Becoming Texas Tech's Masked Rider was more taxing than anything Ashley Hartzog ever could have imagined.
There were written examinations, a riding test, references to be provided and even a test on how to maneuver a pickup truck and trailer in the tight spaces she would face when taking her horse on personal appearances. That's on top of a 30-minute interview during which her knowledge of horsemanship and Tech's traditions was picked apart like a presidential candidate's qualifications for the job.
"It was a pretty involved, drawn-out process," Hartzog said. "But it was well worth it. I'm really excited about my chance to be the Masked Rider."
That desire was born in Hartzog when she was 5 years old and saw her first Tech game in person. Her father was a Tech alumnus who always made a point to bring his family back to campus to watch his old school play. But his young daughter enjoyed the pregame pageantry much more than the game itself.
"To a 5-year-old, football is just something to watch, but it wasn't nearly as exciting as seeing the black horse that runs out in front of the team when it takes the field," Hartzog said. "I was struck from the first time I saw it."
Hartzog, a senior animal science and Spanish major from Farwell, Texas, will fulfill her dream on Aug. 30 when Tech hosts Eastern Washington. The tradition of one of the most iconic symbols in all of college football will be continued when she rides the horse Midnight Matador onto the playing field at Jones SBC Stadium.
You can have Bevo (Texas), Reveille (Texas A&M), the Sooner Schooner (Oklahoma) or Willie the Wildcat (Kansas State) on his motorcycle. But there's something about the charge of the Masked Rider before the Red Raiders take the field for each home game that sets this tradition apart.
The Masked Rider has been as much a part of Tech football over the years as the hard-charging runs of Donny Anderson, the homespun witticisms of Spike Dykes or the pinball-like offensive numbers piled up by coach Mike Leach's passing offense.
Mounted on a black quarter horse and clad in a striking ensemble that includes a black mask, a bolero hat and a red-and-black cape, the Masked Rider leads the Red Raiders onto the field.
"It still gives me goose bumps to see that horse charge onto the field," said E.J. Holub, a College Football Hall of Famer who played at Tech from 1958 to '60. "I remember watching it even before I started school there. And I can still remember how excited it got us when we were playing."
Holub later played 10 years in the NFL. But taking the field following the charge of the Masked Rider still ranks among the biggest thrills of his football career.
"You still get emotional because you cherish all the excitement that went with playing games," Holub said.
Hartzog is the 47th student to serve as Tech's Masked Rider as the program enters its 56th continuous season. The tradition actually dates to the 1936 season when George Tate, wearing a cape made by Tech's home economics department, led the team onto the field aboard a horse borrowed from the Tech barn.
It became much bigger when Tech coach DeWitt Weaver persuaded student Joe Kirk Fulton to become the Masked Rider before the 1954 Gator Bowl. Weaver's biggest dream was to join the Southwest Conference, and he thought a mascot would aid his school's chances.
When Fulton and his horse galloped onto the field, he initially was greeted with silence before the crowd erupted in wild cheers. The Atlanta Journal wrote that "No team in any bowl game ever made a more sensational entrance."
It's been a tradition so long that almost everybody knows about it. It's a rush when you see the mascot lead the team onto the field.
-- Masked Rider Ashley Hartzog
The Masked Rider tradition has faced its share of controversy over the years.
The horse Tech Beauty was kidnapped in 1963 and spray-painted with the letters "AMC" before Tech's game against Texas A&M. It only heightened what has become one of the nation's most intense rivalries.
Tech's horse was kidnapped and received chemical burns after it was doused with orange paint prior to a football game against Texas several years later.
Over the years, the Masked Rider has been involved in collisions with a rival cheerleader and a referee. Before 1992, the horse galloped around the field to celebrate Texas Tech touchdowns. That practice was banned after a game official was hit by a Tech horse mascot.
And more safety measures were enacted in 1994 when a Masked Rider tumbled off the horse and the unrestrained animal died when it charged into a retaining wall at the stadium.
The biggest controversy, however, may have come in 1974 when Ann Lynch became the first woman to serve as the Masked Rider. But the uproar that accompanied her appointment has long since died down and more women than men have been Masked Riders in the years since Lynch was picked.
Long before Traveler was appearing at USC games or Chief Osceola and Renegade were trademarks of Florida State games, the Masked Rider tradition was going strong at Tech. It was so impressive to officials at Oklahoma State that they opted to mimic the tradition in 1984. Eddy Finley, an OSU agricultural education professor and Tech alum, started the Spirit Rider program for OSU games.
But Tech was first, enhancing the symbolism to Hartzog and all the Masked Riders before her.
"It's been a tradition so long that almost everybody knows about it," Hartzog said. "It's a rush when you see the mascot lead the team onto the field."
Tim Griffin covers college football for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.