Being Sparty: Spartan Alumni share their experiences playing the MSU mascot

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Sparty is the beloved student mascot at Michigan State University and has only grown in national prominence since his conception and initial appearance in 1955. According to the Lansing State Journal, the legend of Sparty began when three Theta Xi fraternity brothers, Donald Pais, Kenneth Bauers, and Don Bauer created a papier-mache Spartan head for a pep rally, which was over six feet tall and weighed nearly 60 pounds. The mascot made subsequent appearances at Michigan State sports games and other university-related events, as his popularity rose rapidly over the years.

A large aspect of the intrigue behind one of the country’s most beloved mascots is the mystery of who is wearing the costume. According to Michigan State, those who dress up as Sparty will wear Sparty’s boots to graduation and will usually announce their masquerade as Sparty on social media, to the shock of their friends and family. As Sparty, you are not allowed to tell your loved ones your identity, which can be an extremely awkward situation upon reveal for those donning the iconic costume.

Despite the rule of not being allowed to tell people about your endeavors as Sparty, sometimes it is impossible to keep the secret. People who know these students well enough can often connect the dots. This was the case with Avery Tilley, one of the two people who graduated in the spring of 2023 and dressed up as Sparty alongside Caeden Hunter.

“Most of my immediate family and friends did know my secret – it was pretty hard to hide from them! For lots of others, it was a big surprise, especially my classmates at graduation. Lots of people never expected it”, said Tilley.

For Tilley, acting as Sparty had its challenges, as it requires a lot more thought than the regular Spartan fan may expect.

“I think one thing people wouldn’t expect (about being Sparty) is how much you have to think on your feet. There isn’t a book or guide for you to reference. You have to learn how to think on your feet and always act like Sparty would.”

 According to the MSU alumni website, Tilley graduated from three different MSU colleges: the College of Natural Sciences, the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the MSU Honors College. This made his endeavors as Sparty much more difficult, with much trouble balancing that for the recent graduate.

“I think balancing Sparty with personal and academic responsibilities was tricky, and I definitely missed a few family holidays, but I wouldn’t change that”, Tilley added.

However, Tilley is one of many people to wear the suit, all with vastly different experiences while doing so. According to The State News, only three women have ever dressed up as Sparty in the long, storied history of the mascot. One of these women, Nicole Niemiec, wore the suit from 2015 until 2018, when upon graduating, her Spartan-sized secret was outed.

Niemiec is only five-foot-eight, three inches short of the usual Michigan State height requirement for Sparty. This never discouraged Niemiec, who emphasized the competitiveness and secrecy of such an important job for MSU.

“What I can say is that there are multiple rounds of interviews that analyze your overall fit within the Sparty mascot program. The Sparty mascot program is always representing Michigan State University and your time spent outside the suit is just as important as your time in the suit”, said Niemiec.

Like Tilley’s experience wearing the costume, Niemiec’s time as Sparty came full of surprises, especially to herself; as she looks back fondly on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, she has no regrets about the way things unfolded.

“1 MILLION PERCENT I would do it again. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Niemiec did not understate her realization of the impact Sparty has on the Michigan State community, which is something that surprised her during her experience as the woman behind the suit.

“I did not expect how often I would give people the feeling of joy, and an average college kid like me could be such a source of happiness or inspiration for so many people. There are so many instances where you interact with a small child or a die-hard MSU fan, where you can feel that you made their day. Some of the best hugs I have ever received were as Sparty”, Niemiec added.

As Tilley and Niemiec, Jacob Rau, a kinesiology student from Flushing, Michigan, who graduated in December of 2022, also got to masquerade as Sparty. He has quite an interesting experience himself.

“Once I got to campus I remember seeing an advertisement for Sparty tryouts in my dorm lobby”, Rau told the Davison Index. “My sister told me I should look into doing it, and a couple of weeks went by and I decided to try out.”

According to the Davison Index, Rau performed as Sparty for over 300 games and events during his time at MSU, although he did more as Sparty outside of athletics.

Rau also mentioned wanting to create his own character and identity as Sparty.

“Sparty has his own personality, but each person that portrays him has their own take and brings their own flavor”, Rau told the Davison Index.

All three of these students had different experiences and takeaways throughout their time as one of the NCAA’s most revered student mascots. Not many students get the opportunity to participate in something like this, ao all three of them tried to make the most of every second spent in the incredibly large Spartan suit. According to the Detroit Free Press, the identity of the first-ever Sparty from 1989 was revealed as Dave Russell. From Rusell to Tilley and Hunter, the story of Sparty has stayed strong and more chapters will continue the incredible story of Sparty.

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