TUNE IN TO Are You Tougher Than A Boy Scout? on the National Geographic Channel at 8 p.m. Eastern (7 p.m. Central) on Monday, March 4. The six-episode series will continue every Monday night until the season finale on April 8. Don’t forget to check back and find recaps of each weekly episode at blog.scoutingmagazine.org/tougher.
For more information on the show—including an awesome new video trailer—visit tougherscout.com.
IT’S ANOTHER 100-DEGREE, mid-June day in California’s Sequoia National Park, and it’s Day 1 of shooting challenges for National Geographic Channel’s new reality-competition series, Are You Tougher Than a Boy Scout?
Today’s challenge, set along Brush Creek, a few miles from Camp Whitsett, pits three adult contestants against three Scouts. Each team rappels off a bridge into their respective whitewater rafts, and then both teams push through Class III rapids to a distant finish line.
It’s pretty much a dead heat after the rappelling, though the Scouts would later note that they had, for safety’s sake, smaller ropes than the adults, which makes for a slower descent. Lee Torno, one of the adult contestants, plunges off the bridge, ebulliently shouting, “Sweeeeet! Geronimo!”—suggesting he’s more of a kid at heart than an actual grown-up.
Once both teams are in their rafts, however, it’s not even close. The Scouts—with Rio Gifford navigating and Mike Henderson and Keegan Rice paddling—furiously steer their way through the rocks effortlessly, while the disorganized adults blunder along. When the teams portage over some rocks, Paul Mondello later recalls, “It hit me—I haven’t been this tired in years! It blasted me, and by the time we got the boat back in the river, I was exhausted. I run marathons, and I don’t remember being that tired.”
“The whitewater rafting is a great example of how the teamwork and leadership of the Boy Scout movement comes into play,” Mike explains after the competition. “With rafting, you need a team that’s in sync and knows how to communicate and can execute the core ideals of the Boy Scouts—following directions and adding your input at the same time, and working together to achieve a goal.
“The adults weren’t working the same way—they had three leaders and no followers, so they didn’t get anything done.”
In this first match, the adults are beaten—and badly, arriving at the finish line more than seven minutes after the Scouts. Afterward, Torno struggles to find an upside to their humiliation. “Well,” he offers, “nobody died.”
Presenting this struggle between the adult former Scouts and current Eagle Scouts to the viewers at home is one way that the Boy Scouts of America aims to refresh its image. But this reality-type show isn’t just about nail-biting competition. Within each challenge, the teamwork and character of the Scouts shines—just the kind of take-home lesson the BSA hopes to give current and future Scouts and their parents. What better way to showcase this than on a national television show?
Are You Tougher Than a Boy Scout? is the brainchild of Thom Beers, the producer of such hit action-reality series as Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers, and himself a one-time Boy Scout. “I loved being a Boy Scout,” he recalls. “It was awesome. I was three merit badges short of being an Eagle Scout, and for 40 years this has bugged the heck out of me. It gnawed at me.”
At the same time, the Boy Scouts of America is looking to update its reputation. “Many people out there have a perception of Scouting that’s about 30 years old,” says Stephen Medlicott, marketing group director for the BSA. “That’s the hardest thing to change. Ninety-five percent know who we are but have an old perception of what the brand is. To fix that, we call it ‘changing the conversation.’”
When Beers approached the BSA, Medlicott explains, “There was a back and forth over time about how we would demonstrate what Scouting is today. Protecting the brand is critical, and it made us a little nervous to talk about a reality show.”
Beers figured there were others who regret having quit Scouting prematurely, and he concocted the show as a way of helping such men come to terms with their Scoutus-Interruptus.
One of those men is Mondello, 44, who has been a Scout leader ever since he signed his now-teenage son up to be a Cub Scout. Mondello had left the Scouting program early himself, “basically because I met a girl who didn’t think it was cool. It was kind of a shame.”
When he heard about the show, he submitted a video of himself “climbing trees, mowing the lawn, shooting a BB gun—just a bunch of stuff that I thought would imply that I was active and I was capable.” When he went for his audition in Studio City, north of Los Angeles, he wore his Scouting uniform. (“People were giving me a lot of strange looks”, he explains.) “I honestly didn’t know why I was there until I sat in that chair with the interviewer. We started talking about my Scoutmaster, and I got really emotional. I think I almost cried, and she started crying. I thought, ‘I never realized this was dragging on me this much.’”
Are You Tougher Than a Boy Scout? offers Mondello, and men like him, a shot at redemption or a chance to be embarrassed on national television. Or, maybe even—given the nature of reality TV—both.
As shooting commences at Brush Creek and the Scouts and adults meet one another, the Scouts greet their elder combatants with a playful take on the classic military cadence call: “I don’t know but I’ve been told/I am young and you are old.”
If they sound cocky, they’ve earned it. “I wanted a supertroop of Scouts,” says Beers. In casting the Scouts to participate, he adds, “I looked for the most-skilled kids from across the country.”
Among the Super Scouts selected are Rob Nelson, who has earned an incredible 132 merit badges, and Keegan, who is aiming to become one of the first Scouts from Connecticut to receive the National Outdoor Award Medal.
The show’s host, Charles Ingram, a former Marine and stuntman, admits he’s rooting for the Scouts. “These guys are my road dogs,” he says. “[The adults are] looking kind of shabby. It seems few of [them] had the discipline to read up and practice before coming here. If I knew I was coming on the show,” he continues, “I would’ve read the Boy Scout Handbook about four times, learned how to build a fire and set up a camp, and would’ve had a proper rucksack. One guy came out with just a little handbag and I said, ‘And you were a Scout? Did you, like, forget everything?’ Their motto is ‘Prepared. For Life,’ and as the Scouts say—if you don’t use it, you lose it, and that will continue in everything you do.”
Ingram professes to be well-impressed with the Scouts on the show. “If they’re any inkling of Scouts everywhere,” he says, “these guys are the leaders of the future.”
Mondello agrees. Of the competing Scouts, he says, variously, “I can see him being a true leader,” “I didn’t want to mess with him on anything physical,” “He’s as intelligent and mature as men my age,” “He’ll be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in two months,” and even, “I’ll vote for him for president in the future.”
He concludes, “The proof is in the pudding—they’re Eagle Scouts, and I’m not. Their character is amazing. This is what Eagle Scouts are supposed to be like. These are the people we should look up to.”
BACK ON SET, The woes continue for the adults: During a challenge called “Unhappy Camper,” in which both teams race to build a safe and efficient campsite, Mondello and Torno are pretty much keeping pace with Scouts Keegan and Mike until they try to fasten the rain fly atop their tent. The rain fly proves to be a fickle beast, slipping off one side when they’ve got it wrestled down on the other, and vice versa, repeatedly and remorselessly. Keegan admits he couldn’t help but watch their maladroit misadventures out of the corner of his eye.
Silent film legend Harold Lloyd couldn’t have cooked up a better piece of physical comedy. “I know!” Mondello laughs, explaining that he wasn’t familiar with the tent’s particular design. “We both were just, ‘How does this go; what the heck?’” He notes that in the end, they performed serviceably: “Unless there was a big downpour, we would’ve been OK.”
Host Ingram, the former Marine, defends Mondello, admitting, “I’d probably be fumbling on that myself.”
The Scouts remain pretty unflappable, even with the cameras on them and the knowledge that America will soon be watching. They insist that they forget the cameras are dogging them.
“The pressure is more in the competition,” Keegan says. “When you’re in the zone, you really don’t think about the cameras. They stay far enough away; they’re not in your face and not telling you what to do.”
Diallo Whitaker, another Scout participant, agrees. “You’re really into the challenge; you’re pumped up, adrenaline going, and you’re just trying to win. The camera crew doesn’t put much pressure on you—they say, just do your thing because they want it to be natural.”
Rio adds with a laugh, “When you’re in an interview and the cameras are on you, that’s a lot harder.”
The Scouts all say they hope the series will bring Scouting’s reputation into the 21st century, depicting it as fun and exciting in addition to its character-building qualities.
“I’m hoping the show will give people a better idea of what Boy Scouts are really like,” Diallo says. “Seeing us do all these cool challenges, it lets people know Boy Scouts are about more than just earning merit badges.”
Rio echoes the sentiment: “I want to change the stereotype of Boy Scouts going door to door selling popcorn. I want to show people that we also rappel off bridges, jump into rafts, and beat adults. I want kids to want to join Scouting, not that their parents make them.”
Keegan adds, “Get it away from the stereotype of a bunch of boys tying knots or starting fires. There’s so much more to it. It’s more a lifelong experience, and I hope people see that.”
Scouting’s Medlicott says, “Teens think about the Cub Scout image more than the Boy Scout image. These young guys have amazing skills and activities. We don’t have the budget for a big national advertising campaign. There are lots of ways to tell our story, but this a unique opportunity. It’s a game changer.”
Producer Beers says he hopes the show combines Scouting’s good-deed ethos with an extreme-sports sensibility. With a laugh, he describes the show in a single sentence: “Help the old lady across the street and kick your old man’s butt.”
Meet the Host, Charles Ingram
A former Marine and longtime Hollywood stuntman (G.I. Joe, The Expendables, Black Hawk Down), Charles Ingram (right) has even dabbled in acting (opposite Bruce Willis in Tears of the Sun) and has hosted other nonfiction series: He also swam with sharks for the Discovery Channel’s Great White: Appetite for Destruction and survived an attack on his inflatable boat during production.
Of his latest gig, he says, “I feel blessed to have this job, to be honest. To do a show where there’re morals and values and ethics, with guys who are elite but don’t step on their fellow man.” Ingram’s also grateful that the producers took a chance on a guy who’s not exactly a household name. “They gave me a shot at it, and we’re all having fun,” he says. “I used to be so intense. It took 15 years in the entertainment business to kind of get me to have a personality.”
Each Scout who participates in Are You Tougher Than a Boy Scout? chose or received a nickname, emblazoned across the back of the T-shirts that they wear on the show. Not all Scouts will appear on all episodes, but here’s the intel on the Scouts who are among the cast members.
Keegan Rice, AKA Yeti (photo at right, on left): “I love the mountains, mountaineering, rock climbing.” At the time of the interview, he was one requirement away from being one of the first Scouts from Connecticut to receive the National Outdoor Award Medal, which he hoped to complete during his work on the show.
Will Fleming, AKA Big South (not in above photo): “I’m from the South (North Carolina), and I’m 6 foot, 6 inches.” He’s also an accomplished sharpshooter.
Rio Gifford, AKA Wolf (photo above, second from left): “They call me Wolf because I love the outdoors.” In one three-part competition, he got from one challenge to the next on foot faster than members of the production crew did in a car.
Diallo Whitaker, AKA Torpedo (photo above, fourth from left): “I love swimming, and sometimes I do things people don’t expect. So when they see it, it’s too late—like a torpedo.”
Mike Henderson, aka Hitch (not in above photo): “I have a talent with ropes and knots.” He lives, like Rio and Diallo above, in California.
Rob Nelson, AKA Robin Hood (photo above, on right): “I’m good with archery.” Actually, he’s pretty good at everything. Also a Californian, Rob has earned a whopping 132 merit badges.
David Kronke has written about television for many publications, including TV Guide, Variety, The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, and The Huffington Post.