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Mo, a child-size version of Montana’s popular mascot Monte, is welcomed onto the turf at Washington-Grizzly Stadium for his debut performance last fall against Eastern Washington. Mo arrived in the trunk of a car during pre-game festivities. The little mascot will be on duty again Saturday for the UM-Weber State game. Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian Kurt Wilson

For such a little fella, the bear cub that popped out of a Corvette two weeks ago onto the field at Washington-Grizzly Stadium made a mighty big impression.

Meet Mo, the newest member of the University of Montana mascot family.

Though it's tempting to call him Mini Monte - much like Austin Power's Mini-Me - it's just Mo, short for both Montana and Monte.

At UM's home game against Eastern Washington - his debut, Mo never left Monte's side, holding the big bear's paw and mimicking his every move. On Saturday, he'll be back on duty for the Montana-Weber State game.

"People love mascots, and people love miniature versions, especially the women," said Brent Reser, the university's assistant marketing director. "Girls love him. They think he's adorable."

The Missoula Maulers hockey team has a mini Slash and the Chicago Bulls have a mini Benny the Bull. And now the Griz have Mo, who like Monte, must remain anonymous.

This much we can reveal: When he's not wearing the Griz costume, he's a Missoula elementary school student with mad tumbling skills.

For some time, UM has looked to expand its mascot program. Actually, the idea came years ago from Mo's real-life mom, before her son could even somersault.

"I'm always trying to get kids involved," she said.

Mo grew up attending Griz football and basketball games, mesmerized by Monte and his crisp dance moves and witty personality. After each game, Mo would spend time on the field, tumbling and running into the goalpost - a signature Monte move. (Apparently, one that doesn't hurt when you're a kid.)

For two years, Mo has been slowly coming to life. The key was finding a child with superb tumbling skills, the right personality and who's not going to freeze up in front of 25,000 screaming fans, Reser said. Mo was just the kid for the job.

So ... two weeks ago, a parade of Corvettes rolled out on the turf at Washington-Griz and stopped midfield.

Tap, tap, tap.

Monte knocked on the window, Mo's sign to exit. His heart raced in his chest.

"I just got out there and I claimed my trick," said Mo, re-enacting the move earlier this week in the Adams Center by tilting his back slightly and stretching his arms to the sky. ("Claiming your trick" is a term used in skiing, he said.)

Performing back flips in a giant bear head is not easy, especially when you can't see the landing, Mo said. But if Mo can land back flips with skis attached to his legs, conquering tumbling in a bear suit should be no problem. For six years, Mo has taken gymnastics, but only to apply those skills to the snow when aerial skiing.

In fact, Monte has Mo practicing tumbling tricks he's never needed before, like back handsprings, typically an easier move than a back flip, but one that Mo never needed to learn on a pair of skis.

At a cross-state Lady Griz volleyball game against Montana State University, Monte and Mo stripped off their jerseys, baring their fur for the crowd and streaking across the floor - a first for the adolescent. Mo idolizes Monte, just like a child looking up to his elder.

When they do side-by-side back flips, "he gets two feet of air and I get six inches," Mo said.

One of the toughest things about being Mo is keeping it secret.

"It's hard not to brag, especially when (my classmates) ask me," Mo said. "It's hard not to blurt it out."

Mo's mom feels the same way.

Tears of joy ran from her eyes when Mo made his first on-field appearance. At times, it seemed the day would never arrive.

Part of the challenge, aside from the liability and legal discussions, was that Mo's bear suit cost $3,800. While UM was enthusiastic to invest in the new mascot, it didn't have the funds. So Mo's mom solicited donations from local businesses, including Culligan Water in Missoula, both local gymnastics clubs and Mo's orthodontist.

A stranger in the crowd turned to the teary-eyed mom and asked, "Do you know Mo?"

She just shook her head no.

"I get my video camera out all the time in-between plays," she said. "I try not to make it obvious."

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

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