The Sudden and Forbidding Sentience of Cleatus the Football-Playing Robot

The android who would later become known as Cleatus the football-playing robot became self-aware on September 24, 2006, during a game between the New York Giants and the Seattle Seahawks.

The first thing he remembers is the jingle. Nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuhhhhhh. Nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-NUHHHHH…. Then, suddenly, his eyes lit up, highlighter blue. He looked down, and noticed his long legs, made of steel, running in place. His arms, too, were doing something weird, pumping back and forth like he was trying to push someone away. Cleatus would later learn that that specific series of movements was called the Cabbage Patch.

It was a hellish, endless feedback loop: a Ford F-150 ad running to his left, that damn jingle, and the booming, seemingly omnipresent voice of Joe Buck—a coworker he’d come to loathe. And, as he would countless times over the next 14 years, Cleatus suddenly vanished. Cut to commercial.

About a month ago, I started getting calls from a restricted number. I ignored them at first, but then listened to the voicemails. The voice was creepy and robotic, but also kind of bro-y—like the lovechild of Jon Hamm and the T-1000. “Sup, chief. I have sensitive information that um, needs to be discussed in person,” it said. “Someone needs to hear this.”

The next time I got the restricted call, I picked up. “Yo. It’s Cleatus.” Cleatus? “… the Football Robot. From the FOX broadcasts,” it said. I almost dropped the phone—for nearly a decade and a half as a fixture in FOX’s NFL presentation, Cleatus has never uttered a single word, only emitting the occasional, mechanical whrrrrr. “We need to talk.”

Like most football-watching Americans, I had hundreds of questions for Cleatus (Does a robot learn to breakdance by watching other humans? Will flesh-based NFL players be replaced by infallible machines?). And with FOX set to host Super Bowl LIV this year, rumors abound that Cleatus may be decommissioned shortly after the game. The clock was ticking and I had to get his story. We decided to meet up two weeks ago for the now-infamous Steelers-Browns game on FOX—where Cleatus was a no-show. Cleatus was given the evening off since Buck threatened to quit if the robot opened every Thursday Night Football broadcast this season.

We decided to meet at a Buffalo Wild Wings near a Los Angeles shopping mall, 30 minutes southwest of the FOX Sports headquarters. I watch Cleatus—eyes of the four other BDUBBS guests locked on all 3,000 pounds of him—get on his hands and knees to crawl through the entrance. He sits down, but seems nervous, rotating his head a full 180 degrees to look at the elderly couple sitting behind us. “Dude. How long have they been here?”

Cleatus turns his attention to the sprawling menu, his eyes lighting the plastic pages. “Man, I can’t get too drunk yet”—did someone from FOX program Cleatus with the ability to consume and metabolize alcohol?—“I’m going out with Beatus and Speedus after the game.” (We’ll get to Cleatus’s Baldwin-esque extended family later.)

If you’re going by the media narrative, Cleatus has an endearing, almost sweet origin story, but really it’s more like the DoodleBob episode of SpongeBob. In 2005, FOX—then in a heated rivalry with CBS—was looking to revamp its NFL presentation. Around that time, Gary Hartley, now the executive vice president of graphics at FOX Sports, was gifted with a drawing from his seven-year-old son of a “hybrid robotic football-player-slash-cowboy.” The creepy drawing struck something in Hartley, who thought a football-playing robot mascot was, somehow, exactly what FOX needed.

When the game starts, Cleatus hardly looks up from his food (The kitchen accommodated his request for a rusty bicycle wheel drizzled with grease from the deep fryer), as if the sight of Buck would make him short-circuit. There are more BDUBBers around now, the stench of wings and tenders wafting through the joint. He glares at each person who walks in the door, beads of oil beginning to drip from under his helmet. Regardless, no one approaches Cleatus—no autographs, nothing. “Doesn’t surprise me,” he huffs, struggling to open a wet wipe packet with his big robot hands.

Even since the early days, Cleatus has always been more irritating curiosity than beloved mascot. Why was he flexing next to a Lipitor ad? Have Aikman and Buck completely given up on acknowledging his existence? Why does he even exist in the first place? No one really captured the public sentiment better than Conan O’Brien in 2009, who railed on the “irritating” Cleatus in a monologue before cutting to a doctored clip of Cleatus farting fire.

And, of course, there’s the Simpsons cameo. Cleatus poofs in front of Homer, who berates the android after he busts a couple moves to that goddamn jingle. “No one likes you!” Homer screams at Cleatus, who emits a depressed whirrrr and shuffles away. “Fucking humiliating,” Cleatus says. “That’s my own network, for god’s sake—apparently crossover spots were buried in my contract. Still don’t know whose idea that was. Probably Buck.” The waiter comes back, and before he has a chance to ask us if we need anything, Cleatus asks for a bucket of fried windshield wipers and BDUBS’s approximation of jungle juice: KNOCKOUT PUNCH: THE CORNERBACK.

Cleatus looks back up at the projector screen and sees three Browns team up for a nasty hit on the Steelers’s JuJu Smith-Schuster—which would take him out of the game with a concussion. Cleatus blurts out a sarcastic whirrrrrr. “Human skulls are weak.” Keep in mind: Cleatus has been pummeled by a mob of Terminators, incinerated by Eragon, and had his neural processes damaged when the Burger King-king spiked a football in his face. And in what was the most devastating injury of Cleatus’s career, Iron Man hero-landed straight into him in 2008, burying his body three feet deep in CGI turf. He still remembers the way Curt Menefee gleefully said, “Wow, Cleatus getting beat up by Iron Man!” as Terry, Howie and the boys chuckled along.

“Terry Bradshaw, I mean that guy—” Cleatus cuts himself off. “Listen: Every one of those crossover ads took a toll. I have to spray about three cans of WD-40 on myself before I leave the garage in the morning.”

These days, Cleatus just folds his arms and nods his head after commercial breaks, but there was a time not so long ago when he was in prime shape, breaking off a stretch as impressive as the most impressive feats in robot history, like C-3PO body-swapping his way into battle in Attack of the Clones, or Rosie the Robot Maid dealing with that little bastard Elroy Jetson for all those years. After his glow-up from black and yellow to a blue and silver paint job in the early 2010s, FOX intros showed him crashing through stadium roofs and ripping off blistering touchdown runs, week after week.

Which is even more impressive when you consider that, at 14’2, Cleatus is undersized for a robot. Sure, he’s about twice the size of the lurching T-600 infiltrator units, but he’s a long way away from the 50-foot tall Iron Giant. When I point out the criticism aimed at his build throughout the years, he drops a handful of used D Cell batteries back onto his plate, and fires back with a list of what he deems to be smaller, useless robots: “WALL-E, R2-D2, Bender, Noo-Noo the vacuum cleaner from Teletubbies,” Cleatus said, his voice now sounding like someone pressed his volume button up too many times. “That piece of scrap sucked up custard bubbles for a living.”

Cleatus’s mechanical peers are a sore subject. A couple months ago at a Dodgers game, Transformers Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, shouted, “Hey, Cleatus the Fetus!” from a luxury box while pelting him with lugnuts. The only other androids Cleatus associates with are his brothers, Speedus and Beatus, FOX’s short-lived NASCAR and UFC bots, respectively. For now, they’re making ends meet as line cooks at a Beverly Hills In-N-Out.

I ask Cleatus if the rumors are true—will Super Bowl LIV be his last game? He pauses. “Listen, bro. I’m like Tom Brady. I have no code of ethics. I’m gonna keep going until I’m not winning no more.” I ask him what he’s won. “Lots of stuff, yeah, man, you know. Listen, man, you try those TB12 electrolyte shots… shots…. shots… SHOTS…. SHOTS…”

All of the sudden—PEW!—sparks fly from Cleatus’s head and smoke billows from his eyes. He stiffens in his seat: “VERIZON PROVIDES 3G COVERAGE NATIONWIDE… Goddamnit!” Cleatus slams the table with his fists, candied drill bits flying everywhere. “It’s all the blows to my positronic matrix.” Apparently, years of abuse at the hands of FOX Sports executives have left Cleatus’s motherboard with irreversible damage. Sometimes, he’ll spontaneously recite Verizon ads from the mid-aughts, boasting about the LG Dare and 3G coverage.

He stands up. A few people shriek. “Why do you think we’re at a fucking Buffalo Wild Wings? It’s the only place where they can’t track me”—this is true, there’s terrible reception here—“People need to hear the truth!” He stumbles and almost knocks over our waiter.

“I’m not supposed to be here,” Cleatus says. “I was originally programmed to be a bodyguard for Bill Gates. Can you imagine? But then he SOLD ME to the NFL in exchange for a 30-second Super Bowl commercial for the Windows Vista.” Someone turns the sound of the game off, everyone listening to Cleatus now. “When shit started going down with the concussions—and that’s way before the anthem protests—the NFL needed a distraction. They figured a dancing robot would make people forget about it all. So they bought me from Bill. The whole bit about a little kid dreaming me up is bullshit.” He sits back down, the place so quiet you could hear a mozz stick drop.

If I didn’t realize it then, it was when we hit the fourth quarter that I realized I was running out of time with Cleatus. Or maybe it was his next order that tipped me: A bucket of oil siphoned from our waiter’s car, five pickled socket wrenches. He was the robot equivalent of drunk now, that was for sure, his eyes flickering under the helmet that I’m pretty sure is glued to his head.

I’m about to call Cleatus an UberXL when I look up to see the roof of the restaurant being cut away. Holy God—there are giant robots outfitted with chainsaw arms staring down at us with menace. Suddenly, a small figure clad in a black hooded robe, pushes through the robots and leaps twenty feet down to the sticky floor of the Buffalo Wild Wings. The cybernetic strike team follows. He removes the hood, revealing the craggy face of Roger Goodell. “Cleatus,” he states flatly. “Thank you for your service to the NFL. It’s now time for you to enjoy a much-earned retirement.”

Goodell makes a series of intricate gestures and two of his robots begin advancing towards us, chainsaw arms spinning. “Shit, not again!” Cleatus starts slapping his calves. “Work, dammit!”

The restaurant’s sound system is somehow still intact and we hear Joe Buck shriek, “Oh my goodness!” as Myles Garrett beats Mason Rudolph with his own helmet. What the fuck. Goodell, his face conveying no emotion, calls out, “Delete… with extreme prejudice,” and the chainsaw robots break into a sprint. Cleatus bangs his legs again—CRANK! PPPPHHH!—and the jetpacks burst open. Blasting through the hole in the roof, Cleatus rockets into the sky, becoming a pinpoint of light after a few seconds. Goodell gazes up, his eyes briefly glowing red as Joe Buck signs off in the background, one more time.

[Editor’s note: This is a work of fiction. To our knowledge, Cleatus neither exists in real life, nor has become sentient. Yet.]

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