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To be a Sparty

Michigan State University

In 1992, Larry Lage saw a unique job listing in a student newspaper. Then a college sophomore at Michigan State University, he met the listing’s sole hard-and-fast requirement of being a current student between the height of 5’10" and 6’2".

Lage decided to apply…

...to be Sparty.

It’s one of the most exclusive and secretive clubs in the state. One of the hardest positions to attain. One of the most beloved sports mascots in America.

“I’d be a great Sparty,” Lage told his friends, who encouraged him to try out for the gig.

On the day of the audition, Lage considered bailing after waking up groggy from an epic collegiate-level afternoon nap. But his friends persuaded him to push on and endure.

“This isn’t about you!” said Lage’s buddy. “This is about all of us.”

And so he went.

“I had three minutes to do anything I wanted in the costume for a panel of judges,” said Lage. For his routine he chose a refined number he had polished years earlier for a high school talent competition.

“And so I did my beginning routine to Beastie Boys’ ‘Brass Monkey.’”

Lage brought that funky monkey energy to his performance, and made the first brutal cut from 25 aspiring Spartys to six finalists. After an interview with the panel of Sparty alums and alumni association reps, he became one of two Spartys selected for the year.

And he, as with all active Spartys, was sworn to secrecy.

Larry Lage as Sparty
Larry Lage
Larry Lage as Sparty

He was sent away to mascot camp in Wisconsin, communing with other mascot greats such as Brutus the Buckeye, learning the ways of the mascot.

“They would teach that you have to over-exaggerate all of your movements to be as big as possible because you’re in this costume,” said Lage.

The Sparty costume consists of a big head, as with most school mascot costumes. But Lage said that’s where the similarities end. Most mascots essentially wear “pajamas” on their bodies. Meanwhile, Sparty straps on large boots, muscle-bound legs, a Spartan skirt and chest plate, muscle-y arms to match the girth of the legs, gloves and wrist cuffs. Then the Disney-esque head with a massive helmet.

Like Voltron, the pieces assemble as if to lead the universe of mascots.

When Lage donned the plushy muscles and hard chest plate of Sparty, he knew he wasn’t entering Spartan Stadium as a spectator.

“When you're Sparty, you're working, you know. You're there to entertain the crowd. You're not there to watch the game,” said Lage. “And you can't see well.”

Part of Sparty’s job is to go to pep rallies, parades, and other university events that mean interacting with the fans.

“Adults by and large... love Sparty,” said Lage. As for kids? “It’s either wonder and awe, or they’re freaked out.”

Indoctrinating child to Sparty's lore
Laura Weber-Davis
Indoctrinating child to Sparty's lore

Now, Lage is part of a special alumni group; those who were Sparty. There are 66 members of a former-Sparty Facebook page; he meets up with other Spartys for a reunion every five years; and he’s happy to say there have been a few women Spartys beneath the big chin along the way.

Today, Larry Lage is a sports reporter with the Associated Press, and he occasionally faces doubts that he can be an objective journalist during Michigan State games. But he insists he doesn’t care who wins MSU games.

“I root for my [adolescent] son’s teams. When I watch my daughter dance, I cry. When I go cover a game [for work] I do not care who wins,” he said.

But he does care how Sparty performs.

“I want Sparty to represent well.”

You can listen to Lage’s interview with Stateside above to hear more about the mascot experience. This interview was conducted by Laura Weber-Davis, who, as a Michigan State alum, is completely incapable of being objective about Sparty.

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Elizabeth Harlow is an Assistant Producer for Stateside.
Laura is Executive Producer of Stateside. She came to Michigan Public from WDET in Detroit, where she was senior producer on the current events program, Detroit Today.
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