For the past two years I’ve been researching the history of the Nittany Lion mascot — that nameless, ever smiling, sometimes mischievous, always approachable, King of Pushups.
It’s been a wonderful journey — almost magical. And I’ve talked to some truly humble, gifted, and fun-loving former Lions. To a man, they credit being the Lion as one of the most gratifying experiences of their lives.
What is the Lion? It’s memories. Not just for the men who wore the suit, but for the many thousands of fans and alumni who have enjoyed the Lion over the years. When people come to Beaver Stadium or the Bryce Jordan Center they are entertained by the mascot’s antics. Most of those antics have been essentially the same for 70 years, but each new Lion brings a personal touch to the role.
There are few people who remember their specific Lion — the one who was active when they went to Penn State — so each new Lion becomes their Lion. Each mascot leads the pep band, crowd surfs, makes mid-court shots, dances, and leads the deafening “We ARE… Penn STATE!” Each one struts the field or court, each one does the impossible one-arm pushups.
Dave Dailey (’82-’84) recalls, “I lived in great mortal fear that I wouldn’t be able to live up to the standards. So if there was ever a day I didn’t feel like working out I would remember what was at stake. And I would do pushups every night. …at the beginning of the week I would do a thousand one-arm pushups, then I’d taper down as the week went on.” Ricky Williams (’93-’95) did 385 during one game in 1994. He had the honor of being the mascot during one of Penn State’s highest scoring seasons. “They were actually fun,” he laughs.
But each one also takes his game off the field, off the court, and visits Alumni gatherings, College and Departmental celebrations, graduations, and fundraisers. The lion can go to 250-300 events each school year, and must maintain a 3.0 GPA to keep the scholarship. (I’ll tell you that story in another posting.) And each mascot I’ve talked with says that the most meaningful experiences they’ve had was their work with kids.
They’ve visited hospitals and schools, walked with families to raise money for autism research, and danced at THON. Their pictures with kids are heartwarming, and their stories are the same. The memories of those interactions with kids almost always bring a pause, maybe a catch in the throat, and the expression, “That’s what it all about — the kids.”
Especially THON — the Penn State Dance Marathon. As Marty Duff (’98-’00) explains:
“But working with children, and working with the student body was just such a different event than any of the athletic activities, where these students are dancing forty-eight hours to raise money for children with cancer. You had all these children there. And they just love the Lion. So I remember spending more time in the costume, being drenched with sweat where the muscles were sore because you were so dehydrated. But, at the same time, you were working with children. You were working with the students that had been up for so many hours, that were working tirelessly just to help someone else improve their quality of life, and even sustain their life.
“So, for me, that was one of the most memorable moments. I actually had the opportunity to go down to the Hershey Medical Center and walk the floor where the kids were in the cancer ward. And, for me, that was very personally rewarding. Just seeing a child smile. For me that was one of the most special things. And it didn’t matter where it was.”
There are many great stories the former Lions tell. Might make a great book one of these days. In the meantime, watch for “Heart of the Lion,” a PBS documentary from Penn State Public Broadcasting. It’s coming soon to a Public Television station near you ( as long as you live in central PA…).
For the glory,