Devilęs Tale

THE FACE BEHIND THE MASCOT

The real life of Sparky the Sun Devil

By Emily Holexa

 

He is one of the most celebrated mascots in the country and was even rated one of the nation’s best mascots in a recent ESPN poll.

 John* was punched in the face as he sauntered down the sidelines, but he held his head high and walked on. He was bigger and better than the intoxicated college student who threw the blow. He shook it off. Later in the game, John again strutted his stuff past opposing fans and the same drunken man again socked him in the face.

On the job, John’s a self-proclaimed bad-ass. But he’s what you would call tough, not violent, so again he shook it off.

He marched along the sidelines a third time and the same spectator punched him yet again. John had a reputation to uphold, so this time he fought back. He dug his pitchfork into the grass, clasped his maroon hands around the perpetrator’s neck and pinned him down until security guards rushed in and escorted the fan out of the game.

That was in Iowa. 

In Oregon, John was crossing the street when a crazed man jumped off his bicycle and attacked him. The man shoved John’s plastic smile and marooned-skin into the pavement— or at least tried to. But John does an average of 1,000 push-ups every week; he made that guy sorry he ever jumped off his bike.

According to John, it’s all in a days work. It’s all for the fans, it’s all for the pride, it’s all for his Sun Devils.


Photo by Aldei GregoireSparky sports a devilish smile as he hands out prizes at a men’s basketball game against the University of Arizona.

We all know John. We cheer him on as he busts out push-ups, touchdown after touchdown on Frank Kush Field. We applaud as he back flips like a superhero across center court. We sport his fiery logo on our sweatshirts and notebooks, and even temporarily tattoo him on our faces during game days. After all, he is ASU’s most celebrated Sun Devil.

Most of us don’t know him as “John,” though; most of us call him Sparky.

We know Sparky because we see him everywhere. He is an icon. Not just on campus or in Tempe, but nationwide. He is one of the most celebrated mascots in the country and was even rated one of the nation’s best mascots in a recent ESPN poll.

Sparky is born
Back in 1897, when ASU was then known as Tempe Normal School, the mascot was The Normals. Two years later, the school toughened up their image by changing the mascot to the Owls of Tempe, and later to the Bulldogs. It wasn’t until 1946 that the student body voted on changing its mascot to the Sun Devils. The school hired Berk Anthony, an employee of Walt Disney, to design the signature symbol of Sparky that is still used today.

After the Sparky symbol had been drawn, it wasn’t until 1951 that he was actually brought to life. The legendary Dick Jacobs was the first ever to wear the costume of Sparky. He wore a costume that was sewn by a cheerleader’s mother and awed fans with his death-defying acrobatic tricks off mattresses and field goalposts.

Because of his functional-sized head (unlike many of today’s mascots who sport huge ones), and flexible red-hot body, Sparky is one of only a handful of college mascots that can still tumble---and that’s something the crowd goes nuts over. Back-handspring after back-tuck after back-layout, Sparky flips across the football field and the roar of the crowd soars higher than when the Sun Devil football team scores a touchdown.

Four Sparkys are better than one
Sparky is John and John is Sparky, but he’s only one of four who wears the mask.

Four: the number of ASU students who suit up in Sparky gear and incognito when garbed in their own street clothes. Only close friends know their secret identities. It’s like Mickey Mouse: his true identity is only for those behind the scenes to know. As for the rest of us, it’s simply not spoken of.

“It’s confidential because of tradition,” said Matt*, one of the four who call themselves Sparky. “Nobody’s supposed to know, [and] that’s just the way it is.”


Photo by Aldei GregoireSparky fires up the crowd at a men’s basketball game against the University of Washington.

The four are ranked in terms of ability and expertise and are numbered accordingly: Sparky No. 1, Sparky No. 2, Sparky No. 3, and Sparky No. 4. Each is a vibrant and headstrong man, both on the job and off. Each overflows with school pride, and each has his own style of showing off that pride when in uniform.

The four include a 20-year-old kinesiology junior, a 20-year-old marketing junior, a 19-year-old business sophomore, and a 19-year-old political science sophomore. One is involved with ASU’s Sports Business Association, one is a Young Democrat, another  involved at ASU’s Newman Center, and yet another gives tours on campus as a Devil’s Advocate. 

John, referred to by insiders as Sparky No.1, has the leading role. It’s a dangerous job. Not only is John attacked by opposing fans at away games, but also suffers physical hardship. Dehydration causes him to vomit at least once during every football game. John will often run into the tunnel during games, take his head off, vomit, and then return to thousands of screaming fans refreshed, at least until nausea hits again.

The other three Sparkys are more or less his understudies; they practice, they’re in the know, and they’re always ready to jump in uniform when their Sun Devils need spirit.

The 5-foot-7-inch, 165-pound former gymnast goes to great lengths to keep himself healthy before hot, rigorous game days, but dehydration is often inevitable in the Arizona heat. His drinks two gallons of water the day before a football game and one gallon just before he runs onto the field for showtime. Even then, John said he has often been hooked up to IV’s by team doctors and loses at least 10 pounds every game in water weight.

Each of the four men endures the torrid temperatures inside the costume. “It’s about 40 degrees hotter inside the costume than the outside temperature,” said John. Add 40 degrees to an Arizona afternoon that can soar past 100 degrees, and Sparky easily becomes a human oven.

Katie Crabtree, an ASU cheerleader, recalls an instance last season when Sparky passed out from heat exhaustion and an ASU cheerleader had to throw on the sweaty costume for the remainder of the game.

Sparky’s duds


Photo by Aldei GregoireSparky celebrates a point during a loss to the University of Arizona at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe.

Companies who make mascot uniforms have recognized the dangers of overheating, especially in climates like Arizona. New changes have been made to costumes including better-ventilated headpieces and glue that won’t melt in hot temperatures.

According to Bonnie Gass, assistant director of marketing and chair administrator of Sparky and the ASU cheer squad, ASU has purchased two new Sparky costumes this year. The $4,000-a-piece costumes complete with a chin strap to keep the head from flying off during stunting and tumbling. Adidas gym shoes for ankle support. John keeps one of the costumes with him at all times and the other is locked up on campus.

Since the Sparky outfit is the crown jewel of mascot costumes, those who wear it make sure nothing happens to it. –I take care of it,– John said. –I Febreeze the head after every game and am able to throw the body in the washing machine.– After sweating profusely during games, John cannot find words to describe the stench of the costume when he takes it off.

Sun Devil dedication
Being a mascot is a dangerous and dirty job.In the case of these four students, being Sparky is something that they all want to do, despite the hardships. They have been Sparky since they were and have been doing since their freshmen. “I think Sparky’s the best mascot ever,” Evan*, or Sparky No.2, said. “Sometimes I don’t want to take the suit off.”

There’s something about being a celebrity one day and anonymous the next that keeps these four coming back game after game, year after year. “I’m in a totally different frame of mind when I’m Sparky,” Evan, a former award-winning high school mascot from Illinois, said. “I feel indestructible, like I can go anywhere and do anything.”

At this year’s ASU v. UA football game, Evan and John traded off the costume and shared the Sparky spotlight. Both had their own gestures and stunts that kept the crowd wanting more, but at the same time, both kept Sparky’s personality alive.

“Sparky’s personality is hardcore and in your face,” Evan said. “He’s big-headed and tough, not goofy like other mascots.”

Mascot fun facts


• The official mascot for University of California Santa Cruz is the banana slug.

• The mascot for Evergreen State College in Washington State is the geoduck, the largest mollusk known. Its biomass in the Puget Sound area is estimated at 500 million pounds.

• The University of Georgia’s mascot, Uga, is a real English bulldog bred from the same line since 1956.

• Mike V, Louisiana State University’s Bengal tiger, lives on campus!

For more fun, test your knowledge about college mascots.

Celebrate the ASU Sun Devil spirit by buying a cap, shirt, jacket, or other Sparky memento.

This bad-boy image is all in the body language, according to Matt, also known as Sparky No. 4. “Sparky dramatically swings his head from side to side,” Matt said. “He’ll stand tough with hands on his hips and walk with a bouncing-strut to his step.”

It’s the “I own you” walk that intimates opposing teams and rallies up our own.

John works tirelessly to fine-tune Sparky’s trademark mannerisms and admits that he’ll often find himself walking or standing like Sparky, even when he’s not in costume. Other gestures that give Sparky his devilish twist are stabbing his pitchfork in the ground, throwing his face into TV cameras, and rousing his arms at screaming fans.

John and Evan first practice their tumbling skills without the costume, then throw it on for dress rehearsals. “It feels 10 times different to tumble in Sparky’s skin,” said 6-feet-2-inch Matt, the tallest Sparky of them all.  Because peripheral vision in the costume is limited, Matt said it’s easy to lose sight of your surroundings when tumbling through the air.

“I bike, run, lift weights, and do push-ups,” said Evan. In high school, Evan said he was never able to tumble, but after trying out for Sparky in March of his freshman year, he landed the supporting role of Sparky No. 2 and has since taught himself tumbling.

Not only does Sparky practice for every home and away football game, and every men’s and women’s basketball games, he prepares daily to take on far more.

Sparky is in demand for weddings, church breakfasts, birthday parties, and satellite business meetings,community appearances, sporting events, pep rallies, and parades. If you’re willing to pay, Sparky is willing to come. “We’re always on call,” Matt said. “It’s a 365-day-a-year commitment.”

“He makes between 250 and 300 appearances in one year,” said Gass.

Over the past year, John donned his Sparky suit and teamed-up with Santa Claus to deliver presents by helicopter to children at a Phoenix charity event. Sparky No. 4 spent his Thursday nights during the fall at Boston’s Restaurant. He was in uniform and pumping up players and fans during coach Dirk Koetter’s radio talk shows. Evan was trampled by preteens when he appeared at an Ahwahtukee middle school early in the year. Students had surpassed their goal in fundraising efforts and an appearance by Sparky was their prize.

No matter what the occasion, the four agree that their role as Sparky is an honor. And while John, Sparky No. 1 for the past two years, receives a tuition waiver and $800 stipend per semester, Sparky No.3 and Sparky No. 4 gladly volunteer their time.

“It’s godlike,” Matt said. “You feel like a god with the suit on because everybody praises you. Whatever you do, the crowd follows, and that’s payment in itself.”

* Names have been changed to protect the identity and traditional confidentiality of Sparky.

 

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