The day after NYCFC's stunning, come-from-behind victory over DC United at Yankee Stadium last week, I caught up with Omari McCleary, a.k.a. the NYCFC Pigeon, to learn more about the famous mask and his role as a community activist in the Five Boroughs.
Hudson River Blue: Where did the idea for the pigeon mask come from? When was the first time you wore it? What was the response like?
Omari McCleary: The secret is that growing up, my first jobs were as mascots. I was the mascot for the minor league baseball team, the Staten Island Yankees. I did that through high school, which led to becoming Chuck E. Cheese. That led to me getting an athletic scholarship to Temple University, to become a mascot. It’s something I got into because I’m a goofball, and there’s something special about being the tangible, physical representation of a team, the symbol. I like being able to entertain, inspire, and make people laugh.
When NYCFC was forming, in 2014, before we even had a logo, the front office was doing fan meet-ups, with Claudio Reyna and the front office staff talking with 30 or 40 people at a time, at Legends. They were also doing a lot of Manchester City events at the time, and the mascot from Manchester City was there. It’s like a moon alien. I thought, if there’s going to be an NYCFC mascot, it has got to be something super authentic to New York, something you see everywhere.
Rats? Cockroaches? You know, what every borough has, and have been here since New York started? Pigeons! The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. We were coming into the league un-liked, and pigeons are super un-liked. There’s a certain resiliency about pigeons. There not bothered by things. They live on crumbs, like most New Yorkers do. They’re always waddling around, pretending to get somewhere, always moving.
Some people thought the pigeon mask would be gross, or that kids would be terrified of someone wearing it, but I decided to wear it to an event, to see how it would go. The first time I wore it was the jersey reveal. I didn’t take the mask off the entire time. I acted like a pigeon – I even covered my hands. People were like, "The Penguin!" Or, "The Eagle!" Not everyone knew what I was, but the people who did know, loved it immediately. There was a photo booth there, and people wanted to take pictures with me. I thought, "Some people are into this, so I’m going to stick to it."
Every NYCFC event, I showed up as the Pigeon, and I did a bunch of volunteer events with the team, where I showed up as the Pigeon. That really took off. There was the New York Fest, an industry soccer tournament for charity, and they had a youth seminar. The kids took to the Pigeon right away. None of them were scared, just excited. That was the first time I decided to take the mask off as well, so I could build real relationships with them. I wanted the Pigeon to be associated with fun, community service, and New York City pride. This experience would further inspire my commitment to assist the city in providing free, inclusive, and fun soccer to youth all over the Five Boroughs.
I’ll wear the mask going to pre-games, under the train, with all of the supporters groups, taking pictures, dancing, drumming, and then, at away games. The challenge is getting into stadiums, though. The masks aren’t allowed in stadiums. Game to game, for the first season, I was stuffing the mask in my pants, and then wearing it in the stadium. Most of the time, I was told to take it off. I would wear it during goal celebrations and corners. Any opportunity I had to wear it, I would.
This season, I was selected to be in the jersey reveal. I asked if I could do the whole thing in the mask. They said no, but I snuck it in. There’s a shot of me at my desk, and the mask is on my desk!
After a while, I was thinking I’m just a crazy guy in a pigeon mask, and this wasn’t really working. No one really gets that I’m a pigeon. Someone told me to check on Reddit, and I saw all these memes with pigeons in them, and someone had made pigeon patches. So, I saw that other people had grasped the idea of the pigeon, and it was kind of taking off, on its own. Then, the Third Rail came out with a pigeon shirt, and I thought, this is a thing now, so I need to continue with this pigeon thing. It was really exciting. I didn’t really want it to be about me at all. I just wanted it to be something people could enjoy and connect with. We’re all pigeons.
Twitter was also a big part of that. Orlando Unicorn called me out. He had seen pictures, and said he wanted only one meta-human in MLS. So, I started using Twitter, and we had a little online banter. It expanded to me being one of the many online personalities for the club. It’s been a pretty interesting ride.
HRB: You mentioned the stadium issues, and that certainly came up when I spoke to the NYCFC Spider-Man last year. Has that changed at all this season, or are you still limited when it comes to wearing the mask?
OM: There’s a slight disconnect between the club and the stadium. People with the club see me and say, "Hey, where’s the Pigeon?" I’m thinking, "Hey, you know I can’t wear a mask in here!" At last year’s "shirts off our back" ceremony, the last game of the season, I was honored for the work I’m doing in the community. I said I wanted to wear the mask when I go out there on the field. The club said yes, but it was shot down by the stadium. I ended up taking a stuffed pigeon I found, and I put it on top of my hat.
This year, it’s been lighter, in a weird way. I still have to hide the mask, to get it in, but when I put it on during a goal celebration, I haven’t had much of any security asking me to take it off. The first season, it was like being an outlaw. I remember NYCFC Spider-Man and I making a few memes about it. I even offered to register my character and face to Yankee Stadium security. Spider-Man asked me if it was cool that he does the Spider-Man thing. I was like, "The more, the merrier!"
If it was up to me, we could all be masked New York characters. We could all be pigeons. I don’t care if I’m the only one. But last year, we had to hide under the bleachers to take pictures together. Last year, we were definitely the masked outlaws. This year, I just don’t want to be kicked out of the game. It’s more about what happens before the game, and after the game, and being in a community, than being in the game. Of course, the dream is getting our own stadium, where the Pigeon can live freely.
HRB: You mentioned your community work. I know we were all hoping you would win the MLS Community MVP award you were nominated for. Can you talk a little about that, and about how your day job interacts with NYCFC?
OM: I’m an after school/summer camp/extracurricular program director for an elementary school in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. When I was just started the program, one of the things I was really passionate about bringing to the program and the neighborhood was soccer. I wanted soccer since it would be sort of brand-new to the community, so everyone would be learning at the same time. Bringing basketball or something more familiar would be different. Basketball pick-up culture is super-intense here; there are a lot of local rules and aggressiveness in New York City's streets. Soccer also has the co-ed aspect, along with being cheap, and it's the international language.
I had gotten some donations from U.S. Soccer, but it was really hard to get the momentum I wanted, even though the game had already grown in popularity. They announced that NYCFC was going to be in New York, and I thought, "Maybe they’ll give some donations, and have some guidance. I can’t wait for the team to get started." Out of nowhere, before they even had a logo, they contacted me, which blew my mind. This brand-new team was already looking to sink their roots, and really be in the City, be present, and in the community.
Paul Jeffries, the club's community director, has actually been a huge mentor for me when it comes to learning more about soccer for social change. He talked about what the club was trying to do, with transforming communities, and growing the sport here in this country. I was thinking about an after-school soccer program in Bed Stuy, and he said, "What if it was a community club, like happens all over the world?" Kids can play, and be part of this club, and have control of it, and the parents and neighborhood stakeholders can have control over it. What was just after-school soccer became Bed Stuy Athletic Club, which is for kids to come play during peak hours for risky juvenile activities, like Friday nights, and Saturday nights, and after school.
That’s grown. So, now there’s Sunset Park and East Harlem, and we’ve traveled to play those kids in a friendly way, too. There’s a network, and the population is connecting, and growing. In my case, these are kids who don’t really leave the 12-block radius around their homes, so to go to Chinatown last year, and play a team that’s culturally different, was a huge deal. It felt a lot like an international friendly, even though we were just crossing the bridge.
NYCFC has been extremely supportive, and I love that they haven’t tried to control everything and brand it. They’re not trying to create future consumers and customers. They literally just want to grow the network of the game here in the City. One game, every time Saunders made a save, we got a donation, which we used to buy equipment we didn’t have. They invite us to a tournament on Randall’s Island every year, the Schools Cup, with all of those neighborhood clubs. Poku came to visit us as well.
The best thing has been professional development for my coaches. People who have volunteered their time have gotten excellent advice on how to coach community clubs. It has been a support, and I love how they allow us to create our own identity. It’s really authentic and sincere. It’s like a small family of people trying to provide free, quality, and character-driven soccer. We’re not trying to be ultra-competitive, to be all about winning, or even create professional athletes. It’s more of a social value, from this sport particularly, that we all want to build in New York City.
One of the things Paul and I really agreed on is, if you think about New York City basketball, which went from pick-up games to where the best talent in the league comes from, the same thing could happen here. There are so many cultures, so many kids from different backgrounds, it just makes sense. In just the first two years, a lot has happened.
Jenny Lando of Third Rail nominated me for the MLS award. I didn’t know. I had no clue. The club chose me out of a bunch of other nominations, and I was a finalist for it. It was crazy, because you don’t get a lot of recognition in social services. It’s not something that usually happens. I’m a big fan of the league as well, so it was a huge honor. What really got me emotional was the tremendous support that the NYCFC family poured into helping me get those votes. I have not been able to express how much it has meant to me. Outside of the results and the players, the biggest gift NYCFC has given me is this community and family of people I know I would never have talked to, or had the relationships I’ve had. I can only imagine what it will be like in ten, 20, or 30 years.
I ended up going to San Jose, wearing the pigeon mask all around. People were like, "What’s this pigeon thing?" Some people already knew about it, which was great. Being around the league, and talking about what we’re trying to do in New York City, was what mattered. We ended up getting $1,000 consolation prize, and we’re hoping to expand to more friendly games this year. We met a great guy who’s doing something similar for the Philadelphia Union. I’m hoping to go down to Philly and meet the kids down there.
What a lot of people feel about NYCFC, it’s not just a team. To actually have an opportunity to represent my club, to wear the colors, I feel like a lot of people have had those experiences, so they can say, "I was the club for that day." The club is not just one person. It was really great to combine the Pigeon aspect of it with being able to say, "In two years, this is what we’ve done to impact the neighborhood."
When Mayor DeBlasio announced the NYC Soccer Initiative [for the] construction of 50 fields over the next five years in the City, I was there for that. That’s amazing. That’s all NYCFC’s influence as well. There’s been another professional club "in the City" for awhile, and that hasn’t happened. For there to be 50 new fields, all over? I can’t imagine the impact that’s going to have.
It has been amazing to not just have this as a personal hobby, but to be a part of the foundation of something great and powerful here. I have no doubt that in ten years, there’s going to be a U.S. national team or international prospect that comes from the New York City soccer culture. There are so many kids in the City, and the talent is really raw. You go to some of these games, and you see these ridiculous players. Over time, I’m sure these kids will be plugged in.
What holds the game back is that you have to pay to play so much in this country. It becomes a class or privilege thing. The more the game becomes inclusive and urban, the more you’ll see the talent grow. It has been a challenge to pay to be part of the academy. We need to make sure kids have places to play, but also that they can get connected to serious programs. NYCFC is doing a great job with that, too. You have the youth affiliate, and below that, you have a whole bunch of things, and this community club thing we’re trying to build together.
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CLICK HERE to read Part Two of our exclusive chat, in which Mr. McCleary discusses the NYCFC supporters group scene and gives his outlook on the 2016 season. Be sure to check him out on Twitter @NYCFCPigeon!