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Penn State Love Stories: A Nittany Lion’s Fairy Tale

When we think about the beloved Nittany Lion mascot, we often forget there’s a face behind the iconic mask. Perhaps a whole life, too.

Between 2017 to 2020, Zach Sowa‘s time in college was dedicated to shaping the Penn State experience for every student, alumni, and Penn State lover. But, during those years, Sowa also found his love interest.

After tirelessly working his charm, Sowa quickly focused on two aspects of his life: serving as the 52nd Nittany Lion and falling in love with Carly Weed.

Penn State is rooted in Sowa’s blood, as his parents met in Happy Valley. He’d always hoped to find a relationship, but time wasn’t in his favor – especially after committing to being the Nittany Lion.

For Weed, she didn’t start off at University Park. Transferring from Clarion University, she spent the final year and a half of her undergraduate schooling at Penn State. In her short time on campus, she would meet a friend, Eric, who brought the two together.

“At the same time our friend was having STATS class with her, he was reporting back to me, ‘Yo, I’ve met this insanely beautiful girl in STATS class. You gotta meet her, you gotta meet her,'” Sowa said.

The spring semester of 2017 was both when Sowa heard of Weed and when he was selected to be the next Nittany Lion mascot. But, Sowa didn’t officially meet Weed until the spring of 2018.

Sowa headed over to Weed’s apartment and met her in person for the first time.

“I didn’t invite him over. It was Eric. Eric was the one to set it all up,” Weed said. “Zach [Sowa] worked very hard to win me over.”

Their first time out was on a double date with none other than Mike the Mailman and his wife. Mike is a Penn State icon and Sowa met him while trying out to become the Nittany Lion. Some would say he’s even more of a legend than the Lion, and Sowa used this as a tactic to take Weed on a date.

The couple has now been together since April 2018. Because the relationship started off after Weed graduated in the fall semester, she was on her way to graduate school in Louisana. Sowa decided they were “going to send it” and attempt a long-distance relationship.

During their time together, Sowa’s final Nittany Lion performance was at THON 2020. Out of all of his Penn State experiences, Sowa said dancing for 46 hours in costume was his best moment. Weed even joined him on the floor.

“I peaked in my last ever event,” Sowa said. “Best event ever was my last event ever.”

The couple continued to maintain a long-distance relationship, even after Sowa popped the question.

Courtesy of Zach Sowa

Sowa’s proposal method was exactly what one would expect from the longest student-performing Nittany Lion.

“I’m big into surprises. I really like surprises. But Carly [Weed] has had a heck of a streak at ruining every surprise I’ve ever tried,” Sowa said. “Being that a proposal is a very important surprise, I was very nervous and wanted to make sure I got this one right.”

Sowa and Weed graduated from different schools in 2020, but the couple knew they wanted to get graduation photos together – even if they were two years late as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sowa planned the photoshoot for August 2022 with Penn State’s spirit team photographer. His intentions were to have the photoshoot act as “graduation photos with another special surprise.”

With Sowa’s family present, all he needed to do was drop to one knee. But, one major component was still needed.

“I wanted it to be extra special, something that not many people can do,” Sowa said. “I not only wanted to do this on campus and surprise Carly with a ring, I wanted to involve something important to me…the Nittany Lion.”

For this to be successful, he told the fewest possible number of people. The new Nittany Lion knew Sowa was proposing just two hours prior. When the time finally came, Sowa gave the ring to the Lion and waited for the best possible moment.

“It took 95 photos for me to work up the courage to do it,” Sowa said.

After the photographer finished up the couple’s Lion Shrine photos, Weed started to walk away. Sowa quickly asked, “hey, what are you doing on September 30?”

“This year?” Weed confusedly asked.

“No. Of 2023,” Sowa said.

That was the Nittany Lion’s cue to hop down from the Lion Shrine and present the ring on one knee, as well as for Sowa to take the ring and follow the lion’s motions. From there, Weed was elated.

“I had no clue he was going to propose to me,” Weed said. “I thought maybe in 2023 he would’ve proposed. I was just shocked. I was crying uncontrollably in all of the pictures.”

Courtesy of Zach Sowa

After a successful and emotional proposal on August 19, the couple was serious about the September 30, 2023, wedding. Weed always wanted a fall wedding, and Sowa wanted to live up to those expectations.

With Sowa being so involved throughout college, some of his best friends still work with Penn State football. When the couple was first engaged, their September wedding date fell on Penn State’s bye week, which was by design. They weren’t the first couple to plan around Penn State Football.

But soon after the couple put a down payment on a wedding venue, Penn State’s schedule changed and September 30 now fell on an away game weekend.

“My heart just sank,” Sowa said. “I was just like, ‘What have I done? Why would I ever trust a schedule?'”

Despite sharing a wedding date with a football game, the couple is ready to tie the knot. Not only has Sowa been fortunate enough to meet so many Penn Staters, but he’s also realized how much everyone has your back “like family.” Sowa and Weed recognize just how much Penn State has shaped their love.

“When I think of Penn State, I think of love. I found the love of my life at Penn State. Everyone there loves what they do, what they study, and they love each other as a community. That emotion is all around [State College],” Weed said. “Everyone just loves being at Penn State.”

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About the Author

Larkin Richards

Larkin is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. The only words that leave her mouth are "yinz" and "dippy eggs." Luckily, her writing has much more substance than that. As a Steelers and Pirates fan, sports can become a hot debate. Share your thoughts on dogs (specifically Boston Terriers) with her at: [email protected]

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