The bizarre history of the Naval Academy's mascot, 'Bill the Goat'
Every sports team needs their very own cartoony mascot to get the fans going. Sure, it's a goofy tradition, but it gets the people cheering and those cheers spur the players on to victory, so no one ever questions it. Military academies are no different.
The Air Force Academy sports the high-flying falcon because it's the apex predator across much of America's sky. West Point is represented by the mule because it's a hardy beast of burden that has carried the Army's gear into many wars. The Naval Academy, in what seems like a lapse of logic, decided long ago that the best representation of the Navy and Marine Corps' spirit is a goat.
The use of a goat as their mascot began in 1893 with El Cid the Goat, named after the famed Castilian general. Eventually, they settled on the name "Bill" because, you know, billy goats... And it just gets weirder from there.
In the Navy's defense, goats actually served a purpose on Navy vessels back in the days of fully rigged ships. Unlike most livestock that required specialized food, a goat can eat just about any kind of scraps, which is handy on a long voyage. And, once it fulfilled its purpose as a walking garbage disposal, as grim as it sounds, it provided the cooks with a fresh source of meat.
Yet, when the U.S. Naval Academy was founded in 1845, then-Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft chose his favorite animal to be the official mascot of his newly established military academy: the monkey. This didn't last long because the logo was actually of a gorilla and, as most people know, gorilla's aren't monkeys. The next idea was a cat (which actually have a place in Naval history), then a bulldog (before the times of Chesty Puller), and then a carrier pigeon.
From 1847 to 1851, the Naval Academy used a cat as their mascot, which we can presume would've hated being paraded in front of large crowds.
There are two different versions of the story of how the Navy finally got the goat.
The first of those version is simple: The previously mentioned El Cid the Goat appeared at the 1893 Army-Navy football game and its presence, supposedly, helped carry the team to victory. The Navy continued to bounce back and forth between mascots until officially sticking with the goat in 1904. Said goat was re-branded as "Bill," named after the Commandant of Midshipmen, Commander Colby M. Chester's pet goat, and the rest is history.
Ever since, sailors have enjoyed a long tradition of giving their goats the clever name of 'Bill.'
(U.S. Navy Historical Center)
The other version is steeped in legend — and is entirely bizarre. As the story goes, a ship's beloved pet goat had met its untimely end. Two ensigns were tasked with heading ashore to bring the goat to a taxidermist so that its legacy could live on. The ensigns got lost on their way to the taxidermist, as most butter bars do, and wound up at the Army-Navy game.
The legend never specifies who, exactly, came up with this brilliant idea, but one of them apparently thought, "you know what? f*ck it" and wore the goat's skin like a cape. During halftime, one ensign ran across the sidelines (because sporting arena security wasn't a thing then) donning the goat skin and was met with thunderous applause.
Instead of reprimanding the two idiots for clearly doing the exact opposite of what their captain had asked of them, the Naval Academy rolled with it and attributed their victory over the Army to the goat.
This version is kind of suspect because El Cid the Goat was at the fourth game so the goat-skin midshipman would have had to been at one of the three games prior. The first and third games were held at West Point (which is clearly far away from any wandering ensigns) and second Army/Navy game was a victory for Army. But hey! It's all in good fun.
The biggest takeaway from the legend is the difference between becoming a legend and getting a Captain's Mast is whether or not you can attribute a Navy victory over West Point on your actions.
(U.S. Navy photo by Joaquin Murietta)