Ross Lewis loves to act silly and dance around to put smiles on people's faces, but he always leaves them wondering who just made them laugh.

Lewis, a senior on the Tusculum College men's cross country team, is the school's mascot 'Pioneer Pete' and dresses up for football and basketball games in a bigger-than-life pioneer costume complete with a raccoon fur cap and toothy grin.

Enduring Pioneer Pete's heavy costume in the heat is no easy task. (Tusculum College)
The two-time All-South Atlantic Conference cross country runner became 'Pioneer Pete' by chance. He stopped into the cheerleading office one day during his sophomore year, saw the mascot head, and decided to try it on and go outside.

"I thought it would just be fun to put it on and play with people," Lewis said. "I was having a good time and people were enjoying it. Then, I walked back in the office and the coach said 'what do you think about doing this?'"

Lewis jumped at the chance and has loved playing the part ever since. He says cross country helps him endure the heavy costume in the blazing heat, but even describes running as his 'mascot training.'

The native of Morristown, Tenn., enjoys the job so much that he has even branched out in the mascot business as 'Tennessee Tex' of minor league baseball's Greeneville Astros.

"The best thing about it is bringing a smile to people's faces," said Lewis. "The children really love it, but so do adults. You can just have a good time with them."

In the role of 'Tennessee Tex', Lewis has even started a new tradition at the ballpark during the seventh-inning stretch.

"One night, they played 'Rocky Top' and everybody in the state just absolutely loves that song," said Lewis. "I started doing a little jig to it and the whole crowd stood up and started clapping and yelling. It was a great thing, but then my boss came to me and said I needed to do that every night. Even if it's 100 degrees outside, I'm dancing and the fans love it."

Lewis not only works at games, but also takes his 'Tennessee Tex' persona out into the community to do programs about reading or fundraisers for schools.

"He's very much loved in the community," said Lewis. "The children are very thankful, and so are the teachers."

Tusculum's top runner in four of the five first races of the season, the school-spirited Lewis really wants to accomplish something the team has not done in his first three years.

"We want to beat Carson-Newman " our rival," said Lewis. "We haven't beaten them since I've been here, but this year we have a chance. Being one of the top four teams in the conference would also be a huge stepping stone for our program."

In addition to playing two different mascot roles and captaining the cross country team, Lewis is Tusculum's student body president as well as the president of the college's Student Athletic Advisory Committee and chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

"Our campus is going through a lot of changes, and has since I've been here," said Lewis. "With the opportunity of change on our campus, I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to get involved in all of these organizations because you can make a difference if you're student body president " you get to speak at the Board of Trustees meetings. Our campus is small, so once you get involved, it seems like you can't stop, but I love the opportunities."

Lewis is planning on retiring from playing 'Pioneer Pete' after this year, but hopes to continue acting as 'Tennessee Tex' or another mascot in the future.

"It's so enjoyable," Lewis said. "It's not a job to me. I just have fun doing it for the community."