MSU students who play 'Sparty' revel in role

Sparty appears at about 600 events annually, including campus functions, weddings and parades

By Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — When Ben Hatala walked into Munn Ice Arena at Michigan State University in 2007, people he didn’t know came up to hug him, posed for pictures and asked for his autograph. He even got a standing ovation.

The hubbub wasn’t for him, though — he was just the guy inside the green gladiator suit of MSU’s iconic mascot, Sparty.

“It was very surreal,” said Hatala, who served as Sparty from 2007-2010. “I went from being myself to being a rock star.”

Besides getting MSU crowds pumped at every sporting event, Sparty appears at about 600 events annually, including campus functions, weddings, parades, alumni gatherings, charity events and golf outings.

During the 23 years that Sparty has been the face of MSU, he has become a three-time college mascot national champion and evolved into an iconic brand that some say offers immeasurable benefits to the university.

And the position is open, as the university seeks a new student to become the symbol of Spartan spirit.

“Sparty has become the most recognizable face of Michigan State University,” said Dan DiMaggio, director of the Student Alumni Foundation, which runs the Sparty program. “We take pride in him embodying all the values we have here at the university: hardworking, humble, always there for you.

“Sparty walks in the room, and you feel like he’s part of the family. Everyone is happy to see him.”

At a recent meeting outside the Student Alumni Foundation office on campus, 10 students gathered to learn how they could be the next Sparty.

Jason Unold, co-director of the Sparty program, told them they must write an essay, reveal their grades and get ready for an unimaginable experience. During the audition, the applicants present a two-minute skit capturing Sparty’s essence and respond to situations that the mascot might face. Later, personal interviews are held before the final selection is made.

The tryouts were successful, and a new Sparty recently was chosen, Unold said.

Unold stressed that being Sparty is an enormous voluntary time commitment that sometimes can take almost 40 hours a week but comes with scores of perks: the best seats at sporting events, the chance to meet many fans and athletes, and opportunities for travel out of state.

Although the mascot gets rock star treatment, the student in the costume must remain anonymous.

“Who’s behind Sparty is a secret,” Unold said. “You don’t tell anyone. It would kill the magic.”

About 50 students have been behind Sparty’s mask. Most have been men, but at least one was a woman.

Not getting paid didn’t matter to many of them, since they regarded their work as a labor of love. But the secrecy can be challenging, since the students never show up at tailgate parties or may disappear for several hours.

But after students retire from being Sparty, they can finally tell their tales.

David Sauter, who was Sparty from 1992-1993, loves recounting how he shook the hand of former President George H.W. Bush and hugged first lady Barbara Bush when they arrived at the Capital City Airport for the 1992 presidential debate at MSU.

“When I met the president, I said, ‘Hi. Nice to meet you. This is my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet you. Thanks for coming to Michigan State,’” Sauter said.

“I talked in the costume, which you are not supposed to do. But it’s the president of the United States! I was going to seize the moment.”

The role also has created a small fraternity of alumni who stay in touch regularly and get together for reunions. Many are still best friends.

“It’s a small group of people that we can’t really talk about our experiences when we are in the suit, so we become very close,” said Austin Krusec, who was Sparty from 2006 to 2007.

Clad in his green armor, Sparty is a tough guy who high-fives the guys, flirts with women and poses for pictures with anyone who asks. The mascot also is known to be tender with sick children in the hospital and the life of a party.

For the nuptials of his son and daughter-in-law, Jim Krystoff and his wife, Lori, decided to hire Sparty to come to the reception since the couple graduated from MSU and are huge fans.

After the dinner and traditional dances, MSU’s fight song was played as Sparty waltzed in, dressed in a tux.

“People were screaming,” said Krystoff, a Novi resident. “He danced with the bride and danced with anyone who wanted to dance with him. . I don’t think a lot of people will forget (the wedding).”

There are a handful of mascots at Michigan universities, including Western Michigan, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Albion College.

The rest don’t have mascots, including the University of Michigan, which believes it is unnecessary.

Even though U-M athletic director Dave Brandon raised the mascot issue in 2011, it has been put aside for now.

That is unfortunate, especially the rationale for not having one, said Jeff Nemeth, a Sparty mascot from 1995 to 1997.

“It’s important in life to have a sense of humor about what you do and about yourself, and not take yourself too seriously,” said Nemeth, whose grandmother, father and brother went to MSU.

There was an attempt to create a mascot for U-M a few years ago by the students who don the Sparty costume. During the annual U-M vs. MSU game, Sparty took the unauthorized Wolverine mascot onto the field and beat it during the entire game, Nemeth said. U-M officials asked the Sparty group not to do it again.

“It’s probably not in the best taste to create a mascot for a school without permission,” said Nemeth. “But in a rivalry, it’s all part of the fun.”

Sparty can be rented — for a fee. Costs for Sparty appearances can range from $50 for a nonprofit visit to $200 for an on-campus event to $450 for a wedding. All money raised goes back into the program.

Mascots can bring enormous benefits to a university, said Darren Rovell, an ESPN sports reporter and former high school mascot in Roslyn, N.Y.

It’s hard to put a figure on it, but Sparty is among the nation’s most professional-looking mascots, Rovell said. His worth is intangible, he added.

“Athletes come and go,” Rovell said. “People cheer for the jersey. That’s the value of college athletics. Sparty is the ultimate player. He is always there through time.”