By Tom Lavis
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – When Mike Moyer of Davidsville learned in July that the Johnstown Chiefs were replacing the Iron Dog and Iron Puppy as mascots, he wasted little time in collaring the costumes.
It’s not that Moyer has an affinity for worn, outdated disguises, but he does have an abiding love for his 11-year-old son, Michael Jr., who absolutely adores the canine pair.
“Michael is a high-functioning autistic child who associates mascots to real people,” said Moyer, 43, a longtime Chiefs season ticket holder. “I approached former General Manager Jim Brazill to see if he would sell me the outfits.”
Moyer was candid in telling Chiefs’ management and head equipment manager Mic Midderhoff that whatever the cost, he would pay the price to obtain the dog suits.
“I have two seats in Section 14 and I take my son to every home game,” Moyer said. “He could care less about the game, he just wants to see the mascots.”
Michael has the same affection for the Altoona Curve mascots – Steamer and Diesel Dog.
“We watch football on TV, and if the Steelers are playing the Bengals, he is just interested in the mascot,” Moyer said.
Michael is a special-needs child who has been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a neurobiological disorder in children who have normal intelligence and language development but who also exhibit autistic-like behaviors and marked deficiencies in social and communication skills.
When Brazill learned of Moyer’s request, he contacted the Chiefs’ parent club, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Moyer, an independent contractor who drives a snack-food truck, signed an agreement that prevents him from selling the costumes.
“They sent me a letter saying that they didn’t want to see the costumes on eBay,” Moyer said.
Once signed, the Chiefs were more than happy to give the family the costumes.
Kevin McGeehan, Chiefs vice president of business operations, said the club was delighted to be able to put a smile on Michael’s face.
Once an extremely popular mascot in the mid-1990s, the Iron Dog lost steam years ago after Bob McElligott, the man behind the mask, and his wild antics moved up the professional hockey ladder from mascot to become the voice of the Chiefs and then an American Hockey League broadcaster.
The team replaced the skating canines with Tom E. Hawk, an American Indian chief, complete with headdress and war paint.
Iron Dog and Iron Puppy are used on special occasions by the Moyer family to entertain Michael. They are stored at the home of Moyer’s parents in Davidsville.
“Soon after getting the costumes, my dad and I wore them to Michael’s birthday party in July,” Moyer said. “He was thrilled. We told Michael that the dogs retired to Florida and only travel here to help other special-needs children.”
Moyer and his wife, Beverly, a registered nurse at Memorial Medical Center, have made financial sacrifices to ensure Michael progresses mentally and socially.
The Moyers also have two daughters, Ashley, 13, and Nicole, 8.
Mrs. Moyer works two days a week in order to maintain health benefits and to be home for her son.
“We were told by doctors that he would never talk, never go to school or show any affection,” Moyer said. “With my wife and Michael’s teaching specialist, Gina Sladki, he has become a handsome, wonderful child who loves to be held and cuddled and freely gives mom and dad kisses.”
Michael was diagnosed at age 4 by Somerset psychiatrist Glenn Kashurba, after attempts elsewhere failed to discover the problem.
“He is mainstreamed in school but has some social issues,” Moyer said. “When he gets excited, he claps his hands or rubs his hands around his face.”
The Moyers don’t know what the future holds for Michael, but they are making every effort to nurture him.
“My son will never play a team sport,” Moyer said. “This is our chance to enjoy being together at a sporting event. It’s a special time between a father and his son.”