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Former Sparty mascots give insight to the excitement behind the armor

November 20, 2016

Sparty jumps and dances while the Badger student section dances to the song "Jump Around" by House of Pain Sept. 26, 2009 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis. The Spartans were defeated by the Badgers. 38-30.

Photo by Sean Cook | The State News

Now 27 years old, Sparty has been honored as the best mascot in the Big Ten, has been to national championships, starred in ESPN commercials, attended weddings, birthday parties and community events.

“Sparty really racks up the miles in travel ... so we have a group of students, between eight and 16 students, who help Sparty get everything done,” Clint Stevens, director of the Sparty Mascot Program, said. “But there is only one Sparty.”

Sparty does between 600 and 700 events a year and only 90 of those are athletic events, Stevens said.

“We try to do as much as possible ... there’s the magic in that,” Stevens said. “It’s like Santa Claus.”

Ben Hatala, who was Sparty from spring 2007 until he graduated in 2010, reflected on his experience as Sparty and all that came with it.

“I always compare Sparty to Batman — It’s all the notoriety and publicity when you’re in the suit,” Hatala said. “When you leave, it’s back to the anonymity and just being yourself again.”

However, Hatala’s fondest memory as Sparty was visiting children’s hospitals.

“It’s such an emotional time. ... It’s really tough to put into words reflecting on it,” Hatala said. “It’s just one of those things where you’re just a student, you’re just a human ... but you put on that suit and Sparty transforms you.”

Sparty is very active in the community, whether he is cheering on sporting events or putting a smile on someone’s face.

“Some little kid is terminally ill ... fighting some crazy ailment and disease and they want to see Sparty,” Hatala said. “You go see them and they start crying, their parents are crying, you’re crying ... it’s really moving, and those are things I’ll never forget.”

Being Sparty requires keeping one’s identity kept a secret.

However, close friends of Sparty’s can become a part of the Sparty Mascot Program by being escorts for Sparty.

“The hardest thing was keeping it from your close friends and your roommates,” Eric Loveland, who was Sparty from 2009-11, said. “Being Sparty, it allowed us to open up opportunities for our friends and roommates to become a part of the program as well ... we would invite some of our closest friends who we knew we could trust of keeping that a secret.”

Loveland’s first Sparty appearance was at an opening home football game.

“The first time I ever did a run out at a football game was actually one of the opening games against Western Michigan,” Loveland said. “You’re literally standing there in the tunnel and it’s your first time running a run out and the one thing that you’re praying for is to not trip over your boots as you’re running out to the 50-yard line.”

It’s a tradition for Sparty to hold the MSU flag and run out of the tunnel with the football team.

“It’s the most excited feeling in the world and such an adrenaline rush when you enter the stadium out of the tunnel in front of 75,000 fans.” Loveland said.

While coaches will come and go and statues will always be around, Sparty is a physical, living, moving representation of the university, Hatala said. He said that is one thing that continues on with history.

“The big thing is — I don’t know if this ever gets across — but just how thankful Sparty is, and speaking on behalf of the Sparty alumni, how thankful they are for all the support through the years and all the passion that fans bring,” Hatala said. “We really appreciate all that, it’s very humbling. So for Sparty, we’re very gracious, very thankful of the Spartan community ... we’re a very thankful group of individuals that want nothing but the best for the university and the students.”

Students who think they have what it takes to be the next Sparty are in luck this year. Applications to be Sparty will be accepted until Jan. 15, 2017.

“The tryout process will begin in January with applications,” Stevens said. “We’ll give the students a little bit of time ... put up some Facebook posts, put up some flyers, posters ... we’re basically looking for the next Sparty.”

According to MSU Association of Future Alumni Programming website, tryouts will consist of a variety of tests.

“We have a pretty intense tryout process because the program is so historic and we’re looking for the right students. It takes so much because it is a volunteer program,” Stevens said. “You get a lot of benefits and intangibles benefits of travel, seeing sporting events up close, doing something bigger than yourself ... It’s a rewarding experience.”

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