Local underdog scores fame with spot in Puppy Bowl

Charleston puppy Bronte was selected to be one of 85 dogs nationally to participate in this year’s Puppy Bowl.

A scrappy youngster from West Ashley will represent the Lowcounty in the Big Game Feb. 1.

Not Super Bowl XLIX ... but Puppy Bowl XI.

Bronte, a rescued pit bull-mix now known as Brutus, was one of 85 dogs nationally selected to participate in Animal Planet’s annual gridiron competition. The made-for-TV event, this year billed as “Fluff vs. Ruff,” features cutesy color commentary while shelter puppies play inside a model stadium. A water bowl cam, goat cheerleaders and Katty Furry in the Bissell Kitty Half-Time Show adds to the Super Bowl parody.

Animalplanet.com even offers a chance for visitors to participate in an interactive Puppy Bowl Fantasy Game.

One of cable TV’s top programs annually, the Pedigree dog food-sponsored event drew 13.5 million viewers last year. That’s about 100 million less than expected for the NFL championship on NBC that day.

The final episode for HBO’s “Sopranos” had 11.9 million and last week’s inaugural College Football Playoff Championship game set a new cable-ratings record with 33.4 million viewers, according to Nielsen TV Ratings.

Bronte is believed to be the first local dog selected to participate in the game, according to several Lowcountry animal rescue workers.

He is also featured in the Jan. 26 edition of People magazine as one of five spokesdogs for the Puppy Bowl.

Not bad for a pup who started life six months ago as a yard dog.

Bronte was one of a litter of three found in poor conditions by Orangeburg-based Healing Species after a tip from a neighbor. The pups weren’t even 6 weeks old, said Cherie Thompson, founder of Healing Species, a nonprofit that includes a rescue and adoption program, a character-based school curriculum and a prison program.

“He was discovered living literally in the dirt,” Thompson said. “They were just wandering around in this big yard with no shelter. The mother had been separated from them and she was dying.”

They were infested with fleas, intestinal worms and coccidia. One of the three died.

“They had that glassy look in their eyes,” she said. “They were real weak. Bronte did not know how to play. He did not know how to smile. He did not know how to look at you in the face or give eye contact. He just looked sad all the time.”

As he got more attention at the rescue, he started responding.

About that time, Animal Planet called looking for prospects for the Puppy Bowl.

“We almost didn’t send in the video of him because he’s a pit bull and we just thought, ‘Oh they probably don’t want pit bulls,’ ” Thompson said. “Then we realized we were already giving in to the stereotype even though we fight against it every day.”

Bronte was selected, and after three days of filming in New York last October, was named to Team Ruff’s backup squad, but not before he left his mark on the field. Literally.

“We thought he was going to be the hit because he’s strong and so friendly,” Thompson said. “But he’s a stress eater. Who knew? When he got there, he got a little stressed out because there were dogs everywhere. They had food set out, so he just went over and helped himself to the entire bowl of food and naturally, what goes in has to come out.”

And it happened on the field, when the cameras were trained on him. That’s got to be a penalty.

No wonder he was relegated to the bench.

“They bring in a lot of dogs that may not make the final cut,” Thompson said. “But I feel that you will see him. I don’t think he’ll be the star, but I think he’ll definitely be seen.”

Even though he may be on the sidelines for much of the game, Bronte’s tale has a happy ending: he had a family waiting for him when he returned from the Big Apple.

Lisa Lewerke and her fiancé, Chad Grooms, adopted — and renamed — Bronte and his sister, Bianca. They are now called Brutus and Bree.

The West Ashley couple plan to have a viewing party on Feb. 1 to watch their pup’s TV debut.

“He’s quite famous and I didn’t even do anything,” Lewerke said.

The dogs were fostered by Lewerke’s co-worker, Natalie Dull, and her roommate Ryan Thompson.

“She brought them into work and they were tiny and adorable,” Lewerke said. “I sent a picture to my fiancé and he fell in love with them too. We decided to dog-sit them for the weekend and that was it.”

The pups are in training to be classroom dogs, traveling to schools to teach lessons in compassion, anti-bullying, and responsible choices through the Healing Species Violence Prevention and Compassion Education curriculum.

They are also an example of overcoming one’s past.

“I know there are stereotypes out there about pit bulls, but to us, they are sweet and adorable,” Lewerke said. “I think if you give them a little love and train them right, they’re just like any other dogs.”

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.