Soaring, Flying with Billy Bluejay

Soaring, Flying with Billy Bluejay

By Emily Rust

In 2015, right before a Creighton men’s soccer match, Nathan Hansen, DDS’19, sat in the Wayne and Eileen Ryan Athletic Center for a pregame briefing as he prepared for his debut as Creighton’s beloved mascot, Billy Bluejay.

“Nathan had a lot of elaborate ideas,” recalls Adrian Rider, BA’04, assistant athletic director, who, along with Joe Willman, director of marketing and broadcast services, was leading the meeting. “And we said, ‘We would love to implement them, but let’s just ease into it.’

“We said, ‘In the first half, Nathan, whatever you do, do not go down onto the field.’”

Prior to the starting whistle, Hansen — now fully outfitted as Billy — ran down the Morrison Stadium concourse to the north endzone, where he jumped onto the field and ran over to the referees.

He was just getting warmed up.

He rubbed the bald referee’s head, jumped into the grandstands, sat next to two young fans, teased them, re-entered the field, sprinted down the sidelines, climbed a wall to join the student section, high-fived his way back behind the team bench, and did a backflip off the wall to return to the pitch.

“And we said ease into it,” Rider says, laughing now. “At that point in time, Joe and I looked at each other, and we knew we had zero control.”

“What he did in his first three or four minutes in a suit determined what the next four years were going to look like. It truly was the change of Billy Bluejay.”

Hansen was one of the most animated and acrobatic Billy Bluejay mascots ever. In his four years in the role, he not only cheered for the Bluejays, but flipped, dunked and spun on his head for them, too.

He is also believed to be the only professional student in Creighton’s history to don the Billy Bluejay suit. Hansen graduated third in his class this May from Creighton’s dental school and is currently in an orthodontics residency at Saint Louis University.

Hansen did gymnastics as a child, and his first year of college at Brigham Young University-Hawaii befriended a fellow student who was a break dancer and another who did parkour. Together, the trio would practice dancing and tricks, and even cliff dived. Hansen and one of the friends eventually enrolled at BYU’s main campus in Provo, Utah, and continued flipping, this time as members of the university’s competitive mascot squad.

Around the time of his arrival at Creighton, the Athletics Department had undergone a rebranding to coincide with the University’s entrance into the BIG EAST Conference. That rebranding included a more sleek and athletic mascot costume. “Billy’s rebrand kind of fit what Nathan brought to the mascot position,” Willman says.

Gone were fuzzy gloves, replaced by ones worn by athletes. He sported a team jersey at basketball games. Billy was no longer just a “smile and wave” cheerleader, but an animated mascot whose passion became an essential part of the fan experience.

With this change, Creighton had to classify Hansen as a student-athlete, getting mascot insurance for the first time. He was even required to complete a physical exam, just like any other Division I athlete. And for his role as Billy, Hansen received an athletics scholarship.

“Because of his energy and antics, our crowd goes crazy and this energy carries over into the game,” says Bruce Rasmussen, the McCormick Endowed Athletic Director at Creighton. “Billy has assisted us in building a strong sense of community and tremendous school pride.”

Hansen constantly pushed himself as Billy, trying new stunts.

“We beat Villanova last year at home, and the game ends. We’re all excited and you turned your head, and there’s Nathan. He’s standing on top of the backboard,” Willman says.

Then there was the time at Madison Square Garden, during the BIG EAST Tournament, when Hansen challenged Villanova’s mascot, Will D. Cat, to a dance battle.

“I don’t know why he decided to do it, but he decided to roll like a log,” Hansen says of Villanova’s mascot. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to take advantage of this.’ So, I ran up toward him, did a flip over him, kind of in his face.”

“When Nathan was destroying the competition in front of 20,000-plus fans, you knew that he not only had the love of our fans, he had the love of all New York,” Rider says.

But there were limits, too. Like the time Nathan asked if he could repel down from the CHI Health Center Omaha rafters for a basketball game honoring Wounded Warriors. Rider and Willman looked into repelling certification classes for Hansen, but it was ultimately decided the stunt was too risky.

“The feedback on Billy is that he is sincerely the best mascot in the country,” Rider says. “We know what the power of a good mascot can be.”

Billy was not Hansen’s first foray into the mascot world. As an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, Hansen was a member of “Team Cosmo” — a group of students who performed as BYU’s Cosmo the Cougar.

Hansen practiced every morning at 6 a.m., focusing on strength and conditioning. Three times a week, he would go to an additional two-hour practice.

“Training was really intense,” Hansen says. He continued to train at Creighton — a must for the backflips, handstands, high-flying aerial acts and other acrobatics he performed in the 25-pound Billy costume.  

“What he does in a full suit is not normal,” Rider says. “It took lots of practice to get to that level.”

He also had to balance the rigors of dental school. He would wake up daily at 6 a.m. to work out, before heading to class. After a full day of classes, he either went to the Rasmussen Center on campus to practice flips or, on basketball game days, to CHI Health Center Omaha.

“There have been times we are at basketball games where he has his notes with him. In between certain breaks, he’s studying away in his suit,” says Neil Norton, PhD, professor of oral biology in the School of Dentistry and Creighton’s NCAA faculty representative.

“There would be days where I would just get two hours of sleep at night, then take a test and go do a basketball game,” Nathan says. “You’ve got to be prepared if that’s what you want to do.”

Oftentimes, Hansen’s wife, Amy, would join him in the locker room, keeping him company during breaks and encouraging him in his studies. Nathan and Amy met as undergraduates, and she was supportive of his work as Creighton’s mascot.

“I was excited for him, because it’s something he’s passionate about,” Amy says. “It is a good outlet for him when he’s not studying.”

It wasn’t until six months into their relationship that Amy found out about Nathan’s role as BYU’s mascot.

“He would randomly disappear sometimes and say, ‘I have to go,’ and say he was part of a dance group,” Amy says.

One day, while hanging out with friends who were also on Team Cosmo, someone spilled Nathan’s secret identity. But Nathan already had a plan in place to surprise his future wife.

“We were at a football game and Cosmo came up to where I was sitting,” Amy says. “He had … a rose. All the girls were like, ‘Pick me, pick me, I want it.’ He gave it to me, and all the girls were so jealous I got a rose from Cosmo.”

It was because of Amy that Nathan considered dental school in the first place. Before they met, he seriously thought of dropping out of school and going to California to be a stunt double.

“Then I met my wife, Amy, and I thought I better take my future seriously and thought about my life and what I need to do,” Nathan says.

By the time he graduated in May, Hansen had been involved in five major dental research projects, presented at two national conferences, been president of the Creighton chapter of the American Dental Education Association, and served at dental clinics locally and abroad.

“He’s an extremely intelligent young man, a very driven man,” Norton says.

His undergraduate Spanish degree proved valuable in interacting with diverse patient populations at Creighton’s Dental Clinic, and at service sites such as Omaha’s OneWorld Clinic and the Institute for Latin American Concern (ILAC) in the Dominican Republic. As president of Creighton’s Spanish Dental Club, he also taught fellow students Spanish words and phrases useful in dentistry.

At May commencement, Hansen was honored with the Spirit of Creighton Award, which is given to students who represent the spirit of the University’s founders in their dedication to service and consistent effort to examine and engage the world. It is the highest student award presented by the University.

“He really wants to make the world a better place,” Norton says.

Between the School of Dentistry and Creighton Athletics, Hansen will be missed at the University. He, too, will miss the support of the Bluejays, who he says, “made me feel like family.”

“Coming here to Creighton, hearing people say, ‘Oh, it’s so fun to watch you. It’s so cool what you did. Good job. Thanks for all the hard work.’ Things like that really mean a lot,” Hansen says. “I think that’s one of the biggest things I’ll remember.”

From the time he raced onto Morrison Field, this high-flying Bluejay has brought Creighton’s lovable mascot to new heights.

“He’s raised the bar for Billy Bluejay,” Willman says.