The San Antonio Spurs Coyote helped build the modern T-Shirt Cannon, a pistol-like device used to toss loot in arenas around the world.

Tim Derk, the most famous of the men who donned the Spurs Coyote suit, doesn’t remember much of the first time he fired a T-shirt cannon during a San Antonio Spurs game at the Alamodome around 1993, he says. But he remembers the reaction of the crowd.

“It wasn’t exactly a standing ovation,” said Derk, who appeared as “Entertainus Carnivorous,” aka the Coyote, in more than 1,110 Spurs games from 1983 to 2004. “People were They didn’t know what to think or what I was doing.

That quickly changed when fans quickly realized, “Hey, free stuff!”

Derk was instrumental in inventing and popularizing the t-shirt cannon, which uses compressed air to launch promotional t-shirts and other loot into crowds. Like racing dogs and dance teams, the pitcher has become a popular part of time-out entertainment in the arenas of the sporting world.

Crowds see this device come out and a frenzy begins with people leaning on each other to grab goods worth around $10. “I’ve seen people knock over someone in a wheelchair to get a free t-shirt,” said Derk, 65, who hung up his coyote paws after suffering a stroke in 2004.

Tim Derk as Spurs Coyote, pulls a T-shirt into the stands during a game. Derk appeared in more than 1,110 Spurs games from 1983 to 2004 and was instrumental in the development of the T-shirt cannon, the propulsive device now ubiquitous at most sporting events.

San Antonio Spurs

The story of the origin of the t-shirt cannon begins when Spurs played at HemisFair Arena. At the time, Derk was using expandable surgical tubing to toss T-shirts into the stands. Effective, but rude.

Looking for a way to add some sparkle to his act, he turned to the potato launcher, a gun-like device that uses compressed air or flammable gas to send potatoes or other objects in the air, either for fun or for more practical uses, such as scaring birds or throwing lifelines at sea.

“Someone from a local gas company suggested plugging in the CO² tank to get the gun smoking,” Derk said. “It looked really cool.”

It was with this cool effect in place that Derk unveiled the T-shirt cannon to the San Antonians in that 1993 game. He’s reluctant to say he was the sole inventor because other NBA mascots, including Rocky , the mountain lion mascot of the Denver Nuggets and the Phoenix Suns Gorilla, were also working on similar projects at the time and they were all sharing information.

But he claims to be the one adding showbiz spice to the T-shirt shootouts, including new costumes and moves in addition to the CO² smoke.

At first, Derk only had eight jerseys to pull into the crowd per game. So he had to make sure each was an event, shooting under his leg, playing one section of the arena against another – Who wants a t-shirt? – even make like a furry Harlem Globetrotter and shoot someone in the front row with a barrel of confetti.

Former Spurs Coyote Tim Derk was instrumental in developing the T-shirt cannon, the propellant device that is now ubiquitous at most sporting events.

Former Spurs Coyote Tim Derk was instrumental in developing the T-shirt cannon, the propellant device that is now ubiquitous at most sporting events.

John E. Moore III/Getty Images

“I learned early on that it was the sizzle, not the steak that made things exciting,” he said.

As The New York Times put it in a 2013 article, “…When (Derk) dressed up as ‘Rambote’ – Rambo meets Spurs’ Coyote – and doused the cheap seats with freebies, little many sports fans had seen something like this.”

The original gun platform, with two cast iron tanks and a metal gun, weighed about 90 pounds. He was so heavy that Rob Wicall, Derk’s understudy and eventual successor, had to carry the gear for him so he wouldn’t wear himself out.

“The thing was a metal monstrosity, and I was its sherpa,” said Wicall, who played the Coyote until 2016. Over the years, Derk kept tinkering with the design, trying to make it smaller and more efficient.

“We experimented with barrel diameter, tank sizes, always trying to reduce weight and bulk as much as possible,” Derk said. They even tested to see how tight the t-shirts were.

Former Spurs Coyote Tim Derk, pictured at his home in San Antonio, was instrumental in the development of the T-shirt cannon, the propulsion device that is now ubiquitous at most sporting events

Former Spurs Coyote Tim Derk, pictured at his home in San Antonio, was instrumental in the development of the T-shirt cannon, the propulsion device that is now ubiquitous at most sporting events

Josie Norris / Staff Photographer

Derk says the Spurs brass were initially not in love with his new toy. “It was something new and they were worried that someone would get hurt.” he said. “Like, what if someone isn’t looking and a T-shirt hits them in the face?”

The organization eventually adopted the device.

“The T-shirt cannon in the hands of Spurs Coyote is a legendary combination,” said Becky Kimbro, vice president of brand engagement. “Sports fans around the world owe Tim Dirk a debt of gratitude because his creativity and vision changed the gaming experience forever.”

Still, there were limits. In 1995, after a Chicago Bears fan jumped from the stands to catch a basket and fell about 15 feet, landing unscathed, the powers that be quickly issued an edict: no more shooting in the upper deck.

Other bans included throwing shirts at the Spurs bench for fear one might spit and hit a player. There was also a picky season ticket holder who didn’t like the commotion when a T-shirt came his way, so Derk wasn’t allowed to shoot anywhere near his section.

Former Spurs Coyote Tim Derk, pictured at his home in San Antonio, was instrumental in the development of the T-shirt cannon, the propulsion device that is now ubiquitous at most sporting events

Former Spurs Coyote Tim Derk, pictured at his home in San Antonio, was instrumental in the development of the T-shirt cannon, the propulsion device that is now ubiquitous at most sporting events

Josie Norris / Staff Photographer

Derk said he never thought of marketing his barrel modifications or manufacturing them commercially. “We didn’t think that way for them,” he said sadly.

Today’s t-shirt guns can fire up to a dozen shirts per second. It was Derk’s design improvements that helped them get there.

But as an artist, the gun hasn’t satisfied him nearly as much as the many comedy bits he’s performed over the years.

“It was a prop. I much prefer to do something in the moment, an idea that just occurred to me. For me, it’s much better than wrapping my index finger around a trigger,” did he declare.

Yet somewhere tonight a furry mascot will run down the middle of the field and launch a barrage of T-shirts into the stands. And fans will be clamoring to catch every one of them.

[email protected] | Twitter: @RichardMarini

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