Sparty, Unmasked

By | October 10, 2012

Interviews
Sparty, Unmasked: My Secret Life as College Football's Most Famous Mascot

Photo courtesy Ben Hatala

Ben Hatala is a great guy. But to tell you the truth, he wasn’t our first choice for this interview. That’s because when we called up Michigan State University’s Student Alumni Foundation and told them that we wanted to interview Sparty—the current Sparty—they told us we were out of luck because his true identity is a secret. A secret, we said? For real? Yeah, a secret. What about an anonymous phone interview? No dice. But we don’t even have to know his name! Sorry, that information is strictly confidential.

Which brings us back to Ben Hatala, a.k.a. the next best thing. As the most recently retired Sparty, who by virtue of his retirement is no longer required to keep his alter ego a secret, he’s the closest we (and you) can currently get to learning about the secret life of college football’s most famous mascot. Intimate details like what Sparty does when he’s not on duty; why he’s a sucker for weddings; what his costume smells like; and just how big his head is (he’s actually quite proud of that—and with good reason). And as a four-year Sparty veteran, who carried the weight of the Spartan nation every year of his college career, it turned out Ben was more than qualified to tell us all about the proud line of Spartan men who wear the mask.

*      *      *

Ben Hatala, a.k.a. Sparty, with (then) ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews.

Ben Hatala, a.k.a. Sparty, with (then) ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews.

Found Michigan: So, being the guy behind the most famous mascot in college sports: How’d you decide you were gonna take that one on?

Ben: Well, it started back in high school, I guess. I got asked to lead our football team out on the field. You know, I was the guy who carried the big flag and I would get all painted up and all that. And then when I decided to go to Michigan State, people were joking that I was going to become Sparty. And eventually I thought, Hey, you know, that’s not a bad idea. So I started learning more about Sparty during the fall of my freshman year, and helping out the Sparty at the time with the events he was doing. And then I put in my application that spring.

FM: So was there a tryout or something?

Ben: Yeah, it’s actually a whole process. First you have to turn in an application. Then you have to write an essay about why you think you would make a good Sparty. From there, there’s an interview process, and you’re allowed to try on the costume at that point to get an idea of how heavy it is and see if this is really something you want to do. And then there’s a week period where you do the actual tryout—in costume—which is done at the Breslin Center in front of a sort of “fake” or “mock” crowd. They play the fight song and see how you react, and they test you in different scenarios that fans could throw at you. They test your dance moves. Make you do push-ups. All the kinds of general, game-day situations that Sparty gets put into.

FM: Sounds pretty rigorous.

Ben: Yeah, I mean, the suit—it’s like wearing a full-body winter coat in the middle of summer. We’ve actually calculated it, and the whole thing weighs about 30 to 35 pounds. A third of that’s just in the head. And it’s quite warm. It’s about 20 degrees warmer inside the suit than whatever the temperature is outside. The most challenging events were always the first fall football games when it’s like 80 or 90 degrees outside. For Sparty, it’s well over 100. And then you have to run a hundred-yard sprint end zone to end zone with the flag? It’s pretty excruciating, to be honest.

FM: And not to get too intimate, but, uh—does the costume smell?

Ben: (Laughs) Uh, do you know what hockey equipment smells like?

FM: That bad, huh?

Ben: Yeah, we always do our best to keep it smelling as fresh as possible. But honestly, after five minutes at any event, it’s back to the old funk.

FM: And so what is it like to be Sparty? And that’s intended to be a two-parter: What are Sparty’s actual duties? And what’s it like to take on that persona?

“We’ve actually calculated it, and the whole thing weighs about 30 to 35 pounds. A third of that’s just in the head. And it’s quite warm. It’s about 20 degrees warmer inside the suit than whatever the temperature is outside. The most challenging events were always the first fall football games when it’s like 80 or 90 degrees outside. For Sparty, it’s well over 100. And then you have to run a hundred-yard sprint end zone to end zone with the flag? It’s pretty excruciating, to be honest.”

Ben: Well, from a macro level, I always kind of compare it to being a superhero—like being Batman or something. Because once you’re in the suit, people are just drawn to Sparty. They’re trying to touch you or get their picture taken with you. And then once you’re out of the suit, you just go back to being your normal, regular self. So you’re kind of shell-shocked right after you take it off because 30 seconds ago, people were running up to you like you were Brad Pitt. And afterward, it’s just back to being me.

As far as things that Sparty does, it’s like a full-time job with some overtime. Your weekends are dedicated in the school year to football, basketball, hockey, volleyball, soccer, and whatever else Sparty has to do. Sparty actually does a lot of weddings.

FM: Really? Weddings?

Ben: Yeah, you can get Sparty at your wedding, bar mitzvah, birthday party—you name it, we’ve probably done it. Summer’s actually one of the busiest times for Sparty because we’ll go anywhere for a wedding if the person requesting is willing to pay. Last summer, I know Sparty got to go to California for a wedding. Frequently you’re doing multiple weddings on a given night. So your social life can take a hit.

FM: So we have to ask you about this whole secrecy thing—you know, the fact that the identity of the current Sparty is always unknown. What’s the deal with that?

Ben: Well, Sparty, as we currently know him, started back in 1989. And ever since then, they’ve always tried to make it feel like Sparty’s an actual person, a personality—like, say, Mark Dantonio or Tom Izzo. He’s always consistent, he’s always just “Sparty”—not just some guy in a suit who’s “that year’s Sparty.” But it’s very challenging to keep it a complete secret. My close friends, who were guys I’ve known all the way since elementary school—they figured it out because I was always leaving for the game or whatever, and then I wasn’t actually there. But they were my trusted, close friends and they never said a word. And obviously your parents know too. You’ve got to let them know why you’re flying across the country on a Tuesday, you know? But you kind of get good at telling white lies, because you can’t always tell people the truth about where you’re at.

FM: And so once you graduate, is there a passing of the torch to the next Sparty?

Ben: There’s not like a secret meeting or anything. I was involved in the selection of my successor in the spring of my senior year, and from there, you’re there for a couple weeks to help and coach the next Sparty—teach them the tricks of the trade and the kind of mannerisms that you did so that people don’t realize it’s a new person in there. Just to give you an example, one of the traditions is that President Lou Anna Simon would sometimes call Sparty to the microphone. It’s sort of a joke because Sparty isn’t actually allowed to speak. But Sparty would always tap on the microphone—and so if you didn’t tell that to the next guy, he would look pretty dumb when the president called him up to say a few words. So little things like that have to be shared and carried over. And then when you graduate, the tradition is that you’re allowed—if you’d like—to wear the Sparty boots with your cap and gown when you receive your diploma.

Sparty gettin' freaky at a wedding.

Want Sparty at your wedding? If you’re willing to pay for it, Ben says Sparty will pretty much go anywhere. Sparty also does birthdays and bar mitzvahs, though according to MSU’s website, he can only stay at one engagement for two hours. If you need Sparty to pull an all-nighter, you need to make special arrangements.

FM: And did you wear the boots?

Ben: Yeah, I did. And it was kind of funny because my last semester, I was working with several friends on this capstone group project. And the basketball team did well that year. So that meant more travelling for me, and it seemed I could never make any of the group meetings. And they probably thought I was just blowing them off and not pulling my weight. So when I could finally show them, and prove to them the reason I wasn’t always there, they were surprised and kind of let me off the hook.

FM: And I imagine you go through a bit of withdrawal when you finally have to hand back those boots.

Ben: Well, to be honest—at first you don’t. Being Sparty is really tough on your body. It’s actually been nice to be able to put a little weight back on, because being Sparty, you just sweat it all off. Once football season hits, though, and you have to pay for your seats, and you’re sitting in the crowded little bleachers crunched between two people, and you’re no longer on the field enjoying it from that perspective and leading the crowd—there are moments when you miss it. So it’s bittersweet.

FM: Okay, Ben. Let’s close out the interview by getting you back into character. So answer these last couple as Sparty, okay?

Ben: Shoot.

FM: So Sparty, what do you do with your free time when you’re not at a football game or booked solid at weddings?

Sparty: Work out. I’ve gotta make sure my six-pack is in shape and my biceps are huge. People think I use steroids. But the truth is, I’m always at the gym.

FM: Who’s got the better mohawk—you or Mr. T?

Sparty: Mr. T, obviously. ‘Cause mine is actually part of my helmet.

FM: And finally, for being such a macho guy, we can’t help but notice you wear a skirt. What’s underneath—boxers or briefs?

Sparty: Wouldn’t you like to know.

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Ben Hatala graduated—and officially passed on the Sparty boots—in 2010. He remains active with MSU’s mascot program, and still credits his time as Sparty with being the reason he can do 10 one-handed push-ups. 

 

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