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10 Questions With Nittany Lion Michael McDermott

You know him, and you love him. The Nittany Lion is as vital to the essence of Penn State as blue and white, Old Main, and the “We Are” chant.

Despite the Nittany Lion’s appearances at every sporting event and most large events on campus, the true identity of the Lion remained a secret up until it was revealed during Penn State football’s matchup against Michigan State this past year.

Michael McDermott, a senior psychology major, is the man behind the mask. The Pennsylvania native has served as the Nittany Lion for all four years of his college career but will soon be taking his final bow as Penn State’s beloved mascot.

We sat down with McDermott to look back on his experience and favorite moments during his time as the Symbol of Our Best.

OS: How did you become interested in being the Lion?

Michael McDermott: When I first got here, I knew the Nittany Lion at the time. His name was Zach Sowa, and he actually graduated from my high school. I had thought like, “Oh, that’s cool, he went to my school. I wonder what that would be like,” but I never gave it like really any thought. And then I saw him downtown the first week of school, and we talked for like two and a half, almost three hours, about our hometown.

At the end of the conversation, he was like, “Hey man, you should try out for the Nittany Lion, my time’s coming to a close.”

I had expressed interest to him when I was a junior going into my senior year of high school. I shot him a DM asking for information, and he told me to call him any time, but I never did because I’m an idiot. But, it ended up working out in the end and he convinced me. And here I am three years later.

OS: What did the process of becoming the mascot entail?

MM: The biggest thing was the 50 one-armed push-ups. That’s the hardest part of the tryout that you kind of have to get through. I didn’t even know where to start with the one-armed push-ups, but Zach gave me some pointers about how to start to build up strength. It was diminishing at first trying to do them, but then they got better as I went on.

Then, I had to come up with a skit for the tryout. I was thinking of a bunch of really broad topics and ended up putting together what I thought would have been a good skit. l also had to learn how to do the cowbell and that rhythm, so I would be tapping my pen on my notebook and desk during classes, just constantly practicing the rhythm.

One of the weirdest ones was probably learning how to do improv because there’s an improv session of the tryout where you pick up an item and try to use it in a way that’s not intended. Just walking around my room, I’d just pick something up and try to find a way to use it in a way that it’s not intended for, and that got the wheels turning. I was able to really start doing it on the go and it became easier and easier.

OS: Out of all the skits and costumes you’ve put on, which ones are your favorite?

MM: I would say for my top three favorite skits… No. 3 would have to be Prince because it was the perfect culmination. I had the idea for a while and knew I wanted to do it in a football game, but I’m not gonna do Prince unless it rains, so I can do “Purple Rain.” It just so happened that looking at the weather for the week, it was like a 50% chance of rain [on Saturday], and I was like, “I’m going for Prince.”

It ended up down-pouring the entire game, especially during my skit. It was Northwestern and Northwestern is purple, and we beat them. So it was this perfect thing.

My second would have to be Bob Ross just because I feel like it was something new that no one really tried. I did part of that Bob Ross skit for my tryout, so it was full circle for me.

Michael Tauriello | Onward State

My favorite one of all time was when I dressed up as Ferris Bueller and danced to “Twist and Shout.” I still get goosebumps thinking about it. That was just so incredible.

OS: What was your favorite event you got to experience during your time as the Lion? 

MM: THON is the greatest thing that I’ve ever got to be part of. THON is over everything that I’ve ever done as the Lion. I got to go to the Rose Bowl, which was a dream come true, in 2021 I won a national championship for mascots, the Outback Bowl, and certain community service events, but nothing beats THON. It’s one of those things that just has a special place in my heart.

OS: How were you able to balance such a big responsibility on top of being a college student and the organizations you were a part of?

MM: It’s extremely difficult. I just have to take things day by day. Yes, I have to schedule events that are two weeks down the road, but I wouldn’t think about it until all of a sudden I got a notification on my phone saying that I had an event in between classes.

Whatever I had to do that day, I would work as hard as I could on that day, and then I’d go to bed and repeat the process.

OS: How were you able to take past Nittany Lion traditions and make them your own?

MM: The Nittany Lion is so iconic at Penn State. Only one person is the mascot. One of the biggest things I would tell anyone that is going to be a new Nittany Lion is that you can’t forget the roots. You can’t forget the story of why the Lion is the mascot. You can’t forget all the other people that were the mascot. You can’t forget the tradition of it, but you can’t be afraid to be a trailblazer with what’s new.

Every Lion does their own thing, but they never forget the roots of what the Lion does. The ear rub, spinning the tail, one-armed push-ups, stuff like that. Then, you add on a twist of more dancing, tumbling, athletic stuff, or skits. I grew up with the Lion in the age of TikTok. So, I had to be a part of that movement in order to keep it relevant, keep it fresh, and keep it new without losing the roots of tradition that has been laid down by past Lions.

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

MM: Being the Lion has opened me up to so many different states. The furthest I had ever gone was North Carolina. Since being the Lion, I’ve gone to so many places like California and Florida. I went to Nashville to film a commercial as the Lion and that was pretty cool. I’m a country guy, so that was a really awesome experience.

OS: Did you form any friendships and connections with the other Big Ten Mascots?

MM: One of my best friends in the mascot community was the Rutgers Sir Henry mascot. We had such a tight bond. It was so awesome being able to see each other when our schools would compete against one another and at the mascot competitions.

OS: What was it like keeping this big of a secret from your friends and the whole school for almost four years?

MM: It started to get fun towards the end, but it was tough at first because I achieved something so monumental in my eyes and it’s so hard not to tell anyone. As I would keep having to go to different events, my friends would ask me where I’m going and I had to come up with believable excuses. The more I had to lead them down a path of misinformation, the funnier it got. I would tell them that I had dance classes and things like that. Once I started getting Athletics merch, I started telling people that I was the cheerleading manager to explain why I had all these free Penn State clothes and accessories.

OS: Per Onward State tradition, if you could be any dinosaur which would you be and why?

MM: I would have to say probably a Brachiosaurus because they’re kind of tall and goofy like me.

This interview has been lightly edited for quality and clarity.

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About the Author

Evan Halfen

Evan Halfen is a sophomore broadcast journalism major from Newark, DE, and is one of Onward State's social media editors. Evan loves all things Penn State, tailgating, being loud, just about any beach, and his puppies, Butterscotch and Wentzy. You can direct all your suggestions, roasts, and jokes to his Instagram: @e.evan.halfen.n or email: [email protected]

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