Editor's note: Welcome to the first installment of "Mascot Memoirs," in which NCAA mascots from around the country relive their fondest memories from behind the mask.
With college football in full bore and NCAA hoops about to tip off, it can mean only one thing: Mascot season is upon us.
Of course, one of the top rules of being a mascot is to stay silent, so we haven’t had the pleasure of hearing their tales from the front line -- until now.
For ESPN Playbook's first Mascot Memoirs, meet Ben Hatala. From 2007 to 2010, he proudly rooted on the Michigan State Spartans, playing the role of Sparty. Here are some of his most memorable moments.
• Date: Oct. 27, 2007
• Where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
• Event: Iowa beats Michigan State, 34-27
Ben says: "We were in the opposite end zone, so I had to walk 120 yards to get to the tunnel to get off the field, and we wanted to get out of there. We’re snaking our way through and people are just running and shoving and all sorts of things are getting thrown. Obviously, our players and coach have security staff, but for myself and the other cheerleaders, they don’t really care -- especially me. Being in that suit with the big hands and arms and head, I’m a pretty good target.
"All of a sudden I feel all this weight on my head. Someone actually jumped out of the crowd and onto my back. Fortunately, the security guard was a non-biased fan. I didn’t react in any way, I was so shocked someone landed on me. I just kept moving and got to the tunnel. Your vision is so inhibited, you can barely see your hands from your face."
• Date: April 4-6, 2009
• Where: Ford Field, Detroit
• Event: Michigan State makes 2009 Final Four, loses to North Carolina in championship game
Ben says: “With the automobile [industry] being so down and the crisis that was occurring here, it was a big positive, feel-good story for Michigan State, and being a part of that journey was something I’ll never forget. It was a way for people to forget the job cuts and all the unemployment. Players on the team had families that were directly involved with that, as well.
“We stayed out in Troy, which is 20 miles north of Detroit. We would get driven down to the games downtown. From Troy to Detroit, there were people standing on the side of the road, getting out of their cars while the police escort chauffeured us down. There were signs hanging down from the expressways. I would always be on the front of the bus, standing in the stairwell and waving.”
• Date: Oct. 25, 2008
• Where: The Big House, Ann Arbor, Mich.
• Event: Michigan State beats Michigan, 35-21
Ben says: "It was when they were renovating [The Big House]. They only had a makeshift visitors’ locker rooms and a public restroom in the tunnel. The restroom was less than par. It was a toilet behind a door, with an open area behind it with all the construction and concrete and drywall. It was sufficient, but one of the worst changing rooms I’ve ever been in.
"Then, I was in the tunnel and right outside the Michigan locker room. The first person out was [Michigan coach] Rich Rodriguez. He gave me the evil look, and a 'What the [expletive] are you doing here?' Security had to get between myself and the players.
“We ran into [Michigan OT] Jake Long several times, and he was not a fan of us. He always had a nice comment to share. We did a video game release in New York -- it was right before the EA Sports draft party, and Sparty was on the cover of the Wii version. He was there, and he was saying some rude things then, too.”
• Date: March 21, 2010
• Where: Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, Spokane, Wash.
• Event: Michigan State beats Maryland in 2010 NCAA tournament second round, 85-83
Ben says: "I jumped on the pile with all the players. It all happened so quickly, my natural emotions took over.
"Sparty doesn’t speak, I’m not supposed to be engaging with players or be on the court, but the natural fan in me took over.
"Someone brought it up on ESPN -- when they showed the recaps, one of the anchors [said], 'Even Sparty was in on the fun!' I was right in the mix.
"I knew one of the players pretty well, but I was roommates with one of his close friends. It’s a secret identity, but the player put two and two together when I was on the private team flight, kind of like, ‘How did you get on here?’ We were hugging each other and screaming.”
• Date: Annual
• Where: Sparrow Hospital, Lansing, Mich.
• Event: Children's Miracle Network fundraisers
Ben says: “We’d go to Sparrow Hospital and do a fundraiser each year for the Children’s Miracle Network. There are a lot of different kids there, and some are obviously better than others, but they’re also pretty ill. The ones that can’t even make it to [the event] you go visit in their room, and they’re hooked up with IVs from head to toe. It really puts life into perspective.
"They’re so happy, they start smiling. I have little mementos I’ve kept over the years from those kids. You get down on a knee and hold their hand. The parents are crying, they take pictures. It’s brought me to tears behind the mask.”