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10 Questions With The Nittany Lion Zach Sowa

The identity behind the Nittany Lion mascot was unveiled to be senior cybersecurity analytics and operations major Zach Sowa during the Rutgers game last Saturday.

Sowa, a Camp Hill native, is the only Nittany Lion in history to don the mask and scarf as the Symbol of Our Best for three football seasons.

We sat down with Sowa to look back on his experience and favorite moments during his record tenure as the Nittany Lion.

Onward State: How did you become interested in being the Lion? Did you come to Penn State with dreams of becoming the Lion?

Sowa: I actually became interested in becoming the Lion by watching the Lion as a kid. I grew up going to Penn State games, and I always thought the Lion was the coolest thing ever. When I made my decision to come to Penn State, I was made aware that any student could try out to be the Lion. So at that point, I decided that before I graduated I would try out to be the Lion — of course — never even really considering the possibility that I could be selected.

OS: What was did the process of becoming a Big Ten mascot entail?

Sowa: Big Ten mascots all have very different tryout processes — as they should. The Nittany Lion specifically has a tryout process that is approximately one month long and has three stages. There is an application meant mostly to ensure that you’re a strong student, devoted fan, and creative thinker. Next is an interview where your interpersonal skills are tested and you get to showcase your personality human-to-human. As the “Symbol of Our Best” you are expected to represent that standard both inside and out of costume.

And finally, there is an audition where you bring a self-prepared skit, show off the 50 one-armed pushups you have trained hard for, showcase your humor and clever thinking in an improv section, and your rhythm by playing the cowbell. Ultimately, the candidate who has the strongest overall performance — not just in the audition — is the one who gets selected to carry on the great tradition of the Nittany Lion.

OS: Did you have any prior athletic experience that helped prepare for the tryouts?

Sowa: In high school I played a few sports. My primary was basketball, but I even dove for a year. My best friend was a world-class diver at the time and he convinced me to do it. I would attribute most of my (fairly limited) acrobatic abilities to that. During that dive season, he taught me a standing backflip and that was the extent of my abilities going into the tryout.

OS: How long did it take to master the art of the one-handed pushup? Were you able to master it with both your left and right hand?

Sowa: Tough question. I’m still not sure I’ve MASTERED it. I will tell you I was able to train for 50 in approximately a month though. Interestingly enough, once you get the proper technique — it’s different for everyone — you’re actually able to pump them out pretty easily assuming you’re already good at regular pushups. In regards to my left, unfortunately no. I definitely never gave my left arm enough love. He would only see action when the scores started getting absurd and I would have to go from right to left back to right. I don’t think I could do 50 straight on my left even after three years.

OS: What is your one-handed push-up personal best?

Sowa: IDAHO. BY A MILE. Total those bad boys up — total score after each touchdown — and you’ll understand why by the end I was on my knees.

OS: What was your favorite city you got to travel to during your time as Lion? 

Sowa: That’s so tough. I’ve been so many incredible and sometimes unique places and I have enjoyed my experiences for various reasons at each. I’m actually going to say Chicago was my favorite though. I’ve been there countless times by now (the Big Ten is headquartered there), and I’m really just in love with the deep dish pizza

OS: Was there an important piece of advice you received from a former Nittany Lion that stuck with you?

Sowa: The most important thing that was stressed to me by my predecessor Jack Davis is that it was my responsibility to act as the “Symbol of Our Best” not only while I was in costume, but in my everyday life as well. That’s an unbelievably tough burden to undertake, but I truly have been doing my best (however imperfect).

OS: What was your favorite Nittany Lion fit (and why was it the overalls)?

Sowa: I love the scarf. No matter what anyone thinks, that is my favorite. It’s apparently a hot take, but it absolutely shouldn’t be. The Lion is an extremely traditional mascot — it’s tough to tell the 2019 costume from the 1980 costume — and the scarf is part of that traditional charm.

Okay now that I’ve made my statement… Overalls were incredible mostly because all the male cheerleaders wore them, and we looked GOOD. But to be honest, I’ve worked in a lot of awesome costumes. From space suits to “Cardi B” to my very first skit where I made four dancing dummies attached to me, it’s been a wild ride through the fashion world.

OS: I’ve heard you went to high school with Pitt’s mascot. Were you two friends back then and do you keep in touch/trade industry secrets with each other?

Sowa: The story is actually funnier than most people know! Most people don’t realize how rare Penn State is in actually having ONE student play the role for everything. Also, people only talk about high school. He also went to my elementary and middle school. So it was quite lucky that my classmate (although he was actually two years older and friends with my brother) got to come to the Pitt-Penn State game, my second football game ever.

What most people don’t know is that my first football game ever was against Akron — and the mascot they brought ALSO happened to be from my elementary, middle, and high schools! Crazy stuff. Apparently my prior schools just breed school spirit. Shoutout St. Theresa and Trinity High School! Anyway, in regards to trade secrets and what not, those are actually shared among more than 1000 mascots nationwide. We all communicate and help each other out. Very close fraternity between all of us. Or FURternity rather. I apologize for the dad joke.

OS: Finally, as per Onward State tradition: If you could be any dinosaur, what would you be and why?

Sowa: I think velociraptors are sick. But thinking more realistically: T-Rex. A strange fact about me is that while I’m quite tall (6’4″) my wingspan is actually quite short and some people shorter than me can often reach higher than me for that reason. So I am a T-Rex because I am large but have tiny arms.

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About the Author

Matthew Ogden

Matthew Ogden is a senior double majoring in Marketing and Journalism. He resides in South Jersey and is the cohost of Onward State's podcast, Podward State, and the blog's preeminent expert on Kanye West. Email him your favorite Spotify playlists to [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @MattOgden98.

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