Editor's note: Welcome to the fourth installment of "Mascot Memoirs," in which NCAA mascots from around the country relive their fondest memories from behind the mask. Previously, we checked in with Michigan State’s Sparty, Notre Dame's leprechaun and Georgia Tech's Buzz.
When Zakk Otto discovered he shared a moniker with Syracuse’s mascot, he knew his fate was to don a giant orange head.
From 2007 through early 2011, Otto the Orange was played by the entrepreneurship and marketing major, who would also attend graduate school at Syracuse. Outside of class, Otto (as Otto) would perform the famous head spins and somersaults the playful mascot is known for.
As the Cuse gets ready to tip off against No. 1 Louisville on Saturday, here are some of Otto’s favorite Otto moments.
• Date: Dec. 30, 2010
• Where: Bronx, N.Y.
• Event: Syracuse defeats Kansas St. 36-34 in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Otto says: "It fell on a huge snowstorm on the East Coast. I was in Indianapolis -- the snowstorm hits and shuts down the airport. I couldn’t drive, flights were canceled, but my coach told me to go. I was lucky to fly first class from Chicago to New York.
"Once I got there, I never had a better experience on field. There was so much orange there. It was unreal. There was a huge pile of snow behind us. I didn’t ask permission, but I ended up getting up on the snow pile and pumping people up. It was a battle at the end, we kept on going back and forth. Delone Carter ran so much."
• Date: Feb. 16, 2008
• Where: Syracuse, N.Y.
• Event: The Orange men's hoops squad upsets No. 8 Georgetown, 77-70.
Otto says: "[After the game], players were getting picked up and I was right in the middle of that. My coach was nervous about the suit -- it isn’t the strongest thing. There’s no padding and it’s a bulbous piece of foam. Otto can’t talk, so I got on my knees and prayed to my coach to stay. Otto communicates by acting out like child, he’s got the personality of a 5- to 6-year-old. That was my first year on the team. I didn’t want to get the suit injured but started to become bold to try new things. I would give players hugs. During the national anthem, I’d walk over to the end of the line and a player would put his arm up on top of my head and lean on me. One player once asked, 'Is that your head? Am I on your face?' I believe it was Wes Johnson."
• Date: Sept. 5, 2009
• Where: Syracuse, N.Y.
• Event: Minnesota defeats Syracuse in overtime, 23-20.
Otto says: "It was [former Syracuse head coach] Doug Marrone’s first game and we lost by a field goal. I actually wrote down how many people were there: 48,617 fans, the fourth-largest opening day crowd in SU history. It was the dawn of new era. Normally when I’m in the suit, people pay attention [to me] more at the end of the game. But people were caught up in this game. Usually, my goal was to bring the character to life and get involved in crowd. During basketball games, I’m usually being mischievous rather than being a sideline spectator, I end up in the crowd during games, trying to make people laugh. This was a game where people were more interested in the action on the field as opposed to the sideline efforts. We took the role of support and cheering as opposed to what it had been in previous years."
• Date: Fall 2010
• Where: Upstate New York
• Event: Otto visited a special-needs class in a town near Syracuse
Otto says: "Games are about half of what we do. I would do one game a week and maybe two to three outside appearances that were involved with school or community. I was not in character for one experience; I was more of a mentor at that point in my career. We got a request to go to an elementary school for a special-needs class, which had this book they used. In the book, the pictures would tell a story and students would make associations that would help them learn. It was used across the country. But there was a picture of Otto in there, so the school called us and told us it would be great if Otto could come in.
"I called [one of the students who also played Otto] and we piled into my car and drove down. Once he was in that suit and into the classroom, the connection he made was unreal. Teachers were in tears. There was one autistic child whose condition was so severe, he wasn’t able to connect with outside world. But he looked in Otto’s direction and touched him. Teachers couldn’t believe that happened."
• Date: 2008 and 2011
• Where: Disney World
• Event: UCA College Mascot National Championship
Otto says: "There’s an annual national competition held down at Disney World by the Universal Cheerleaders Association. You have to submit a two-minute highlight reel. I went my first year and my last year, though we tried every year. My first year, we placed sixth, and 10th in 2011. You have to put on a minute-and-a–half skit and use 10 props, doing a skit where you tell a story. No pyrotechnics, no rockets. You built or buy what you can use to make a crowd laugh.
"The experience at Disney is always remarkable. You have a collection of the top mascots from across the country all competing for a top position as the UCA champion. The top four get a paid bid and the remaining six are invited to compete. We spend all of December and the first two weeks of January preparing 10 props that are designed to do amazing things on the stage. We did an 'I Love NY' theme the last time we went.
"Emotions are high, the event is intense and the competition is surprisingly fierce. It is a real honor to be invited and even better to win. I was in suit for this performance and I had two of my teammates on the stage to set up and clean up. I will never forget the feeling. I was standing behind the curtain just off stage and my heart was racing. I knew that one false move could make or break the performance and I didn’t want to let the team down. The minute and a half leading up to the performance was the longest I have ever experienced. To this day, I don't even remember performing. It was such a blur. All I remember is the bright light, going through the motions, talking myself through the performance and breathing once it was finally done. It was awesome.
"Once the event was over, my five-person team and I got to play in the parks for the rest of the weekend. It is quite possibly the best team-building event that I have ever been a part of."