he said.
TORO will make about 400 appearances a year – more than once a day – between school programs, private events and in-house activities. That includes 10 home games a year and more when the Texans make the playoffs.
“There’s three areas of emphasis that I’m working on in my position here as I’m trying to grow the TORO brand and the TORO program,” he said. “The first one is to be a strong community ambassador. We want to do great things for Houston. We want to bring a strong presence to the community to show the community that the Texans really do care about the City of Houston.”
The next point is more challenging and visible.
“Secondly, we want to make an impact on the game day experience. We want to be really entertaining, so I’m coming up with ideas for videos and skits and different ways that we can involve TORO in the game day experience, just to make TORO really a presence on game day,” Johnson said.
The third part is less noticeable but just as critical to the mascot program.
“Finally, from a revenue standpoint, we’re trying to come up with new ways to generate revenue, and that’s where my business background really comes in,” he said. “We’re trying to find ways to create a new revenue stream for the Texans. So, that’s appearance revenues, people books us for private events like birthday parties, grand openings, parades, all sorts of different events. We do it all, to working with the Go Texans store and all our different retail outlets to creating different items they can sell and feature TORO, to working with our corporate development team and creating assets for them to go out and sell.”
Johnson said branding the blue bull is both subtle and deliberate. Even spelling TORO in all capital letters is part of the brand.
Johnson has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Missouri – Kansas City. He has also been working with mascots since he was in high school, so the combination of the two interests makes him a perfect fit for the Texans.
“That’s where my business degree comes in, is trying to find ways to generate value for the organization utilizing this mascot program,” he said.
Johnson keeps TORO busy in schools throughout the Greater Houston area. There are three programs the mascot does with the schools.
“We’ve got a Get Fit initiative, we have an anti-bullying campaign, and we have a STAAR Prep, which is standardized testing here in Texas,” he said.
It’s because of a school program back when Johnson was a fifth grader in Kansas City that he took an interest in professional mascots. Dan Meers, who plays KC Wolf for the Kansas City Chiefs, came to his school. There, he broke one of the major taboos of professional mascots. He took off the costume. As he did, he talked about his experiences and delivered an educational message.
“At the very end of his program he’ll let one of the kids try on his costume,” Johnson recalled. “When I was in the fifth grade, I was the student that got selected to go up and try on his costume. And so I thought that was really cool and it’s kind of where the dream was inspired. I remember running home after that presentation that day and flinging the door open and telling my parents what I was going to do for the rest of my life. They kind of laughed at me and told me that I still needed to go to college.”
He did go to college. Having served as a mascot for three years in high school, he took a scholarship to a junior college to be the mascot. That’s when a friend suggested he was better than that and said he could pursue it professionally.
“I learned I could actually help pay my way through college as a mascot,” he said.
To learn more, he started networking.
“I got connected with the guys who do it professionally. … I was calling them, I was emailing them, just trying to find a way to get to know those guys and get some advice, figure out how to do what they do,” he said.
That’s when Meers, who wanted to spend more time with his children, took Johnson under his wing and began using him as a backup at different events. Eventually Meers had him so busy that Johnson transferred to UMKC to be closer to home.
“I look for guys not only good in costume but high character guys out of costume as well,” Meers said.
He said he knew he had a winner in Johnson.
“He really was destined to go on to great things,” Meers said.
Meers, who still has a photograph of the fifth-grade Johnson trying on the KC Wolf costume, said he recommended Johnson for the Texans job when he learned it was opening up.
“I knew he would do well,” he said.
In addition to helping Meers with the Chiefs, Johnson became an assistant Lion Tamer for the Kansas City Royals mascot. Then came the Missouri Mavericks, a minor league hockey team, and Sporting Kansas City, the Major League Soccer team, and several corporate characters.
“I was kind of running my own business in Kansas City,” Johnson said.
During the summer of 2015, the Dallas Stars hockey team called him to launch their mascot program. He jumped at the opportunity but two months into it Meers urged him to apply to the Texans. The Texans’ first and only mascot coordinator of 12 years left and they needed to make a quick hire. Reluctantly, Johnson agreed to interview and was hired. Since then he has had no regrets.
“There are so many great parts of this job,” he said. “The coolest part of this job is getting out and meeting people.”
Johnson knows full well that people identify with TORO and love him like a part of the team.
“My ultimate goal is for TORO to be a character with character, which means I want him to be a good mascot that makes people laugh but also to live a life of integrity,” he said. “Hopefully with this platform I’ve been given I can go out and make a difference in the community as well.”
Game day is a very long day for TORO and his crew. Johnson arrives at the stadium around 7:30 a.m. for a noon game. There is a lot of prep work to do and if TORO is performing a stunt, rehearsals have to take place long before the teams begin their warm-ups. By 10 a.m. TORO is out in the Bud Light Plaza greeting fans. From there he goes inside to mingle with fans who have pre-game sideline experience passes. He then visits with tailgaters before returning to the stadium for introductions and pre-game activities.
“He comes out for the intro and from there it’s game time, leading the team out onto the field and doing the coin toss,” Johnson said.
At halftime, he is at TORO’s Turf behind section 119 for photos and autographs. Then he returns to the field through the end of the game, taking only occasional breaks. TORO gets hot and dehydrates quickly.
“After the game, paramedics will come and pump him with fluids so he can recover quickly,” Johnson said.
One of the benefits to hanging with TORO is being a part of the “fur-turnity” of other mascots. They often interact with each other and participate at their events and games.
“TORO was out at the Skeeters games, I think twice this year,” he said.
Sugar Land Skeeters mascot Swatson returns the favor.
“He’ll come out here and help me out on the sideline during game day,” he said. “We’ll have Swatson come out here for the Mascot Bowl.”
Swatson, as translated by Skeeters Mascot Coordinator Zach Bohls, said he likes hanging out with his fuzzy colleague.
“TORO is like a big brother to me,” Swatson said. “I bug him a lot but he can be a little bullheaded sometimes. We like to go human tipping. It’s like cow tipping but with humans. It’s a riot.”
In Johnson’s first year with the Texans, he got to take TORO to a playoff game and to the Pro Bowl. This year they traveled to Mexico City for a game against the Raiders and are headed back to the playoffs. Houston is also hosting the Super Bowl this year, so TORO is going to be incredibly busy with events leading up to the big game. Should the Texans actually make it, his schedule will go through the roof.
In the meantime, Johnson is content to keep TORO active in the community and growing on Houston’s social scene. After all, when it comes to the Houston Texans, players come and players go but the bull in this place goes on forever.