We recently caught up with the man behind the mask of Penn State's mascot.
The Nittany Lion is one of the most well-known mascots in the country. Penn State's mascot is seen on the sidelines doing flips, one-handed pushups, and more. But what about the man behind the mask? Well, for the last two years, Jack Davis, senior at Penn State, has breathed life into the fur-covered mascot. We spoke with Jack about the surprising season Penn State had this year and what some of his favorite memories are of donning the suit.
The Spun: Let's just dive right in here. Have you always dreamed of being the Nittany Lion? And, if so, when did that dream start to become a reality?
JD: I grew up a big Penn State fan. I'm actually a fourth generation Penn Stater, and my mom grew up in State College. But I wouldn't say I always knew I wanted to be the mascot. Like I said I grew up rooting for Penn State, always a big Penn State football fan. When I got [to Penn State] I attended as many games as I could, and I love any sport. I grew up playing football, wrestling, and lacrosse, so I was exposed to pretty much every sport and I appreciate every sport. Penn State isn't just a football school. They excel at women's volleyball, wrestling is a top program in the country, and now even our hockey team is doing really well, they're the No. 3 team in the country. I always saw the Lion and thought "that must be so much fun." But at the same time I never saw myself in that role. Only because I had some assumptions that you had to be a senior cheerleader or a gymnast, and I didn't have those qualifications.
The Spun: So, when did you start to think about becoming the mascot?
JD: My sophomore year, my roommate had a photography project for one of his gen-ed classes and he had to take a photograph of something in motion. So we came to the conclusion that I should try to do a backflip, and he should try to photograph it. So we went up and it was probably less athleticism and more of a lack of regard for my head, I taught myself in 20 minutes off of YouTube videos. A gymnast would say it was pretty awful, but I was able to land the backflip. I guess that was kinda the moment and I came back from that and I thought, "you know I've always seen the Nittany Lion, but it was always this unattainable thing in my head. Let me look into it a little more." And that's when I found out that it was more of an open tryout, and that while cheerleaders do try out, it's open to anyone on campus.
The Spun: Alright, so tell us a little bit about the interview process and what that was like?
JD: It's pretty extensive at Penn State. It's kinda of unique because Penn State only has one person be the mascot. A lot of other people probably don't realize this, but most schools have 5-7 people serve as the mascot and some people even rotate between quarters of a game. It's more of a thorough process. It's not just about finding the most athletic person, or the funniest person in the suit. You have to find someone who will represent the university well and not get into any trouble when they're not in the suit. So the first part is a five-page written essay, where you get five questions and you have to write a page on each. The questions go something like, "What does Penn State mean to you?, "Why did you choose Penn State?" "What differs the lion from other mascots in the country?" So those are some of the questions, just to get a sense of the meaning the person has. After that you have a sit-down interview in person. It's a panel of 12 people that are sitting around tables. The panel consists of the cheerleading coach, marketing, the Lion before you, and then some other people who work for the University, PR or marketing mostly. During the interview they ask behavioral questions, much like you would get for a normal job, perhaps a little more with a Penn State focus. And then like the essay they ask questions like, "What does Penn State mean to you?". And then the third and final round of that process, they can make cuts after each of these rounds, but the final round is an in-person try out.
So when I tried out, I think there were eight people that were a part of the final round. The final round consists of a two-minute skit that's sort of similar to something you would do at a football game. You can put music to it, it can be a dance, or a story. I did a lightsaber fight with a person dressed up as the Ohio State Buckeye. I got someone from one of the dance teams on campus, so he was really good. So you do your two-minute skit, then you do a 45 seconds to a minute of improv where you pick a random object out of a bag and you have to improv with it. And then you do 50 one-handed pushups, because the Nittany Lion does a one-handed pushup after every point [Penn State] scores. Penn State this year put up like 63 on Purdue, so it turns out I had to do a little more than 50, but I guess they think 50 should just about do it.
The Spun: That leads me into my next question. So, the Penn State Nittany Lion can be seen doing flips, one-handed pushups, and all that jazz. What is your workout routine like and how hot does the suit get when you're on the field?
JD: I definitely worked out really hard before the tryouts to be able to get to those one-handed pushups just because that's something you don't normally train for. So I worked out for nine months or so. I didn't want to just do one-handed pushups because I didn't want to be lopsided with a bunch of muscle on the right side of my body and nothing on the left side. So I would do weighted pushups by putting 45-pound weights on my back and doing pushups that way. All variation of pushups. I'd work legs in there as well, again, in an attempt to not look too lopsided. I was probably in the gym six days a week leading up to tryouts. Now it's a little harder to get in there, with classes and fulfilling the current duties, so it's more based around just trying to maintain. My goal during the football season is to get in the gym three or four times a week, just because I'm always thinking about what's coming up. I can't lift legs on Friday if we have a football game on Saturday, so I try to base my workouts around when I'm able to be sore and making sure I'm still fresh for the games.
In regards to your second question, it's very warm. I'll say this, I've never been cold in the suit. I've never had to wear a sweatshirt or anything like that. We played Michigan State [in East Lansing] for the last game of the year last year, so it's pretty cold up there. It was sleeting on us at a night game in Rutgers in November this year, and in both of those games I can say I was sweating pretty hard. So it's probably a combination of no heat escaping and, hopefully, if you're doing a good job, you should be staying pretty active so that makes it warm in there too.
The Spun: The Nittany Lion is most well-known for football games, because that's when you guys have the biggest broadcasts, but when you're not on the sideline for a football game, what else is the Nittany Lion doing?
JD: I would say probably about a third of the events are sporting events. We do all of the men's and women's basketball, wrestling, men's ice hockey, football, and women's volleyball and try to make it out to senior day for all of the other sports. The other two thirds is going to organizations events on campus, whatever those might be. A thing that makes Penn State so special is how involved most people are, so the University really wants to encourage that, and the University tries to get me out to as many of those events as possible. Many of those events are philanthropic in nature, especially Thon, which is a really big fundraiser here supporting families with children who are battling pediatric cancer. So that's how a lot of my time is spent. So yeah, like you said, a lot of people see the football games, but that's a very small percentage. A lot of it is other sporting events and also just other organizations events around campus.
The Spun: Okay, now to some hard-hitting questions. In your two years as the Lion, what is the weirdest interaction you've had while wearing the suit?
JD: There's definitely been a few. I would say one thing that sticks out, and this isn't even a one time thing, it's something that happens a lot. And I think it's something that people don't even realize how weird their request is. People come to me with newborn babies, like three weeks old, and they're trying to ask me to hold it. I've had people almost drop their babies into my hands asking me to hold it. And that's something I usually try to turn down. I'm sure risk management appreciates that. People have no idea who is inside the suit. The person inside the suit has very limited vision. And they're trying to put their very fragile, three-week-old baby into his hands. So that's definitely a weird one that people don't realize how weird that request is.
I'll give you another one. There is this one girl particularly, although I've had a few other people, but there is one girl in particular that is always in the front row for football games. She likes to ask the Nittany Lion on dates, continuously.
One guy had me sign his car, that was interesting. That's just the passion some Penn State fans have. He had a Ford Mustang, with a Penn State paint job, a nice blue stripe and a white car, kinda like the football helmets. He gave me a sharpie, and I was pretty nervous. This was going to be on his car forever, he told me he was going to put a special sealant on it so it stayed there. So I was pretty nervous trying to make that signature good.
The Spun: We have to go back to the girl in the stands. Have you ever used the fact that you're the mascot as a pickup line?
JD: No. No, I definitely have not. The goal is to have it be a secret until the reveal, that we have on senior day. So the last home football game for the Lion, he'll take his head off. I don't really know any other school that does that either, I guess that might be partly related to the fact that we only have one person serving. But, prior to [Senior Day] you definitely try not to tell anybody unless they have to know. Obviously my roommates know that I'm the Lion. But I do not use it as a pickup line.
I have talked to other mascots at other universities and one policy many of them have is it's not an opening line, it's a closing line. So if they have a girl's interest and they really want to take her on a date, that's what they'll use. But the Nittany Lion does not. He keeps that a secret.
The Spun: Have you ever heard anyone else saying that they are Penn State's mascot?
JD: I've had people come up to me, a shocking number, saying they have worn the suit before. So many to the point where I don't believe them because not that many people have worn the suit. But nobody has ever told me they were the Nittany Lion. That would be pretty bad. But I have heard stories of other people claiming to be the Nittany Lion, which I'm fine with because that means people are thinking it's not me, which is the goal. I know some of my roommates practiced doing one-handed pushups, so if I was ever accused of being the Nittany Lion, they could always come in if they needed to and crank out some pushups and convince someone it was them.
The Spun: What was the crowd's reaction when you finally did take off the mask?
JD: That was pretty cool. To be honest, I did not expect the reaction that I got. The Nittany Loin goes to the center of the field before every game and conducts the crowd to get loud and get quiet, so I've had all eyes on me before. So that wasn't unique, but you're always looking through tunnel vision, and I was surprised how different it felt when I took off the mask and was looking without having my peripheral vision cut off and yeah it was a really cool experience. I think it really points to the passion that Penn Staters have for Penn State. It's not just about me as an individual, but rather they just cheer on the mascot because that is the symbol for Penn State and Penn Staters are so passionate about what the university does.
The Spun: So the Nittany Lion is a 2017 Mascot Hall of Fame Nominee. How much would it mean for you to win the award, and how much do you feel like you've contributed to the tradition of the Lion?
JD: When I heard about that, I thought it was awesome. Honestly, it was people in our athletic department and a few PR people that made that happen and put in the application. I didn't do that personally. But, I was really happy to hear that we were on that, because I had heard about the Mascot Hall of Fame opening up. Of course I might be slightly biased, but I thought the Nittany Lion deserved to be in the Hall. It has very little to do with myself, it has everything to do with the guys that came before me. It's really hard to be a good mascot if you don't have that precedent. The Nittany Lion can walk into a room and people will go wild. And they do that because those guys that came before me and set the bar so high and were able to craft the Nittany Lion into a beloved mascot. So it's really on me to carry that tradition, and that precedent that those guys set. I'm just happy that I didn't screw it up and that I was able to carry on that tradition well enough and I was really proud that all those guys hard work and the Penn Staters that support the mascot and allow the Nittany Lion to do what he does because of the spirit that Penn Staters bring. It's really cool and I was happy to see the Lion get recognized. Last time I checked I'm pretty sure we were leading the fan vote so I hope that continues.
The Spun: Penn State surprised people this year and coach Franklin was an AP Coach of the Year nominee. What was it like going to the Big Ten Championship Game and how pumped are you to go to the Rose Bowl?
JD: Yeah, it's been an incredible year. I grew up a Philly sports fan, and we have a reputation of being very passionate, so whenever I'm out there reacting positively to what's going on on the field that's not for show or anything. I'm pretty pumped up when things are going well. Sometimes it's a little bit of a struggle when things aren't going so well, because I have to remain positive and control my emotions and just trust the team. It's been a second-half team so they've made it a little easier to do that. But, it's really been an incredible year. I remember talking to previous Nittany Lions over dinner and they talked about going to the Rose Bowl. And I thought that must have been so cool to go to Penn State and be the mascot when Penn State was going to the Rose Bowl and making it to the Big Ten Championship every year. I couldn't imagine how cool that would be. And to be honest, in my mind we were trending in the right direction, but that wasn't something that was going to realistically happen while I was the Lion. But I was so happy to be a part of Penn State coming back and making a name for themselves again. So the fact that it happened so quickly came as a shock to me. It's been so much fun, it's been incredible. Not only as the Lion, but just as a Penn State fan. To see what this community has gone through and to really persevere, a bunch of people who had nothing to do with all of the atrocities that occurred here, but continued to support all the good things this university did. To see all that good outweigh the negativity in a tangible way, to make the Rose Bowl this year, and win the Big Ten, was really awesome, so it's been a great ride this year.
The Spun: Looking back over your two years, what would you say is your favorite game? And then, finally when all is said and done, what do you think will be you favorite memory?
JD: I'm glad you differentiated that, because a lot of people do assume that your favorite memory would be a game. I would say my favorite game...this year definitely made that a toss up because they put a couple very good wins out there. But my favorite would be the Ohio State game. At the time Ohio State was ranked No. 2 in the country and at the time we were unranked, so this upset was even bigger at the time. And then of course the way it occurred on a blocked kick that was returned for a touchdown when Ohio State was trying to go up by a touchdown, was incredibly dramatic. It was a whiteout game and you grow up, and if you know one thing about Penn State and their home crowd and the one thing that gets that national attention is the whiteout game. So to get to experience the whiteout game, against Ohio State, in Beaver Stadium, as the mascot it's a dream really. And to see the way that all unfolded and the success we continued to have. It was awesome of course to beat Michigan State on our home field and win the Big Ten East, which going into the day we needed a few things to fall our way and it happened. And then the Big Ten Championship was incredible as well, but just because of the atmosphere of the whiteout and the dramatic way that occurred I don't think anything can top that game.
My favorite thing in general about being the Lion is seeing the way kid's eyes light up when they just see the Nittany Lion. You don't even have to be doing anything, but it really captures their attention. Unless they're terrified of the Lion, they generally love the Lion and get so excited. Taking that to Thon, which is a 46-hour dance marathon Penn State puts on annually and the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. That occurs in February. That's the last event I'll do as the Lion. I'll hand it over in February, and that also means that was the last new event for me. I had done an entire football season, I had done everything, and the last event that I hadn't done last year that would be a first was Thon. That experience was unmatched because you see these children's faces just light up with joy when they see the Nittany Lion. And in this case, you know what some of these kids have been through and their families, these are all families that have had to battle together as a family against such a terrible disease. To see elation when they see the Nittany Lion mascot and to get to put that in the back of their minds for a little while and just have fun, it's a really meaningful experience that goes beyond any sporting event.
Shoutout to Craig Sager:
JD: A lot of people might not realize this about Craig Sager. He was actually a Big Ten mascot as well. He was the Northwestern Wildcat. He served as their mascot for a while and I think he continued to carry on that kind of personality throughout his career. Whatever position he'd be in he was going to continue to bring that joy to people. And I thought it was really cool to see him do that throughout his life.