The Scarlet Knight sat on top of its horse at the entrance of the tunnel at the edge of the field at High Point Solutions Stadium, staring at the thousands of fans filing into their seats for a primetime matchup between the Rutgers football team and visiting Penn State.
It was "Senior Night," a tradition held in the final home game of the season to honor the players before their last battle on their home turf. But that rainy night in November had a rare send-off for the mascot as well.
When it was all over, Janine Puhak held a smaller send-off away from the 51,366 people in the bleachers. She embraced her two coaches, the pair who guided her through her journey as the first female to ever don the metal uniform of the Scarlet Knight, putting the cherry on top of what she hailed to be her favorite gameday on the job.
“My two coaches, they gave me such a big hug. My family was there. My family is from Pennsylvania so they’re big Penn State people. Lots of people came out to see me do it one last time and they were just so proud of me, you know what I mean?” Puhak told the Daily Targum in an interview earlier this month. “And I’m proud myself that I can be the first girl to be the first horseman and I’m proud of a lot of things I’ve done in college, but that’s something that never changed. It’s really exciting.”
Puhak’s career as the Scarlet Knight horseman began when she started attending the University in 2013, but her love of riding horses spans back a decade earlier when she started riding horses at 9 years old at the Watchung Stables near her hometown of Cranford, New Jersey.
The School of Arts and Sciences senior became more involved in the sport when she entered middle school, dropping other activities she participated in, such as cheerleading and dance, to dedicate more time to horseback riding, she said.
“The horse bug kind of bit me in middle school,” Puhak said. “Before I knew it, I was hooked. I was at the barn every single day.”
She would spend a couple hours at the stables every day as a member of its Mounted Troops after school riding program, continuously participating, despite suffering from multiple injuries like minor concussions, bruised ribs and a broken left arm. She eventually worked her way up to the highest rank of first class trooper.
When she found out she could use her talents to represent her university on gameday, she jumped at the chance.
“It was the summer before (my freshman year), I had just kind of heard through the grapevine,” Puhak said. “It was through the Rutgers cheerleading and dance program. They were the ones that put out something online and it was like ‘If you’re interested in becoming the Scarlet Knight for the Fall 2013 football season, reach out to this contact. I went and I horseback rode and horseback rode and horseback rode for a couple of hours and they were like ‘we like the way you ride.’”
Puhak won the job, an unprecedented accomplishment for a woman.
But that came with some consequences.
The costume was designed with the average build of the men who wore it in the past — too big for a 5-foot-5-inch first-year woman. So a custom suit was made for her with “smaller gloves and smaller parts for the (leg) covers,” she said.
After spending her long weeks stretched between class, journalism internships in New York City, events organized by her sorority and a multitude of other extracurricular activities — including riding a horse around Cook campus as a Community Service Officer — Puhak would strap on those gloves and leg covers bright and early on Saturday mornings.
She would get into High Point Solutions Stadium by 8 a.m. on game days with a noon kickoff, an early wake-up call that had a positive twist, allowing her to keep her identity a secret.
“I was kind of brought into this with the agreement that I wouldn’t make a big deal about it, I wouldn’t tell people who didn’t need to know about it,” Puhak said. “My family always knew, I’ve had the same best friend since freshman year who I met at Rutgers and she always knew. But being in a sorority with 130 girls, it’s always expanding and everything, they didn’t know.”
Gamedays are weekly holidays for college students, perhaps even more so for members of greek life, so Puhak said her sorority sisters would grow suspicious of her constant absence.
Her excuse was always that she had work, a little white lie that spanned for four years and ended soon after her grand finale.
She revealed her identity in a Facebook post the day after the Penn State game, pulling back the curtain on a well-kept secret and setting off a level of reaction Puhak was not expecting.
“I broke the internet,” Puhak said. “I was getting calls and texts from people I had class with. I was an orientation leader a couple of years ago and orientation leader people calling me and I would go out and ‘oh my god, what!’ Everybody was calling me Hannah Montana … the best of both worlds. That was my nickname ... I wasn’t expecting that.”
It marked the end of Puhak’s time as the Scarlet Knight but she hopes it will not be the last of her involvement with the program.
With the search for her replacement set to begin over the summer, Puhak said she would like to return and coach whoever earns the job.
The senior, in the midst of her final semester as an undergraduate, reminisced on the time since she first tried out after seeing the interest from high school seniors over the fall.
Looking back on her tenure as the Scarlet Knight — one that lasted four years, spanned two athletic conferences and just as many head coaching administrations, with exhilarating wins and crushing losses, beautiful afternoons and rainy nights — she would not change a thing.
“To serve as the equestrian Scarlet Knight mascot when I came to college has kinda been the icing on the cake of my horseback riding career,” Puhak said. “That’s something I’ve been proud of, to be the girl in the armor, the sword, the helmet, riding out into the stadium in front of so many people. It’s been an honor and a privilege, something I’ll always be thankful for.”
Brian Fonseca is a correspondent for The Daily Targum and a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies. Follow him on Twitter @briannnnf for more.