Don Gibson - better known as Rave Bear - and other Republic FC fans celebrate the club's U.S. Open Cup victory against the LA Galaxy with Sacramento Republic FC Head Coach Mark Briggs. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
He cuts a distinctive figure at the front of the Tower Bridge Battalion each home game.
Adorned in a hooded gown with furry ears, LEDs, and glowing sunglasses, Sacramento Republic FC supporter Rave Bear – also known as Don Gibson – has become a cult figure in USL Championship fandom over the years.
It might have started as a Halloween costume, but it’s now part of Gibson’s personality, much to the amusement of friends and family.
“At my wedding, everyone kept bringing it up as a big, big laugh line, but I find it really fun,” said Gibson recently. “It’s a fun way to express my support and passion for a club and be a little bit bigger.”
Bigger is right.
A native of Northern California, Gibson’s early sporting experiences were Oakland Raiders games at the Coliseum, where the rambunctious, costumed members of the “Black Hole” fan group were a signature element of gameday. Those characters provided inspiration for Gibson, who took on the Rave Bear persona in 2016 after having been a season-ticket holder during the Republic FC’s first two seasons.
Friends with the founders of the Tower Bridge Battalion and a longtime soccer fan, Gibson was among the 20,000-strong crowd at the club’s first home game in 2014 at Hughes Stadium. Now he’s someone other Republic fans seek out on gameday for pictures, something he didn’t quite envision originally.
“It kind of, frankly, did become bigger than what I initially pictured,” he said, “but I just have a fun time doing it and everyone has a fun time around it. I’m happy to become one of the faces of the group.”
Gibson will be among a large contingent of Republic fans on hand next Wednesday night when the club travels to Florida to play in the 2022 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final against Major League Soccer’s Orlando City SC.
It will be the biggest game in club history.
The Republic are the first lower-division team to reach the Open Cup Final since 2008. They in this position thanks to three victories against MLS opponents from Major League Soccer – a kind of catharsis after the club’s well-documented trials and tribulations over the past 18 months.
“We have the opportunity to show the rest of the country we're a great club,” said Gibson. “We're a great organization and we win on the pitch. It’s just so exciting to see, especially after what happened in the last year-and-a-half, with the big letdown and sour taste in people’s mouths.”
For Gibson, Republic FC’s run through the Open Cup has been the epitome of what it means to represent the city of Sacramento. While it is the capital of California, it is often considered one of the less glamorous places in the state.
Which puts a permanent chip on its citizens’ shoulder.
That chip made Republic FC’s Open Cup upsets of the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy that much sweeter. And made Maalique Foster’s Panenka and brash celebration in the shootout against Sporting KC that much more loved.
“I think there's really a ‘Sacramentality,’” said Gibson, who earned his PhD from the University of California, Davis, two years ago and now works for an agricultural research start-up. “Right now, we’re one of the best – if not the best – agricultural research schools in the world. We help feed the country, so while it’s not the sexiest college in the state – probably not even in the top five – for what we do, we are the best.
“I think that's also how a lot of people in Sacramento feel. It’s a city where a lot of people are really passionate about their jobs, but they’re not always in it for the money. If you have friends that work for the government or work in politics, they want to make the world a better place.”
Rave Bear has been a season ticket holder since Republic FC's inaugural season, and has become an icon in the club's supporters section. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
You can find “Sacramentality” all over the club, from its academy program sending players to U.S. and Mexico youth national team programs to community initiatives such as the Republic FC Kickstart program.
The next step for the Republic is the planned construction of a new soccer-specific stadium in the Railyards District. Gibson believes the project will be a major boon for the city Sacramento overall, offering the potential to expand the city’s downtown footprint and provide the club’s support a central hub for gameday.
“I think when it comes to soccer in general, there are a lot of reasons why someone will choose to support a club or not, but when it comes to the people that choose to support Sacramento Republic, I think there is a sense of community, a sense of being rooted,” said Gibson. “A big reason why I’ve been so passionate for the club is frankly a lot of good people in the front office over the years. … Everybody I’ve ever worked with or met with in the front office does a hell of a job, and I think the Sacramento mindset lends itself very well for supporting a club like Sac Republic.”
That passion, according to Gibson, will remain whatever happens in the Open Cup Final in Orlando. He’s predicting a 2-2 draw with Republic FC winning on penalties. That result would write the club into the history books as the first lower-division team to win the tournament this century.
Should that come to pass, the party for the Rave Bear, his friends, and the club will continue long into the night.