A former sideline sideshow reflects on his legacy.
In 1976, the Wisconsin Badgers were in the midst of a season that would see the football team finish five and six overall. It would be the team’s fourteenth straight season without making a bowl game appearance.
And while the Badgers did give the Camp Randall faithful a glimmer of hope by coming back from a 14-0 deficit to defeat the Iowa Hawkeyes 38-21 on November 6, 1976, there wasn't much else happening on the gridiron to generate excitement.
Well, not until Terry Westegard found his way onto the field.
Westegard wasn’t a five-star recruit or a young hotshot whom the coaches finally unleashed on the world. He wasn’t even an unheralded walk-on — Wisconsin’s version of Notre Dame’s Rudy — who endeared himself to the crowd with hustle and grit.
Nope, Westegard wasn’t a player at all. He was a fan. A fan who happened to have the music in him … and a fair amount of cold duck.
During the fourth quarter of what was to be yet another disappointing loss at home, he decided to make his way onto the sidelines in an attempt to dance along with the pompon squad. And he stole the show.
“I saw that the pompon girls were starting to make their way around to our section, and since we were already doing some rabble-rousing, I thought everybody would get a kick out of seeing me dance with the girls,” recalls Westegard. And because he was strutting instead of streaking (a popular craze at sporting events in the 1970s), stadium security didn’t stop him.
Westegard grabbed an extra set of pompons and did his best to keep up with the squad’s routine. Having no real rhythm, he found himself a half step off with every twist and kick. But every misstep made the crowd go wilder.
So began the legend of the Portage Plumber.
X Marked the Spot
Westegard grew up in Portage, Wisconsin, and has been a Badger fan all his life. “My grandfather got me involved in sports,” he says. “When I was in ninth grade we would take the Greyhound bus from Portage to Madison to watch the team play.”
A Badger fan he was; a wallflower he was not. “I was somewhat of a character in high school,” chuckles Westegard. Combine those two qualities, and you’ve got the makings of a man destined to do an impromptu boogie on the ball-field.
Westegard became a season ticket holder at the age of 22, sitting in Section X, where he made many new friends. “It was like a family up there,” he says.
After the crowd got such a charge out of his initial dance, his Section X cohorts convinced him to continue taking the field to dance and give the fans something — anything — to cheer about during the rest of the season’s home games.
“The following year was when I had to make my decision about whether I was going to continue dancing or not,” says Westegard. And when the 1977 season rolled around, “I go, yeah, what the heck? It’s fun!”
Just because Westegard wanted to continue performing that next season, however, was the UW as eager to see him return?
“The university never had a problem with me going out onto the field after I assured them I wasn’t trying to upstage the pompon routines,” he says. His goal was to give the team an extra spark, in hopes that his zany antics would help incite a noisy crowd and propel the Badgers on to a victory.
Only twice did security guards try to thwart Westegard’s pompon promenade. And on one such occasion, a legend among Badger legends, Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch x’42, who was then the UW’s athletic director, called down from the press box to say it was okay for Westegard to perform. “Everybody in the entire stadium was booing while I was being detained … even though the Badgers were having success moving the football,” he says. “Then a big cheer went up from the crowd when I met back up with the pompon squad … right at the same time our quarterback was getting sacked. It was a crazy day!”
Who Was That Fuzzy Man?
Having saved many fans from complete boredom, Westegard was something of a hero. And because every hero needs a costume, “the people in Section X bought me a shirt that read ‘The Pride’ on it because I was the pride of Section X,” said Westegard. “That was one of my nicknames.”
Some homemade pompons came along next, then some suspenders, and eventually a friend made a furry skirt to go along with a fuzzy, cardinal-and-white helmet emblazoned with a big W. He’d worn the helmet during his maiden mambo, and it became his trademark.
But how did he go from being called The Pride to being known and loved as the Portage Plumber? Westegard (who also goes by “Tut” — he has as many nicknames as he does dance moves), is a steamfitter by trade. When a reporter from the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper did an article on him at the end of the ’76 season, the reporter figured that a steamfitter and a plumber were close enough to coin the headline: “Portly Portage Plumber Partial to Pompons.” The name stuck.
In all, Westegard figures he performed on the Camp Randall field roughly thirty-five times over the course of six seasons (1976–81). And even though YouTube and cell phones weren’t around to capture and chronicle his stumbling and bumbling routines, the Portage Plumber still managed to become quite a celebrity.
Bigger Than Bucky?
It seems that you couldn’t enter a stadium anywhere in the country during the ’70s and ’80s without running into fans looking to steal the spotlight from teams — from the rabid Dawg Pound crowd “woofing” for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns to the Barrel Man in Denver, who wore a barrel to Bronco football games.
What boosted the Portage Plumber’s fame was his ability to gain access to the field and interact with fans throughout Camp Randall.
“It was pretty close to rock-star status,” marvels Westegard. “There were lots of autographs, picture signings, and personal appearances at various events.” During one such appearance at a football recruiting banquet in Milwaukee, the Portage Plumber received one of two standing ovations of the night. “One was for then-head coach John Jardine, and one was for me,” he says. “The team MVP? Nah. Elroy Hirsch? Nope. So that was kind of fun.”
At Halloween, parents even dressed their kids up to go trick-or-treating as the Portage Plumber. “Honestly, my head got a little big from all the attention,” Westegard admits. He even met his first wife thanks to his Portage Plumber alter ego. “That was a perk … for about five years.”
Through it all, though, he didn’t get much in the way of special treatment from the team. “I always had to buy my season tickets. They were never comped.” And he didn’t really have much interaction with the Badgers’ all-time beloved mascot, Bucky Badger. “We never did much together. High fives, that’s about it.”
He did, however, meet with members of the athletic department on occasion to explore other ways to capitalize on the Portage Plumber’s popularity. “We tried out my act at some UW hockey games and a men’s basketball game or two to help get the crowd going,” Westegard says. “But the Portage Plumber never really caught on with fans of those sports.” He didn’t have a routine in those venues or the pompon squad to prance along with. Instead, he just did some freelance dance moves during basketball and attempted to lead cheers at hockey games. But the magic didn’t follow him from Camp Randall.
Then one day, the magic was gone from Westegard, too. What began as a spontaneous celebration started to feel like work. It was during the off-season in 1980 that Westegard started contemplating putting an end to the Portage Plumber, due to a variety of outside issues. After waltzing around the sidelines a couple more times during the 1981 season, the Portage Plumber was flushed from existence.
“One game that year, my buddy and I sat in a different part of the stadium, and a father and son were sitting in front of us,” recalls Westegard. “I overheard the kid ask his dad if the Portage Plumber was going to perform that day, and the father said he didn’t know.” Westegard never did let on that the Portage Plumber was in fact sitting directly behind them. And when the fourth quarter — the Portage Plumber’s usual show time — rolled around, Westegard said to the kid, “Well, evidently he’s not here today.”
Even though the Portage Plumber helped get fans through some miserable Badger football seasons, there was no fanfare to commemorate Westegard’s last dance. Westegard himself can’t even remember it. “It wasn’t like I looked up into the stands after my final performance and thought, ‘This is it.’ I just did it like I always did, and the moment went away.”
It seems highly unlikely that an encore will ever be in the cards, either. “The UW has asked me back a couple of times to do halftime shows,” he says. “I have always turned them down.”
Maybe it’s because the only piece of his costume remaining in his possession is his original fuzzy helmet — on display in his home with a few other Badger mementos.
Sagging attendance at Camp Randall was definitely not going to be enough to coax the Portage Plumber out of retirement, because Westegard was used to performing only in front of packed houses.
While the Badger teams of the ’70s and early ’80s were mediocre at best, attendance at games was anything but. Through the Portage Plumber’s run, 1976–81, average attendance never dipped below 70,898 per game, reaching a high of 73,979 in the 1979 season. “The place was always packed. It was a fun era in a lot of ways … not factoring in the team’s performances.”
It wasn’t until the 1986 season that fans finally got fed up with watching a consistent loser. That year, attendance first dipped below 70,000. It fell to a low of 49,676 during the 1991 season. But Westegard stuck with his motto of, “Once you retire, you stay retired. The novelty of doing it was gone. I had moved on to different parts of my life.”
Nowadays, those parts he’s referring to include twin boys, his second wife, and a general love of life. “I enjoy doing things. I’m not much of a sit-at-home sort of person.”
Badger football still gets him out of the house on occasion though. “We try to attend a different road game every year and at least one home game,” says Westegard, no longer a season ticket holder. And he hasn’t given up dancing either. He just limits his moves to the dance floor these days. “Life’s good.”
It’s even better that he’s been able to continue his profession as a steamfitter at the UW. “I’ve been working at the university for about three years. I don’t know if it’s poetic justice or what, but it’s great to still be associated with the UW.”
The question is, did he add the Portage Plumber to his list of work experience in his resume? “Nope,” he boasts. “They hired me because of my steamfitter skills, not my dance skills.”
Even though his days of frolicking on the field appear to be over, Westegard still cherishes the fact that he’s forever part of Badger football lore.
“It boggles my mind that people still recognize me as the Portage Plumber even to this day,” he says. He makes a point not to bring up his past stardom unless asked. “I appreciate that they remember the Portage Plumber fondly, though. It makes me feel good that it had a positive impact on people.”