AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s been more than 22 months since the University of Texas at Austin mascot, Bevo XV the Longhorn steer, collided with photojournalist Nick Wagner at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
Wagner says he still has permanent injuries from that encounter that get in the way of his daily life, which is why he filed a lawsuit against Bevo’s caretakers on Oct. 16 in a Travis County District Court.
The lawsuit alleges gross negligence on the part of the alumni association for the Silver Spurs as well as John and Betty Baker, the steer’s owners. The Silver Spurs is a UT student service organization responsible for the care and transportation of Bevo.
Ricky Brennes of the Silver Spurs Alumni Association told KXAN Tuesday, “in light of this matter being subject to litigation, we cannot comment at this time.”
Wagner was working as a journalist for the Austin American-Statesman at the time of the incident, but he tells KXAN he was laid off as part of a round of cuts by the Statesman’s owner Gannett this spring.
He told KXAN in an interview Tuesday that his initial neck and back injury worsened in the months following the encounter with Bevo, requiring him to seek treatment. Documents provided by Wagner’s attorney indicate Wagner was charged more than $24,000 in medical bills—around $20,000 of which were not covered by insurance.
Wagner’s attorney, Jon Powell, explained he began reaching out to the Silver Spurs Alumni Association on Wagner’s behalf in November 2019. Powell said he presented Wagner’s medical bills to the alumni association in an attempt to negotiate, but the alumni association has not offered to pay any of the medical bills.
Wagner is asking for a trial by jury and monetary relief between $200,000 and $1 million.
“Made for TV”
The incident that sparked this lawsuit happened in January 2019, when UT’s football team faced off against the University of Georgia at the Sugar Bowl. A meetup was arranged between Bevo and Uga, the bulldog mascot for UGA, so press were gathered around the area (including KXAN News employees).
Wagner explained to KXAN in 2019 he had gotten wind there would be a meeting of the mascots, so he waited in the area, capturing photos from the ground of Uga while separated from Bevo by a partition.
The event was being televised live on ESPN and was also captured by many journalists from different angles, so there is plenty of footage of what followed.
KXAN journalists captured footage of Bevo waiting for the meeting with Uga, as he was being monitored by the Silver Spurs and kept in a fenced-off, temporary enclosure on the field, which did not touch the ground.
The lawsuit alleges Bevo’s handlers from the Silver Spurs then “untied Bevo’s lead ropes and began to poke and prod Bevo in an attempt to get Bevo to turn around toward the UGA mascot.”
In video footage of the incident, Wagner can be seen on his knees photographing the UGA bulldog as Bevo pushes through the gate behind Wagner and collides with him. Shortly after, Wagner can be seen on video footage hopping quickly away from Bevo.
The lawsuit alleges Wagner was struck twice by Bevo in his neck and back. Additionally, the lawsuit claims Bevo’s caretakers “failed to take proper safety precautions.”
In an interview with KXAN Tuesday, Wagner described the encounter between the two mascots as “made for TV, that’s why all the TV cameras were there—they were set up for the encounter.”
On the live ESPN feed, when BEVO charged, the commentators can be heard saying excitedly: “Can live television get better than that? No.”
“Maybe that was not the best idea, but we don’t care.”
“I’ve seen a lot of things, but that was awesome.”
The headlines and retweets following the incident were largely focused on Bevo’s near brush with Uga. ESPN’s clip of the incident is called “Bevo almost runs over Uga.” SBNation’s headline read “Huge Texas mascot Bevo lowered head and launched at tiny Georgia mascot Uga.”
There was some coverage of Wagner’s injury—KXAN interviewed him the following day, and Wagner showed a bruise on his back from the contact.
In that interview Wagner said he had some minor bumps and bruises from the encounter.
“I think I’ll be OK,” he said during the 2019 interview.
Looking back on it now, Wagner thinks during that 2019 interview, he didn’t yet realize the extent of his injuries.
“I hate—any journalist really hates—to become the subject of the story. With that I tried to keep an optimistic mind and not get too down on the situation,” he recalled.
But in the months that followed, Wagner said his work as a photojournalist became harder with the growing back pain. He saw physical therapists and went for massages, but the pain persisted.
Wagner said he eventually went to see a specialist who told him to get a certain type of imaging. Wagner states he learned from that imaging that what had seemed at first to be just a bruise was really a larger spinal problem below the surface.
Medical records from February 2020 provided by Wagner’s attorney indicate Wagner’s lumbar spine is impaired, and his spinal conditions are “consistent with a whole person impairment rating of 20% to 23%.”
Now unemployed, Wagner has moved home to Minnesota as he tries to find work. Doing his work as a photojournalist still brings him pain, as does sitting or driving for extended periods of time.
“It’s always there,” he said of the back pain. “There are times where it flares up, and it’s hard to sleep or even hard to breathe. Sometimes it will feel like my rib is kind of stabbing me or coming out of place.”
Wagner said early on after his injury, worker’s compensation through his work at the Statesman covered some of his medical expenses, but that stopped when he sought legal counsel. He is still paying off debt from his journalism degree and said the growing bills as a result of this injury were what pushed him to file a lawsuit.
Wagner said his doctor believes he’s at a high risk of developing early-onset arthritis in his back.
“To hear that as a 25-year-old kind of really solidified the fact that this is the right thing to do, because I could go five, 10, 20 years down the line and be stuck with medical bills basically on my own,” he said.