The secret life of Alabama and Clemson mascots

— -- Jordan and Dakota can't tell you their last names.

It's part of The Code, and breaking it would be like spitting in the face of decades of tradition. There's a chance they'd lose their positions if they did.

But rest assured, you know who they are.

You see them -- kind of -- at every Alabama and Clemson football game.

Jordan and Dakota, you see, are mascots.

Dakota becomes a lumbering, goofy elephant known as Big Al on game days. Meanwhile, Jordan transforms into a high-energy, back-flipping, yellow-eyed Tiger.

On Thursday morning, both were making preparations to travel to the College Football National Championship Game Presented by AT&T in Tampa, Florida (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Jordan employed a water-and-vodka mixture to clean his costume, scrubbing out the odor of a week in Arizona for the semifinal game.

Dakota won't get to fly to the game with the football team, so he was busy packing for a 10.5-hour bus ride set to leave Tuscaloosa around 7 p.m. the following day. The title game will be his 120th appearance as Big Al since May.

While it may look like fun and games for these college mascots, there's a lot more to it.

Jordan is a bundle of energy.

Performing is what he has done his entire life. His younger brother nicknamed him "Extra" because he always goes above and beyond, making things bigger, louder and more entertaining.

Running down the hill as Clemson's mascot wasn't enough. So he taught himself to do a backflip on the incline, and now he does it before every game.

Jordan began taking dance classes at 6, following in the footsteps of his parents. He was teased incessantly in middle school for dancing, but Jordan kept at it through high school, when he began thinking of his future.

When it came time to graduate, he had two choices: pursue a career in dancing or go to college.

His parents pushed him toward an education, and he applied to one school.

Clemson was the only choice. His mother went to school there, and he first attended a Tigers football game at 2 years old. Jordan said his family has been season-ticket holders through the good times and the bad. There are pictures all throughout their home of them at games, including one of a 3-year-old Jordan in front of the scoreboard wearing the Tiger outfit, complete with a tail.

Trying out to become the mascot was an easy decision. Even his parents weren't surprised.

But Jordan's aspirations -- "I wanted to take the mascot to a new level," he said -- would raise more than a few eyebrows.

The backflip was one that caught people's attention. For his next trick, Jordan said he's working with a trainer to learn how to dunk off a trampoline during basketball games.

His favorite ploy, however, was when he decided to take the Tiger on water to wakeboard.

His parents were freaked out. No problem, he told them.

"I'll have a life vest on and the wakeboard is also a flotation device. I'll be fine."

When Jordan hit the water, he immediately thought, "Oh my gosh, what did I just do?"

The suit went from about eight pounds to feeling like 100. The headset fogged up and he couldn't see anything. He stayed on the board, held onto the rope for dear life and pulled it off.

When it was over, he said he had to be helped back onto the boat because the suit was too heavy.

"Y'all better have gotten a good video!" he shouted at his parents and everyone on board. "We're not going to be able to re-shoot that for four days because the suit won't dry."

The single take worked and the video was a hit.

"I always wanted more when I'm in the suit," he said.

Today, Clemson's mascot has nearly 11,000 followers on Twitter.

Becoming Big Al was something very few of Dakota's friends could have seen coming. He was a shy soccer player who only tried out to become his high school's mascot after some prodding from a former teacher.

During that high school tryout, he wore only the Bulldog head so the audience knew who it was. He had to walk onto the center of a mat while music played over a loudspeaker, and he was told to dance.

"That was probably the scariest thing," he said. "I'm sitting there in front of 10-20 pretty cheerleaders, and that's not something anyone was used to."

He nearly wept -- "maybe a little bit," he admitted -- but he got the job.

Then came the hard part: walking down the stairway to the football game, hearing the crowd screaming.

"I was just sitting there thinking, 'No one knows who I am, but this is the most ridiculous thing I've ever done,'" he said. "It's just extremely overwhelming. It's so overwhelming you're on the verge of crying. You don't know what to do. It's crazy."

He made it to the field and found his spot on the sideline. When he heard fans chanting the mascot's name, he began to calm down.

Slowly it started to sink in: OK, they like me. Eat this up. They like me. Keep this up and make them like me even more. Keep it going and get everyone's eyes on me.

He was surprised how much he enjoyed it. He had never accepted that part of him that enjoyed the attention, he said.

During his final semester, he thought about college and the idea of not having sports or some other organized activity outside of classes. "Why not be Big Al?" he asked.

He applied, aced the interviews, did well on the skits and made the cut on Friday. The next day was the final part of the exam: Alabama's spring football game.

He threw on the roughly 15-pound suit with a 60-inch waist and began Big Al's exaggerated walk -- "a combination of George Jefferson and Santa Claus," explained the program's coordinator, Jennifer Thrasher -- into Bryant-Denny Stadium, where more than 50,000 fans waited.

"All I remember from that day," he said, "is walking out there, but excuse my French, but I was sitting there in the suit and I just went, 'Holy s---. Oh. My. Gosh.' And it wasn't even a full stadium.

"It's extremely overwhelming, but when you realize what you're there for, it's incredible. It turns into adrenaline and pushes you."

Alabama has turned down multiple requests for Big Al to attend funerals, and Clemson recently rejected a request to be part of a bachelorette party.

The performances, however, pile up.

Small teams of mascots attend all the major sports at both schools, in addition to Olympic sports such as track and field. There are also school-organized, corporate and private events. Clemson mascot coordinator Tori Polsinello estimated they made more than 500 appearances last year alone.

Sometimes the job feels like a 60-hour work week. The "partial scholarship" students receive may cover books and a few beers, but that's about it. No one knows who you are, so there are no perks of fame, either. And when it's hot, you better be prepared for dehydration.

It's hard work, Thrasher said, noting how Big Al's costume reaches 30-40 degrees warmer than outside temperatures.

In other words: mascots such as Jordan and Dakota wouldn't be doing this if they didn't love it.

The thing people understand the least, they said, is that the reward isn't a football game or some other athletic event. It's fun to perform in front of thousands of fans, and the title game Monday will be a blast, but that's not going to be the most unforgettable moment of their careers.

Jordan immediately thinks of visiting a third-grader who had a brain tumor.

The boy was having a birthday party at a roller-skating rink a few years back when Clemson's Tiger showed up as a surprise. While everyone else skated in circles, the Tiger pushed the boy in his wheelchair for more than an hour. This year, that same Tiger ran on the field at Clemson's stadium to greet the boy, now cancer free, as he and his family were introduced on the Jumbotron.

Dakota remembers spending time with a toddler who had brain damage.

The little girl from Tennessee fell and hurt her head and was told she'd never walk or talk again. Then she watched an Alabama football game with her family, spotted Big Al and said the words, "Roll Tide." Every time she saw the elephant, she repeated it. Someone in Tuscaloosa found the story of the girl online, and Big Al decided to surprise her at her home one day, trotting through her front yard to say hello and play in the grass for a little while.

"I just try to cry without making any noise," Dakota said of the visits to sick children.

Jordan holds back tears as well.

When he visits hospitals, he says he does his best to keep his energy down. A child's parent once asked him to pet her little girl's hand. She couldn't see the handful of mascots surrounding her in bed, but the mother said if her daughter felt the fur touch her skin, she would understand.

"You can just see things with the little visibility you have," Jordan said. "You see things you wouldn't necessarily see person-on-person. But being behind that suit, those are the things you really clue in on and go, 'Wow. This is why we do it.'

"There are different things that drove us to becoming mascots. But there's one thing we have in common: We want to bring joy to people. It might be hard sometimes, but we do it for a bigger reason."