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College of Information and Communications

  • James Smithwick sitting on Horseshoe in graduation regalia and Cocky Shoes

The man behind the mascot

If you need a secret kept, May 2022 mass communications graduate James Smithwick is your guy — that’s because he’s kept a big secret for most of his time at the University of South Carolina. Smithwick has put smiles on thousands of faces as the official mascot for Cocky’s Reading Express, a literacy initiative that sends Cocky into underserved schools across the state.

Smithwick took on the top-secret role near the end of his freshman year and has been promoting childhood literacy ever since. Whether he was acting out children’s books, hyping up fans or simply walking around campus, Smithwick felt like a tail-feathered superhero.

“It's like you're Spiderman and no one knows you're Spiderman,” he says.

His journey with Cocky’s Reading Express has been busy and extremely rewarding. Traveling to various corners of South Carolina each week, Smithwick has brought children exciting storytimes and shared his love for reading with a special Gamecock flair, teaching children to love reading, Cocky and the university from a young age.

“It has been life-changing,” he says. “Some of these kids are in really bad situations, but they’re still kids living normal lives. When they see Cocky, it's like all their problems go away, and it's just me and them. My goal is to make sure that they have an amazing time and to spread literacy.”

As the world struggled to deal with the coronavirus pandemic for the past two years, Cocky had to adapt to the challenges himself. Smithwick was determined to keep Cocky’s Reading Express alive, going so far as filming virtual storytimes from his basement to continue the organization’s mission and bring joy to fans during an uncertain time.

Beyond his work with Cocky’s Reading Express, he also enjoyed taking on special assignments, like working the Christmas event at the president’s house, attending literacy programs at Thomas Cooper Library and even starring in a silly Valentine’s Day video for the university’s social media. But Smithwick’s favorite thing to do as the university’s beloved mascot was to simply walk around campus.

“People will run up to me, they treat me like a celebrity,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a really amazing experience. When you're in the suit looking through his eyes, everyone around you is smiling. That's a really amazing thing that has changed me.”

As graduation neared, he squeezed the last bit of fun out of his secret identity by attending his last undergraduate class as Cocky, a hilarious surprise to his instructor and classmates.

Smithwick won’t be leaving the university behind, though. He’ll be continuing his Gamecock career as a student in the Master of Mass Communication program in the fall. While he’s sad to let Cocky go, he knows the legacy must continue for the next generation.

“I can't wait to pass the torch,” he says, “Cocky made my college career like no one else’s, and the fact that I can pass that on to someone else is really exciting.”

Brooke Burris

Brooke Burris

Albemarle, North Carolina native Brooke Burris is a senior public relations major. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in travel and tourism PR. In her free time, Brooke enjoys hiking, painting and spending time with friends.

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