The symbol of our best: Penn State Nittany Lion mascot revealed

Jessica Hallman
August 26, 2020

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of iConnect, the alumni magazine of the College of Information Sciences and Technology, based on an interview conducted in November 2019.

Zach Sowa sits on the steps of Old Main while holding the Nittany Lion mascot head.

Spring 2020 graduate Zach Sowa sits on the steps of Old Main for a rare picture of the Nittany Lion mascot out of costume, shortly after his identity was revealed at the 2019 Senior Day football game.

IMAGE: Jordan Ford

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — During his time at Penn State, Zach Sowa was one of the most popular students on campus. Everywhere he went, he was stopped for photos with adoring fans of all ages. His schedule was filled with events and celebrations at which he connected with thousands of members of the Penn State community. And he took center stage in front of 107,000 fans at Beaver Stadium on fall Saturdays.

But despite his fame, for the better part of three years nobody knew who he was. That’s because he held one of Penn State’s best-kept secrets for the majority of his college career.

As the Nittany Lion mascot, Zach has suited up and rallied fans at more than 350 University and community events each year. He recently earned a degree in cybersecurity analytics and operations in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), balancing a heavy course load with one of the most demanding student-mascot schedules in the country. Because unlike at most other Division I schools, Penn State reserves the honor of being the mascot for a single individual.

“That is one of our strongest traditions,” said Zach. “And while the majority of people know that there’s only one student in the role, there are a significant amount of people that assume, just because of how many places the Lion appears, that there’s no way one person does all that.”

But Zach did. Every day, he transformed from a typical college student into the symbol of our best, then back again.

“It very quickly became like flipping a switch,” Zach said. “When I put on the costume I had no urge to talk. I had no urge to act normally. You literally just flip a switch, think like a 5-year-old, and act on everything you think.”

As the Lion, Zach got into character for a variety of events, from early morning ROTC drills to late-night photo shoots with fans after basketball games — and plenty of things in between. While he said that every opportunity to entertain fans is a great one, there is one particular experience that was especially impactful.

“I can’t point to a single greatest moment as being the Lion, but what I’ll tell you is the most emotionally moving that there ever will be is THON,” he said. “There are times when you just knew that your effect meant so much more, and THON was a 46-hour reminder of that.”

“When I put on that costume and put on that persona, I could walk into a room and see so many faces brighten by my presence as the Lion."

— Zach Sowa, Class of 2020 and outgoing Nittany Lion mascot

He added, “When I put on that costume and put on that persona, I could walk into a room and see so many faces brighten by my presence as the Lion. Just being able to walk into a room and know that you’ve positively affected the lives of that many people is the greatest feeling in the world.”

The big secret

The identity of the student inside the suit has historically been kept a secret, until it is revealed when their mask is removed at the last home football game of their final year. As the only student to serve as the Lion for three years, Zach has had to maintain a detailed cover story about his busy schedule for nearly his entire college career.

“My story for all my friends and for people who didn’t know my identity was that I was the spirit team manager and I helped out with equipment and scheduling for the cheerleading and dance team,” he said. “That’s why I was so close with all of them, and it’s why I carried around a big bag sometimes. [I told them] it’s just cheerleading equipment.”

But did people buy it?

“Oh yeah,” said Zach. “It’s actually pretty funny because I hate lying, but when I got this role I realized that I was going to be forced to do it. And the biggest thing that I hate about lying is that you’ll always get caught. You just continue to lie and then your lies overlap and you just dig yourself into a big ditch. But I knew I would have to lie, so I said ‘let’s make one big lie that I know everything about.' ”

Another secretive aspect of being the Lion is managing the costume. Not only did Zach keep it well-hidden in a duffel bag en route to and from events, he was also responsible for washing and drying the suit at the end of each day.

“You get unbelievably sweaty as a mascot, especially during football games,” he said. “I would literally lose 10, sometimes even 15, pounds of sweat.”

With all of that sweat — and all of the Lion’s appearances — Zach says that he averaged doing laundry more than once a day. And, living in an on-campus apartment, he had to stake his claim of the communal laundry room to secretly wash the precious cargo.

“There were a number of times that you can imagine that I was caught,” he said. “There are glass windows, and people check laundry frequently. So there were times when someone would walk in when I was literally holding the costume with the scarf and everything.”

And that’s when he resorted to his well-rehearsed, comprehensive lie.

“I’d say, ‘I’m the spirit team manager. There’s no way the Lion has time to wash the costume. As part of my responsibility, I have to wash it. It’s so disgusting.’ I would just go off about how gross it is and how I hate doing it,” he said.

According to Zach, he got to the point where he could tell anyone everything there is to know about his job as the “spirit team manager” with a straight face.

“If you ask me, it was bulletproof,” he said.

A balancing act

Zach is one of the first graduates of the College of IST’s cybersecurity analytics and operations major, which he said has prepared him well for his career.

“I’m incredibly excited about the skills that I learned in the cyber major,” said Zach. “We’ve gotten a lot of hands-on experience doing malware analysis and machine learning. And we were able to do pen testing, which is rare as an in-class experience.”

Averaging 17 credits while simultaneously serving as the Lion, Zach learned early on in his mascot career that he had to figure out how to balance his time as a student with his time behind the mask.

“The only way to really tackle it is to know your priorities,” he said. “The primary reason I was at Penn State was as a student, getting an education. So whatever I did, I couldn’t let that slip.”

He added, “But I also had the opportunity to serve the University in a very rare and extremely exciting capacity. So I prioritized academics, and otherwise just did whatever it took.”

At IST and across the University, Zach had to keep his identity a secret from most of his instructors and classmates. With his “spirit team manager” job duties, he had to miss quite a bit of class time and has needed flexibility with assignment deadlines. Nonetheless, he stayed on top of his schoolwork, even while filling one of the most prestigious roles at Penn State.

“Most classwork was due on Sundays, and when I was traveling during football season, Friday and Sunday were travel days and Saturdays were filled with game day activities,” he said. “It was really difficult to get work done while traveling. So if I wasn’t ahead, I’d fall behind.”

After graduating this May, Zach is now working as a cyber advisory analyst at Deloitte — one of four job offers he received. He credits his time at the University for helping him to build a solid foundation for career success.

“Penn State is a fantastic name to have on your degree, and the programs at IST are so well-known and respected,” he said. “Between the prestige of the education and the character that comes along with the Penn State values, I’m incredibly proud to have it on my diploma.”

But, Zach says, his work as the Nittany Lion has also played a role in his professional development.

“For a long time I would put the Nittany Lion as the first thing on my résumé, and that was very deliberate because my experience as the Lion has developed me more as a person than anything else in my life,” he said. “Between professional skills of time management and communication, those are things that you would obviously understand are heightened by how much of it I had to do.”

Saying farewell

With his graduation Zach’s tenure as the Nittany Lion has ended, and now a new student is behind the mask, carrying on the tradition. Zach was heavily involved in the selection process for his successor, and is uniquely positioned to ensure that the persona that has been developed over the past 116 years lives on.

“I’d like to thank the 51 people before me who have played the role,” said Zach. “The Lion’s been shaped into this incredible character that I’m the lucky guy who has had the honor of portraying.”

“The Lion’s been shaped into this incredible character that I’m the lucky guy who has had the honor of portraying.”

— Zach Sowa, Class of 2020 and outgoing Nittany Lion mascot

Zach’s final appearance as the Lion was during THON 2020. At THON, as was the case throughout his time on campus, he played a dual role — dancing as himself as part of an independent dancer couple, and entertaining the crowd as the Lion. At the end of that 46-hour stretch, when dancers were given the announcement to sit, Zach, still in costume, plopped down on the stage with bittersweet emotion. It was the end of his era.

“THON was a poetic end to my career as the Lion. My whole career focused around making an impact, and I made my biggest impact ever in THON 2020 by dancing 46 hours and fundraising over $50,000 for the kids — all through the incredible power of the Penn State community.”

Looking back on the last three years as one of the most recognizable mascots in sports, Zach said he would do it all again in a heartbeat.

“Overall, it’s heightened my sense of meaning and purpose for life,” he said.

Last Updated August 28, 2020