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Keeping the spirit alive

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Hogettes (left to right) Rusty "Sunshine" Nicholson, Nick "Nickette" Nerangis, Michael "Mikey T" Torbert and Howard "Howiette" Churchill pose for a photograph during Camp Fantastic, a summer camp for children battling cancer, during the summer of 2012. Photo courtesy of Rusty Nicholson

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Rusty "Sunshine" Nicholson, of Front Royal, and Michael "Big Mac" McCartney pose for a photograph at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. Photo courtesy of Rusty Nicholson


Hogettes may be retired, but their service to community lives on

By Brad Fauber

Nick Nerangis had been associated with the Hogettes, the widely known "superfans" of the Washington Redskins, for nearly 20 years.

During that time, Nerangis and fellow members of the Hogettes would don dresses, floppy hats, blonde wigs, sunglasses and pig snouts while attending Redskins games, where they would take photographs with fans, sign autographs and cheer for their favorite team.

Nerangis, a Winchester resident, had built some fond memories over those two decades spent with the Hogettes, and he was understandably upset when the organization's founder, Michael Torbert, announced that the group would retire on Jan. 11.

"It was sort of a sad day," the 71-year-old Nerangis said recently. "I told [Torbert] that it was one of my saddest days in a real long time."

The Hogettes, founded in 1983 as cheerleaders for the Redskins' offensive line -- known then as the "Hogs" -- were passionate followers of Washington's NFL franchise. The group sat together at football games at RFK Stadium -- and later FedEx Field -- in a section known as the "Pig Pen," and some members even traveled on the road to many of the Redskins' away games.

The group quickly became a hit within Washington's fan base and the Redskins organization, and soon the Hogettes were in television commercials, newspaper photographs and eventually the Pro Football Hall of Fame's "Hall of Fans."

Redskins fans lined up for a chance to take photographs with and get autographs from their favorite Hogettes. On an average game day, the group spent about an hour and a half taking photographs, according to Torbert.

All of those experiences were certainly unforgettable ones, but the real memories for Nerangis and his fellow hogs came when they stepped away from the football stadium.

The Hogettes were -- and will continue to be -- religiously dedicated to raising money for children's charities, probably more dedicated to that than they were the Redskins.

Nerangis said some members made more than 100 individual fundraising appearances a year, and it is estimated that the Hogettes helped raise more than $100 million for charity organizations. Nerangis said he didn't make as many personal appearances as some of the other members, but each one he made was a special moment.

"The guys do a lot of good charitable work. Everywhere we went was just a great experience," Nerangis said. "I was probably doing 35-40 events a year and they were all very, very rewarding."

Nerangis said he first received an opportunity to be a part of the Hogettes when his wife paid for him to become "Hogette For a Day," a fundraising contest put on by the group, at a game at RFK Stadium against Philadelphia in 1993.

Nerangis -- or Nickette, as he would become known -- finally became a full-time member in 2002 after he volunteered to fill in as a live auctioneer at the Ronald McDonald House Rally Around the Redskins on short notice. Nerangis fondly recalled Joe "Jovette" Varnadore, the group's oldest member, proclaiming "you just saved our bacon," and offering him a spot as a full-time Hogette.

Front Royal resident Rusty Nicholson followed a similar path on his way to the position of full-time Hogette. Nicholson, one of the youngest members at 48 years old and the newest member of the group, had met a few Hogettes during an event in Front Royal before being invited to be a Hogette for a game in Nov. 2005.

Nicholson recalled the Hogettes being joined by the Philadelphia Eagles' "Birdman" in the Pig Pen during that first game, and how he never turned down a photograph with fellow Redskins fans.

But Nicholson's fondest memories are of the charity events he was part of as a member of the Hogettes. Nicholson specifically remembers one boy that he met during Camp Fantastic, a local summer camp for children battling cancer. The boy was a big St. Louis Cardinals fan, and Nicholson bought the boy tickets to go see his beloved Cardinals take on the Washington Nationals in D.C.

Nicholson said that the boy "will always hold a special place in my heart for him. His mother said his Cardinals hat was his lucky hat because he was wearing it when he met me," Nicholson added.

Nicholson said it is the Hogettes' passion for charity work that makes them a special group of men.

"It's touched people back in 1983-84, and it still does," Nicholson said. "I think we did it right. Michael Torbert did it right. He's got a big heart."

Both Nicholson and Nerangis will continue to do charity work, although Torbert prefers that the members do it in an "in-hog-nito" fashion, meaning no dresses or pig snouts. Torbert did say that Nerangis has permission to make appearances as Nickette during "special occasions," and Nerangis said he will definitely be making some more appearances in his dress.

"I want to do everything that I can to keep that spirit alive," Nerangis said.

Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com



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