A Look Into the Life of A Collegiate Mascot
From 2011–2015 I was blessed to represent Arizona State University as Sparky the Sun Devil. Below is a behind the scenes look of what it was like being a mascot for, in my eyes, one of the greatest schools in the world.
When people think of mascots they think of over-sized heads, life-size animals, cheerleaders and crazy antics. What people don’t see is what goes on behind the scenes or behind the mask. Being a mascot is so much more than showing up on game day, throwing on a costume and cheering on the team.
Before we get into the details and intricacies of being a mascot I am going to do a preemptive strike on some of the most common questions I received/still get asked. BOOM Lightning Round, let’s go:
- Is it hot in the suit? A: YES. Adding extra layers of anything will make it hotter. Adding extra layers and running around makes it feel like death. On top of that, most of my events were outside in Arizona where it is hot when you’re wearing nothing around your house (we all do it, I’m not here to judge.) I feel like this is such an obvious answer but it is the most common question I get.
- Is it hard not talking? A: Many people know that mascots more often than not don’t talk. This can make communicating difficult while in character. Honestly, if you’ve done it long enough it isn’t a task at all. You learn to talk with your body and hand gestures. It is a great way to learn body language. Also, every mascot talks to their handler or Game Operations so if something needs to be said, it is.
- Do you smile when taking pictures? A: I don’t know about other mascots but when I was in the suit, in the beginning of an event I would smile under the mask. It’s habitual. By the end of the event, I am tired, hot and want to get out of there so I would stop smiling. I would have a blank face, look at my surroundings and sometimes I would close my eyes and wait for a flash.
- What is the difference between walking into an event as yourself and walking into an event as Sparky? A: This was probably the most depressing part of being a mascot. When you walk into most places suited up, all eyes are on you. People want pictures, kids want to come up to you, people would go for high-fives, etc. When you walk out of the same place in your regular clothes, you’re nobody. You just saw and interacted with the same crowd and now nobody knows who you are. You go from being the main attraction to another face in the crowd. It was humbling.
- Do you miss it? A: Ever since I retired and hung up the over-sized head this is the question I get the most and my response is the same every time. I miss the moments, not the process. This piece will explain what I mean.
I may shatter some realities but here is an inside scoop: There is more than one Sparky. Sparky has to attend over 300 events a year for the largest university in the country. There is no way one student while, yes, being a student, can attend every single event. Sparky is made up of a number of individuals who form a team. I apologize if I ruined the illusion for some people but the truth will set you free.
I don’t know about other schools or programs but Sparky is run by Arizona State’s marketing department. This means that football and big events are far from the only things Sparky has to attend. Any sponsor that ASU had could request Sparky for an event and if they were big enough we’d have to show up. This means random car dealership openings across town in the middle of the week, bank openings, contests, you name it. If they wanted Sparky there, we showed up.
We had to have bi-weekly meetings figuring out who could show up to what and how we would split the time. I’d like to say the more veteran Sparky’s got first pick and the higher profile events, however, that is not the case. Sadly, Sparky was seen as more of a body rather than who was in the suit. Most times our higher-ups didn’t care who showed up just as long as someone was in the suit on time and can act decent. This means there were countless events of 30 minutes or less doing nothing but taking pictures. I get that for the people that attend the event, this may be cool but for us, it was draining.
On top of the small events, Sparky has to show up to NCAA sporting events as well. This means Volleyball, Gymnastics, Wrestling, Softball, Hockey, Soccer, etc. Not just basketball and football, not just the big games. Most games. This became so taxing. Trying to figure out who can show up to what games and what you had to do during said games for a crowd of less than 500 sometimes. There is only so much a mascot can do with the same people.
So many events, planning, trying to find out who had what suit and who had what gear. There was mass disorganization and miscommunication behind the scenes that put dark spots on my time as Sparky. All of this happened mind you, without getting paid. Sparky was a very gray area when it came to identifying his role in the university. Is Sparky an athlete? We had to sign the same contracts they do. Is he part of band or cheer? That’s who we traveled and interacted with. Is he part of marketing? They schedule all of our appearances. Is he a volunteer? That was obvious, we couldn’t get paid.
Now, we did get some perks. Nike and Adidas would send us gear, if we did personal appearances we could ask for a tip, and we got per diem when we traveled. However, the daily process would’ve been a lot easier if we got compensation or at least a scholarship/grant. No compensation was consistent. Hell, it took me a year after I graduated to get a jersey that I could frame (I ended up with a white basketball. Not even a traditional colors or football). A Nike jersey that Sparky couldn’t even use due to the new Adidas contract. It was frustrating.
Now some people are thinking, why even do this? Why hang on for four years? The answer is simple: I became addicted to the moments.
The biggest moments as Sparky are obviously the football games. There are some other cool ones I’ll admit. For example, going to other sporting events and interacting with other mascots is always fun, getting to meet celebrities that graduated from ASU, going on national television for a spot, even big games in other sports. Anytime we play the University of Arizona, the crowd was awesome. We can thank our AMAZING student section for this. However, nothing compared to football games.
Now, going to a football game as a mascot is vastly different than attending as a fan. First, we had to show up four to five hours before kick off to attend tailgates and all other pregame festivities. During the game, we have a schedule that we have to keep in mind. We have to know what promotion is happening during what timeout, where we have to be for the camera at what time during the game and, obviously, what is happening on the field. Sparky never stops during a game, and this is for every sport, not just football. Each sport had a different timeline that Game Operations would set up. It was our job to know this schedule and perform while staying on track. However, knowing our schedule and making sure we know what we were doing is not the moments I lived for.
There is no bigger rush I have felt than standing in front of thousands of people, thousands of rabid ASU students, and leading them in cheering for the Sun Devils. When I got up in front of that crowd and was able to get them going, I was on cloud nine. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but before the team runs out of Tillman Tunnel a video of Sparky plays on the scoreboard. While that video is going, Sparky is under an ASU flag crawling from the tunnel to the 50-yard line. When the video comes to an end, Sparky pops up from under the flag and thrusts his pitchfork into the ground leading the team out of the tunnel and hopefully to a win. Words can not describe the feeling of being able to do that. One of the best feelings I have ever experienced.
Aside from the big iconic moments like celebrating a win with the team and giving the pitchfork to the player of the game, the rest of the game is also an unreal experience. Sparky never stops, he doesn’t just stand and watch the game, no, he is always looking for what to do next. Every Sparky brings something new to the character. Some bring dancing, some bring a swagger, something to make them stand apart. I brought mischief. In my mind, Sparky is a Devil, so why not act like it? I would often go up to people and steal their food, steal their hat, steal their phone and take hundreds of selfies, or even steal their girlfriend (I would go to a couple and motion for the guy to stand up and when he got up I would sit down and put my arm around his girl. So fun.). It is amazing the things you can get away with while being a mascot. You’re just acting how everyone would expect you to. So if you attended an ASU event and Sparky stole things from you or messed around with you a lot, chances are it was yours truly. What can I say? I love interacting with people.
The people and the fans were by far the best part of being Sparky. I was able to make people’s day by simply taking a picture with them. Interacting with people and seeing their face light up was amazingly rewarding (it even offset the time’s kids would run away crying in terror. Whoops.). These small moments and interactions were just as surreal as the big moments under the lights. I got to experience things during my time as a mascot that 99% of the population will never get to and I loved every second of it.
Life after Sparky has been pretty boring. I had to become an adult and pursue my passion. Luckily my passion is Sports Public/Media Relations so I’ll never be far away from sports or mascots. I could’ve gone on and became a professional mascot like many of the ones I know but it wasn’t for me. I loved being a mascot and, in my humble opinion, I was good at it. I just couldn’t do it for the rest of my life. Luckily, during my time as Sparky I was able to make many connections with many amazing people that have changed my life for the better. Sparky will always be a huge part of my life and identity but I had to retire.
I gave up many things to be Sparky such as internships, job opportunities, time, money and especially sweat. If I could go back and do it again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I loved being a face of the most innovative school in America. At the end of the day, I will always be Sparky the Sun Devil.
Thanks for reading guys! I hope you enjoyed this peek behind the curtain into the world of being a mascot. If you like sports opinions and stories give me a follow on social media. All the links are in my bio. Follow along and continue to get your #DashOfNash! Lastly, GO DEVILS!