Rule Breakers

“I Was Tackled To The Ground By A Grown Man”: My Life As A College Mascot

Behind Sparty’s gladiator getup was Michigan State student Nicole Niemiec.

Nicole Niemiec and Michigan State's mascot, Sparty
Dave May

Nicole Niemiec was a television mainstay while attending Michigan State University. She spent weekends flying around the country for commercial video shoots, attending weddings, and going to strangers’ funerals. Yet for years, nobody knew her true identity.

For three years, Niemiec was Sparty, the Michigan State mascot — and the second-ever woman to don his forest-green armor. As part of the grueling, exclusive few who have served as university mascots, her vow of secrecy was lifted only after she graduated school in 2018.

As college athletics face an uncertain future due to COVID-19, professional mascots raise good-natured hullabaloo in otherwise-empty stadiums, and many teams reckon with historically racist mascots, Niemiec, now 24, talks to Bustle about her time in uniform and the occupational hazards of the job.

On the power of a platform shoe:

"Sparty has a height requirement. You have to be between 5’11” and 6’2”. I don't know a lot [of women] who are 5’11”, but that's part of the character, I guess. I was not, but I went anyway. I tried out my first year and was cut. They told me I was too short. I was devastated.

The trial process itself is super secretive, because a lot of being a mascot is improv. It's all about how you think on your feet.

The entire next year, I followed Sparty. I watched him at events and studied his movements, personality, and how he reacted to situations. I worked out to get stronger. I bought shoes from China [with] 6-inch platforms. I wore them as tennis shoes — I twisted my ankle, but that’s a casualty of the job. But when I tried out the next year, I wore them and used all the knowledge I’d acquired. I got to be Sparty."

On keeping her roommates in the dark:

"You're not allowed to tell anyone. It’s a secret. When people would treat me badly [as Sparty] or say negative things about Sparty, I couldn’t tell anyone besides the association I worked for. I couldn’t go home and be like, ‘Guess what happened today?’"

On the problem with offensive mascots:

"He's more important than some guy you take photos with. He represents the university. If that were to be offensive, you’d have to ask: Is this mascot really representing what [we] are? If so, how does that affect the people you attract?"

On that 40-pound suit:

"You need to be able to do one-armed push-ups. For every home football game, they announce Sparty, and he runs 50 yards, throws a flag in the center of the field, does 10 one-armed push-ups, and then continues to run. That’s our ritual. You [need] the endurance to run the length of a football field with a 40-pound suit. And when women take photos with Sparty, a lot of people will ask, ‘Pick me up!’"

On bearing the brunt of rivalries:

"One time, I was tackled to the ground by a grown man, who was a [University of] Michigan fan. He thought it would be funny to attack Sparty in front of an entire crowd. I was upset. My ego was hurt. I was like, ‘Sparty wouldn't have gone down!’ He would have stood up. I should've been stronger and been able to withstand a 6’4” man.

With any mascot, there’s a hardworking individual underneath that suit, even if you think it’d be funny to take him down."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.