Rallying Spartan crowds since 1989, Sparty’s identity prevails as one of Michigan State’s greatest mysteries. The lovable and spirited Sparty has become a super star figure, but the students behind the green giant remain hidden. Named the National Mascot Champion three times in just four years, Sparty has reached celebrity status, yet his true identity remains one of MSU’s best-kept secrets.
“Some Spartys aren’t as trustworthy as others,” Sparty Mascot Program director Ben Hatala said. “If too many people find out, we remove them from the program.” The Sparty Mascot Program is coordinated by the MSU Student Alumni Foundation (SAF). The student-run program organizes events and Sparty escorts while working to preserve the Sparty identity. Sparty – not the student – is known for his school spirit at university games and events, as well as his special guest appearances at weddings and charity events. Yet, it takes a special person to be the fiery front-runner. Not only do physical requirements apply, mandating that individuals be between 5’10 and 6’2 and light enough to fit in the costume, but students must also showcase an energetic character.
Hatala is in charge of selecting mascots among the Sparty hopefuls. “We look for unique, charismatic, energetic people – people who are excited even when we’re losing. They have to have a level head on their shoulders,” Hatala said. But more than that, a Sparty must be trustworthy. According to Hatala, Sparty’s student identity is kept secret in order to maintain Sparty’s character as his own. “We strive to make Sparty his own person. We want Sparty to be Sparty, not someone else,” he said. He also said there is only one Sparty at any one time in the effort to uphold the single character of Sparty. With all Sparty’s publicity and involvement however, it seems impossible that the person beneath it all might remain concealed. It takes careful planning and trustworthy friends to maintain such a well-kept secret. And assuring secrecy isn’t an easy task when the person keeping it is always disappearing.
For an MSU student and former Sparty who has chosen to remain anonymous, leading the double life had its hardships. After three challenging rounds of auditions, the student earned the mascot spot. Try-outs he said, were physically demanding. He filled Hatala’s criteria and made a very lively and convincing Sparty. “I just had a lot of fun with it and tried to be as over the top as possible. And being a super dancer helped,” the former Sparty said. To rid himself of any suspicion, he often told others he was doing uninteresting things. Trips to the library, meetings and home visits were the extent of his weekly activities – or so he led others to believe. After just two weeks however, the job became too demanding. “I quit because it was more than I was ready to handle,” he said. “It was a lot more work than I thought it would be.”
That’s not to say though the Sparty veteran didn’t have any fun. “My favorite thing was getting to interact with people you knew but they didn’t know it was you,” he said. In reward of sporting the 40-pound costume, students like him are awarded a varsity letter. In order to protect their identities though, the letter must remain unattributed to Sparty.
State-goers have long speculated the duties and perks of playing Sparty, but most remain rumors. Gossip of scholarships, pay and free admittance to events have characterized the common but false perception of the Sparty position. Although Sparty is unpaid, the director sees it as a good thing. “It keeps kids in the program who want to be in it for the right reasons,” said Hatala. It is also a common misconception that only males can be Sparty. While the size requirements do typically attract more males than females, there was a female Sparty.
Contrary to Hatala’s assertion, the former Sparty says there is not just one Sparty, but several. According to the student, high profile events, like football games, are saved for the more “experienced Spartys.” These differences of account are yet another mystery surrounding the famous mascot.
Sparty tryouts are also largely undisclosed. For those uninvolved in the SAF, information regarding Sparty tryouts is hard to come by. Only a handful of connected students know about the auditions. Held in the auxiliary gym at the Breslin Student Events Center, Sparty hopefuls undertake a variety of challenges including push-ups, dances, improvisation and crowd rallying. These situations prepare them for what will eventually be interactions with cheerleaders and dancers, as well as on-the-spot crowd entertainment.
Students must make it through three rounds of tryouts before permanently donning the Spartan wear. Like all auditioners, the anonymous Sparty had to prove he could handle the costume. Running and performing push-ups with four-fingered hands and massive shoes are only two of the mascot’s demanding duties. For most Sparty candidates, improvisation is the breaking point of their performance. Auditions crowd member Kelley Smith, found the auditions highly entertaining. “There seem to be some really interesting people under the costume,” Smith said. “It’s funny to see how different people interpret how Sparty should be.”
Auditions begin with the mascot’s introduction to a modestly sized crowd, who cheer on the mascot as if it were a real event. The fight song commences and Sparty must run in, pump up the crowd and get them singing along. Next, Sparty is challenged with some scenario situations. Because there are limits to what Sparty can do, he is tested in tough situations like interacting with a shy child. Sparty must attempt to win the child’s trust without scaring or invading the child’s personal space. In addition, he must show that he can handle bad talk from a MSU bully. For one bold candidate who tackled his harasser, the crowd’s reaction suggested this Sparty would not move on to round two. For the seven other contestants, their physically friendly responses to the teasing were much more accepted. Following the test situations is improvisation. Sparty is directed to a table of props consisting of items like a body bag, a pillow chicken drumstick, a sled and hockey sticks. From these objects, he must use one in three different, unconventional ways. After all that, Sparty ends the routine by convincing the crowd he knows how to shake it. Participants must immediately switch up their dance moves to a CD of changing songs. The tracks include hip-hop, rap, pop rock and the classics, during all of which Sparty has to keep his feet, hands and body moving.
Having watched the animated performances of the eight Sparty contestants, Smith realized the work put in behind the mask. Like many others, it shocked him to find Sparty received nothing in reward of his work. “I know other schools’ mascots get scholarships, and it seems like a lot of work. I think he deserves one,” Smith said. He too wished he could don the mascot costume. Just a few inches taller, and it might have been. For those fit and lively enough to rally their fellow Spartans, there is no saying who may be the Sparty identity. Even if the strong Spartan face may not appear at all familiar, the person beneath could be your closest friend.