Saturday, September 26, 2020

Who wears the boots? Q&A with mascot program graduates

June 10, 2020
MSU alumni Joseph Hrabnicky poses in front of the Spartan Statue in his graduation gown and Sparty boots. Hrabnicky played Sparty since the second semester of his freshman year at MSU.
MSU alumni Joseph Hrabnicky poses in front of the Spartan Statue in his graduation gown and Sparty boots. Hrabnicky played Sparty since the second semester of his freshman year at MSU. —

The State News sat down with Michigan State alumni Joseph Hrabnicky and Cory Hilton to discuss their time playing the university’s beloved mascot, Sparty. Due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the two were unable to follow the sacred, decades long tradition of proudly walking across stage and receiving their degrees while donning the shiny, green boots.

However, the MSU Alumni Office is still honoring their loyal service to the mascot program all the same. In a release today, the office both celebrated and thanked the pair, stating, "Through thick and thin, these two have remained positive, appreciative and the ultimate supporters of the university."

Hrabnicky, 22, is an advertising management graduate from Wyandotte, Michigan, and Hilton, 23, is an electrical engineering graduate from Chesterfield Township, Michigan.

Q: When and why did you start your role as Sparty? How does the role itself work?

Hrabnicky: My freshman year, I was actually at my first football game, I watched Sparty run out onto the field and I thought it was really cool. I did some research, found out that it was actually a job a student could do, and applied. I was accepted during my second semester.

I can't give away too much information (regarding the job's structure itself) simply because of the fact that Sparty is one entity, but there is so much that goes on behind the scenes. Things like scheduling to travel to having a support team that enables him to get things done that one person wouldn't be able to get done by themselves. Also, anywhere Sparty goes he has at least one security personnel to keep him safe, as well as one to capture pictures and videos so I could go back and have those moments for myself. Everything Sparty does is being either videotaped or photographed.

Hilton: In 2017 — spring semester — I actually saw something put out by the Alumni Office and went to tryout. Low and behold, the day after my final audition, I was accepted. The system is really cut and dry, honestly, like a normal job — it's one replacing the other and taking up the mantra. Events are carried out based on their level of importance; however, I did get some level of say in what I'd participated in.

Going to MSU, I had no idea how anything worked. I had been raised a Spartan and was following a legacy line that started with my grandparents. I first met Sparty when I was a kid. At that age, I looked up to him as if he was a superhero, like Batman, and when I saw I could have the opportunity to do the same thing, I jumped on it.

Q: How hard was it to keep the Sparty secret and live a double life for so long?

Hrabnicky: It's tough. Especially because a lot of what you're doing revolves around big things in life. Football and basketball games, things your family is attending where they're hoping to sit with your student-self.

It can be a challenge even around the holidays. For example, we've made several bowl games for football, which are always around New Years, making it hard to come up with reasons why you're not at a family function or a party or game with your friends.

But, at the end of the day it makes it that much better after the fact just because they didn't know and now you get to show them everything you've done over the last three or four years.

Hilton: Incredibly difficult. Especially as an engineering major, where hiding systematic patterns could only hold up for so long. My roommates and friends, who were studying the same, began nitpicking at my life heavily. Luckily, I had two traditional excuses: One, I work with the cheer team and the athletic department and two, my most common, I'm an intern for the Alumni Association. Ultimately, it was hard to not have anyone to share my stories or plans with.

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Q: How did your family and friends react when you told them?

Hrabnicky: Our reveal was supposed to happen a couple different times already, and it was postponed for multiple different reasons, but they were excited to go through and see the things that I've done, the places I've been, the people I've met and the impact I had indirectly through Sparty.

Hilton: I'll be completely honest when I say, a lot of them gave me a look that said, "We knew, we just didn't want to say anything." Like I said earlier, the people close to me either noticed or suspected and eventually put two and two together, they were just polite enough to keep the secret to themselves. It was more of an, "Aha, finally we got you" moment.

Q: What are some things you got to do as Sparty?

Hrabnicky: You do a ton. Some of my most memorable moments were things that I would have never guessed I would do or people would want Sparty for, even after being involved with the program. But that's part of the excitement and what makes all of the hard work worth it.

One of the stories that I love is actually about a funeral I did for an alumni. His entire family was very committed to MSU and everything about the university. I had been to celebrations of life before, which is different — you're usually at the reception afterwards roaming around, working with people there. However, in this instance they had me at the ceremony itself and I walked up to the casket at the end while they played the alma mater. It's events like that, like hospital visits, things outside of the big, buff Sparty that you would think of, that are typically the most meaningful.

Other stories involve the New Orleans Saints flying me down overnight to come make fun of their quarterback Drew Brees and opening the stock market. Also, the last basketball game of the 2020 season, before the COVID-19 pandemic where we won a share of the Big Ten title, I actually did not know it would be my last time ever suiting up, yet it was easily one of the most memorable things I've done.

Hilton: One of the coolest things I ever got to do was the Big Ten 10K. It's not something that makes headlines, so I don't expect many people to know about it. My first time doing it, it was roasting hot out, but I was alongside every other Big Ten mascot and we were all getting to do what we love to do. Honestly, all events with other mascots make the top of my list.

A close second, however, is a tie of two different things. The first is weddings. During certain weddings, particularly one I remember in Traverse City, Michigan, I had literally shown up holding onto a golf cart for dear life and as soon as the bride caught sight of me, she was in tears. That was the biggest, loudest welcome I'd ever gotten from a crowd that small. I did weddings from many different cultures and met so many different types of people and getting to be a part of the most important day of these people's lives was really enjoyable.

The second is visits to children, whether in the hospital or school. More often than not, that's when I got to do what I really loved. I got to make kids smile, make them feel the same way that I felt all those years ago when I first met Sparty.

Q: How did playing Sparty change your overall college experience?

Hrabnicky: At the start, I was your typical freshman, trying to find as many things to get involved with as I could. When it came to the Sparty Mascot Program, it was like all of these things that didn't mean a whole lot to me, but we're obviously fun, suddenly became something more. Of course, with that, again, Sparty is an extremely busy guy, and the program really taught me how to use my time efficiently and spread myself among multiple tasks equally.

Hilton: Academically, I want to share my thanks for the professors who accommodated for my classwork when I had Sparty work to do. Socially, I got to do and see things that no normal, undergraduate college student gets to. It changed my whole college experience in the sense that I got to live my life a completely different way.

Q: Do you have any words of advice for the next person who puts on the shiny, green boots?

Hrabnicky: Treat every event, every moment with those boots on, like it's your last time strapping up. Summertime is Sparty's busiest time and when you're traveling between events back-to-back it can get repetitive, tiring and boring. It's easy to lose focus on what your goal is, which is to make those around you happy and leave a lasting impact on their lives.

The Sparty suit is the bridge between the university, everything about the university and those who support it or make up the communities within it.

Hilton: You have to cherish every single minute that you have in those boots, and not just the ones where you're on television, because there's a lot to take in. There are going to be times when it's going to be early, like 6 a.m. early, and you're going to be tired. You can't look at it as a typical work day, you have to look at it as the impact you're leaving on the people you come in contact with.

You never know when it's going to end. Like in my case, with COVID-19, I never expected that my last event would be welcoming incoming law school students.

The suit represents the best of us. MSU has gone through a lot in these last couple years, but while everything has changed, Sparty has remained constant. He is our highest moral values, academically and athletically. There's nothing like playing Sparty.

Editor's note: These responses have been edited for clarity.

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