LONDON -- Gunnersaurus Rex had just finished greeting Burnley off their bus in the bowels of the Emirates, extending his great green claws toward manager Sean Dyche, Ashley Barnes and Ben Mee. Goalkeeper Nick Pope had taken a conspicuously wide turn to avoid him, and someone in the small crowd of observers registered displeasure -- "That's a bit out of order" -- but Gunnersaurus seemed unfazed by Pope's blind eye. His toothy grin stayed, as ever, glued to his friendly face.
He waited for his Arsenal to arrive. When their own bus eased up, Gunnersaurus tapped the crest of his red jersey, made sure his feet were planted squarely on the cement floor, and opened his arms. Matteo Guendouzi, the curly haired midfielder, was among the first to reach him. Guendouzi accepted a hug with all of his heart.
After the last of the players had passed him, Gunnersaurus made for the elevator that would take him to the concourse behind the family section of the stands. He had a minder but still banged his head on a beam along the way. It's hard to be 7 feet tall in England. He rode up, and the lift doors opened. An elderly woman waiting on the other side had to put her hand to her chest to keep from falling over. She wasn't expecting to see a dinosaur at a football game.
It's been more than 25 years since Gunnersaurus first appeared at one, and people still register the most complete surprise whenever they see him. Their faces light up. Their eyes go nearly as wide as their smiles. Gunnersaurus is like a machine custom-built to spread joy.
An admiring crowd of supporters surrounded him. He was soon trapped in the concourse, unable to move, a modern-day Gulliver tied to the ground by the Lilliputians and their curious love. Children have a particular affinity for Gunnersaurus, and he does for them, but adults also express an unabashed affection for him. Gunnersaurus responds without a whisper of irony. He is particularly drawn to people in wheelchairs. He smothers them in the warmest embrace.
There was a huge poster on the wall of the concourse where he stood. It depicted a young Arsene Wenger, then the overseer of the Invincibles, the unbeatable Arsenal of 2003-04. It included a quote from Brian Clough, marveling at the 49-game winning streak Arsenal then enjoyed. "It's better than being in heaven," Clough said.
Gunnersaurus stood in front of that poster and dispensed hug after hug. One boy, maybe 12 years old, forgot that he was supposed to be cool, and he turned his back to Gunnersaurus and executed a trust fall into his belly. Gunnersaurus draped his arms around the boy, the boy closed his eyes, and his father took a picture of him with a smile of pure bliss.
Arsenal are highly secretive about Gunnersaurus and his private truths. The contents of the ark of the covenant would be easier to see; there are royal families that are less guarded.
Here is what we do know: According to official club lore, Arsenal embarked on a rebuild of the North Bank at Highbury Stadium in the summer of 1993. Deep underground, workers discovered what at first seemed a large boulder. Or perhaps, they feared, it was an unexploded bomb from the war. You can imagine their alarm when they carefully brushed away the last of the earth and learned what they had really found. It was an enormous egg.
The egg was warm to the touch. Memories have been clouded by time, but some of the workers claim that the egg shook a little. They carefully lifted it out and carried it to a sheltered corner of the ground. They wrapped the egg in Arsenal blankets. It didn't take long for it to crack. Some of the workers stepped away from the egg and its mysterious occupant. Others were drawn toward it.
At last, the egg broke wide open and Arsenal officials will say only that they were "shocked and surprised" by what they saw next. They were almost certainly much more than that. Because out came a baby dinosaur. It was green, round in the middle, with a long, full tail. He soon grew 7 feet tall. Arsenal fitted him in a full kit, complete with football boots. And on Aug. 20, 1993, they revealed him to the public at Highbury before a match against Manchester City.
The dinosaur, the bewildered crowd was told, had been named Gunnersaurus Rex, which became Gunner to the lazy and disrespectful. Arsenal went on to beat City 3-0, and if anyone that day had been scared of the dinosaur that had taken its place among them, they weren't scared of him anymore. Besides, he seemed such a happy dinosaur. No matter what happened around him -- rain, defeat, moments of silence -- he smiled his big smile. Gunnersaurus could stay. He had found his forever home.
In the summers of my youth, I was a mascot: Boomer, the Parks Canada beaver. Unlike Gunnersaurus, of course, I wasn't real. I was wearing a costume. I was exposed to countless curiosities whenever I put it on. When I was Boomer, children gathered around me like birds to bread. Adults surrounded me in concentric circles, too. I was always amazed by how many, including the grown-ups, forgot that inside that costume, there was a man. So many people seemed only too willing to accept that a giant anthropomorphic beaver, dressed like a park ranger, was suddenly bumbling about in their midst.
There were vulnerabilities in playing such an outsized part. I couldn't see my feet, which made it surprisingly hard to walk. My enormous head became wedged in door frames. I was very, very hot. A certain segment of the population takes deep pleasure in watching mascots suffer; I was once set upon by a group of first-graders who beat me within an inch of my natural human life. I had nightmares that I would fall into the nearby canal and nobody would try to rescue me, because they would see that I was smiling and would confuse my frantic pawing at the air for waving. The white of my beaver teeth, each the size of a book, would be the last that they would see of me when I disappeared into the murk. No wonder they would think I was fine. I wasn't a man with dreams drowning inside a costume. I was a beaver returned to his habitat.
I can't imagine what it's like to be an actual dinosaur, unable to speak, unable to express any emotion beyond quiet delight. Gunnersaurus knows all too well: This summer, he was hit hard in the gob by a child taking a penalty kick, yet his mask remained.
What is it like to be so famous and yet so unknown? Gunnersaurus recently won the online World Cup of Football Mascots, besting FC Metz's Grayou, a dragon; West Brom's Boiler Man, a hot-water heater with arms and legs; and Partick Thistle's Kingsley, a surly sun, maybe, with a unibrow. He has been invited to appear at hundreds of weddings and bar mitzvahs and birthday parties, and he recently gained his 100,000th follower on Instagram. He is easily the most popular dinosaur in the world. In football, as in life, everything changes. But Gunnersaurus is always there.
A 37-year-old man in Cambridge named Peter Lovell claims to have "invented" Gunnersaurus. Lovell is a man of enthusiasms, the sort of person who walks into a bar filled with strangers and leaves with friends. He has materials to support his claim, including the drawings of Gunnersaurus he allegedly made when he was 11 years old. His parents were Scotland Yard detectives, he says, and massive Arsenal fans, which made him an Arsenal supporter with a prodigious eye for detail. In 1993, the Junior Gunners held a contest to design a new mascot, his story goes; inspired by "Jurassic Park," which had come out that same summer, he sat down at his kitchen table and soon produced his fully realized proposal for a dinosaur named Gunnersaurus Rex. He won the contest, and the Gunnersaurus of his imagination came to life that August. He hasn't stopped telling people what he believes he did, mostly because it means he rarely buys a beer. "It's the ultimate anecdote," he says.
Some of Lovell's story checks out. "Jurassic Park" did, in fact, give a lot of people dinosaur fever in the summer of 1993. Lovell's drawings, with front and side views of a dinosaur that looks very much like the actual Gunnersaurus, resemble the mug shots his parents would have brought home and laid on that same kitchen table. (Lovell's Gunnersaurus was yellow, not green, and his only uniform was a jersey. The real Gunnersaurus, thankfully, also wears shorts.) Lovell's eyes even go wet with tears when he talks about how much his supposed young success changed the course of so many important things.
"It always gets me," he says. "It was one of those moments in the history of my life, if it hadn't have happened. ... How it transformed me, helped to form a growing mind, the confidence it gave me, the belief. So much has come from that belief. That's the moment I went from being intimidated by the world to believing that I could do anything. It's beautiful."
But Peter Lovell must be delusional. As earnest as he appears, as much as it would be lovely to think that a boy with some paper and crayons could sit down at a table and conjure something so wonderful as a dinosaur that has brought happiness to thousands for more than a quarter-century, Gunnersaurus is real. He wasn't invented. He was born out of a giant egg and grew 7 feet tall.
I've seen him. I've hugged him. I have felt his comforting squeeze, the buttress-like strength of his arms, the gentle trace of his claws on my shoulders, his fuzzy green skin on my face. Gunnersaurus is as real as Santa Claus. He is as real as grace. He is as real as every last one of our childhood hopes, the affirmation that good things will come to us if only we believe.
That beautiful day I spent with Gunnersaurus at Arsenal, a teenage boy with hearing aids in his ears made his approach in the concourse. Gunnersaurus sensed his presence and turned. The boy held out his arms and Gunnersaurus held out his, and they fell into a cuddle. The boy took a long time to let go. When he did, he smiled and put his hand to his lips and then opened his palm toward Gunnersaurus. He signed "Thank you" to the dinosaur. Then Gunnersaurus signed "Thank you" back to the boy.
If that encounter wasn't real, if that moment wasn't as true and heart-swelling as it felt in the suddenly blurry light of that magical afternoon, then what is?