GALLATIN - Chase Cardoza is having the time of his life at the University of Tennessee.
The Gallatin native is entering his junior season on The Hill and has the best job on campus.
As a member of the Alpha Gamma Rho Fraternity, Cardoza is tasked with handling one of the Southeastern Conference’s most famous live mascots, Smokey X.
“One of the reasons I chose to rush AGR is because I knew there would be a chance I could apply to be his handler,” Cardoza told the Gallatin News. “I got lucky enough and had the right people to help me out along the way to be chosen. It really is a huge blessing to be his handler and to hang out with him. He is such a great dog.”
Smokey X lives with the Hudson family when it isn’t Saturday, playing in his yard and being a family pet.
Cardoza makes the short drive to North Knoxville, where Smokey lives, on Friday mornings to pick him up for game days.
“He likes to get his bath and hang out with us at the Frat house on Friday nights,” Cardoza said. “On Saturday’s we take him to several events on campus before we head to the Vol Walk and inside Neyland Stadium before game time. He loves all of it so much.”
As a puppy, the Hudson family trained Smokey to handle large crowds of people and loud noises to prepare for more than 100,000 screaming fans on Saturdays.
“They trained him so well as a puppy,” Cardoza said. “They took him to a lot of events with children so he would learn to be well-behaved. They took him to events around marching bands. They really did a great job with him. He is the most well-tempered dog you will ever meet.”
Smokey X was introduced as Tennessee’s mascot in 2013 at age one, but there was a brief period of time where Smokey IX and Smokey X were on the same field. Now seven years old, Smokey X is in his prime of being the UT mascot.
Smokey is an outside dog during the day, only coming inside at nighttime at the Hudson home to ensure that his body stays acclimated to the Knoxville heat and cold.
During game days it can get very hot inside the stadium, but Cardoza says not to worry. Cold refreshments are always on hand to keep the beloved mascot comfortable.
“We always keep a cooler with tons of ice and water on hand,” he said. “During the hot months we pour water down his vest and keep a squirt bottle near for him. He definitely prefers water from his bottle over a bowl. We are also always making sure to stay in the shade with him.”
Outside of normal dog food, Cardoza says Smokey X really enjoys pretzels and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Cardoza also admits that Smokey’s favorite time on Saturday is participating in the greatest tradition in the SEC.
“When the band comes back to us the last time and they come together he goes nuts,” he said. “He absolutely loves running through the T. He knows exactly what is about to happen. It is hands down his favorite part of the day.”
For Cardoza, running through the T for the first time was an experience he will never forget and is something he cherishes every Saturday.
“It was an amazing experience for me and something I will always enjoy,” Cardoza said. “When you hear Rocky Top it just gives you chills. This place has a special place in my heart. As a huge sports fan it is a huge honor for me to get to run through the T and be a part of that tradition. On top of all that I get to take care of the most famous dog in the SEC. It’s a huge blessing."
The University of Tennessee is currently wrapping their Summer of Smokey Tour where the dressed-up mascot visits every county in the state.
Unfortunately, it isn’t logistically possible for the live Smokey to visit every county, but Cardoza said he was determined to bring him to his hometown.
“I absolutely knew Gallatin was going to be on the list of places for us to visit,” he said. “Gallatin is a special place to me, and I’m just so blessed to be able to come back here as his handler.”