As smoke billows out of the grill, a line of hungry bears begins to form. Armed with a spatula and an apron with the name “Bear Grills” on it, Senior Justin Furness flips burgers to buns for over 200 rabid Mercer fans.
Furness joined the Maniacs before the first football game in 2013. One of his friends thought that it would be fun to go paint up after hearing about it at Bear Fair, the annual event for clubs to showcase their activities to new students. The pair went to the first game and painted up. While his friend did not come back after that first game, Furness never left.
After a few games, the Maniacs were left without someone to man their grill. Furness stepped up and volunteered. Much like joining the Maniacs, Furness practically never left.
“It was a little intimidating at first,” Furness said. “It didn’t really take long, though, because I got to meet a lot of really nice people.”
When Furness first became the grillmaster, two things were missing: his nickname, and a grill that would stay lit.
The nickname was more of a fluke than anything, said Furness.
“They were making an apron and were like, ‘of course we have to have a bear pun,’ and that was right when the Bear Grylls survivor guy TV show was really popular,” He said. “I put on the apron, and the name just kinda stuck with me as grillmaster.”
The next step in the process was getting a new grill. The first grill that Furness used wasn’t one he was particularly fond of.
“The first grill was terrible. It was falling apart. If the wind blew the flame went out. You had to have it sitting just right and the flame was inconsistent so it made it hard to cook on,” He said, “I couldn’t be at one event, and someone else had to cook on it. I came back the next week, and they told me I was never allowed to leave again.”
After the first season ended they began working on getting a new grill. They came to Furness and asked for suggestions. He laid out the specifications for his dream grill.
“I underlined it on the list and said ‘this is the one that would make me happy’,” He said. “I never heard another word about it. Like, ‘Alright, we are going to get a grill. We will let you know.’”
Furness showed up at the first game preparing to cook his hamburgers on the old grill. To his surprise, a new one was in its place — and not just any new grill.
“There was the exact one I wanted, and I was ecstatic,” Furness said. “I really still am. I love that grill.”
The new grill allows him to cook his magic number of 200 hamburgers and a “bunch” of hotdogs at each home tailgate. It cooks evenly and hits temperatures over 800 degrees in under a minute. This allows him to cook fresh burgers and interact more with the tailgaters he’s serving.
Over the course of his four-year run as the Maniacs grillmaster, Furness has developed a relationship with the community. He even has set of regular customers.
“I really try to make a connection with people. I see people around campus and they will ask how I am doing and how they can’t wait for the tailgate,” Furness said. “Everyone loves the free food.”
One of those regular customers could be considered a Mercer celebrity.
“President Underwood stops by our tailgate from time to time to get one of Justin’s famous burgers,” Mercer Maniacs President Jane Gibson said. “Our tailgate would definitely not be nearly as good as it is now without him [Furness].”
Furness added, “President Underwood keeps coming back, so I guess he likes them.”
He is not looking forward to leaving the grill behind after graduation, and while the Maniacs already have a successor to the Bear Grills name in mind, Furness is not ready to give up his apron just yet.
“I may cry a little bit the last time I grill on it,” he said. “If it was up to me, we would have a game every weekend and tailgate from 8 til game time and then tailgate after the game.”