Being the Nittany Lion is a unique job even in the mascot world


He controlled crowds with his fingertips and sent smiles all across the stadium.

Being the Penn State Nittany Lion is a full-time job with plenty of responsibility – and plenty of fun. Just ask the last person to wear the mask: PSU senior Zach Sowa.

Photo by Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times
Penn State senior Nittany Lion mascot Zach Sowa takes off the lion head to thank the crowd during the game against Rutgers on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.

Sowa took over as the Nittany Lion in the spring of 2017 when he was a freshman. He has spent the last three years as the university’s mascot and most recognizable “face.”

You have seen him at the football games, basketball games and more events than you could imagine. The Nittany Lion’s schedule varies so much during the school year, a “normal week” is hard to define.

“He could have one event that is 15 minutes. Followed by a day with no events. Followed by a day of eight events ranging from like 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.,” Sowa said.

Sowa is set to graduate in May as one of the first students to receive a degree in cybersecurity analytics. He would take a heavier class load in the summer sessions to free up time during the sports seasons to make room for his responsibilities as the Lion.

According to Penn State Spirit Director Curtis White, Sowa had aspirations to work in a three-letter government agency like the FBI or CIA. White said choosing the next Nittany Lion is an important decision that has to include the student’s character outside of the suit. Sowa fit the bill.

“This is the type of kid who is not going to get into trouble, because you are not going to work in the CIA if you get in trouble,” White said.

One of a kind

When other large universities might have multiple people wearing the mascot costume, Penn State gives the job to only one student. It is a Penn State tradition, but it also adds some magic to the mascot.

“We only have one coach James Franklin. Because of that, when James Franklin comes around you’re like ‘Oh my gosh he is actually here!’ I think that same type of thing occurs with the Nittany Lion,” White said.

“Take Brutus at Ohio State for example. He is an incredible gymnast and he does an incredible tumbling pass,” Sowa said. “And you see him a week later and he is a foot shorter. You say ‘hey do that tumbling pass’ and he just shakes his head because he cannot do it.”

The general idea is this: having one student play the Lion adds continuity, consistency and personality to the performance.

Each time you saw the Nittany Lion out and about the last three years, Sowa was the man behind the mask. Being the Nittany Lion also comes with a scholarship that covers in-state tuition, so he received some reward for the work he put in.

Sowa poses with friend and Penn State Mic Man Eric Gaspich. (Photo courtesy Eric Gaspich)

Saying goodbye

Sowa finished his Nittany Lion career at THON which is a Penn State event where students dance for 46 straight hours. The event raised more than $11 million for childhood cancer research.

Sowa teamed up with Penn State Mic Man Eric Gaspich to raise $48,725 – which was the most by any independent dancing duo at the event.

It was Sowa’s last event as the Nittany Lion and now a new student wears the mask. He is Penn State’s 52nd Nittany Lion and he has spent plenty of time quarantined like the rest of us recently. Although, Sowa hopes to leave you with an uplifting message.

“On any given day, I can be really down in the dumps or I could be struggling academically. I could have personal issues that are upsetting.” Sowa said. “But when I go and serve at an event, I put on a costume and I show up into a room. Immediately, almost every face in the room brights up with a smile.”

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