The Penn State Nittany Lion gains perspective from disabled boy, kudos from fellow mascots

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The Penn State Nittany Lion gains perspective from disabled boy, kudos from fellow mascots

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Zach Sowa removed his head at midfield Saturday at Beaver Stadium, unveiling a view he had never seen before.

Sowa, a Camp Hill native and Trinity graduate, is the Nittany Lion mascot and was being introduced to the crowd during his final appearance in Penn State’s last home game of the season. Even though he had worked more than 20 games here, this was a whole new experience.

“My view in costume is total tunnel vision,” said Sowa. “The opening in the mouth is about the size of an index card, so when I first took off the head Saturday, I was like wow, I can see so much!”

Sowa has seen and experienced a lot in his tenure. As the only three-time mascot in program history, he has been part of countless memorable moments. Three Whiteouts, two bowl games, overtime thrillers, not to mention Saquon Barkley – but Sowa points to a much different moment when recalling his favorite memory.

It was the end of the 2018 Blue-White game. Zach had already spent a full shift in character which ended with the tradition of posing for several hundred photos with fans on-field after the game.

“After the photo session, I was sprinting off the field and I pass this kid in a wheelchair,” said Sowa. “I don’t know what it was, but I stopped dead in my tracks and gave this kid a high-five. I didn’t know what his condition was, but he didn’t have fully formed limbs. On one of his arms, he didn’t even have a hand, he would use two sticks.”

“His face lit up like I’ve never seen before,” said Sowa. “He gave me the biggest high-five he possibly could. He was stoked. Unbelievably excited. I went back to the locker room and started crying, just because I was so honored to have the power to affect someone’s life in that positive a way. I look at that kid with utter admiration. To be that happy with as many things going against him as there are, you just don’t see that. To be part of that was so moving.”

The boy turned out to be Cooper Hostetler, 7 at the time, of Beaver Springs. He was at the game with his mom, Stacey Hostetler, brother Weston, then 9, and some friends. Cooper was born with TAR syndrome, a condition resulting in phocomelia, or a “flipper” limb. He also has arthrogryposis, a condition affecting the joints in the body.

The family was so excited, they forgot to get a photo, so they made their way to the cheerleader locker room and asked if the lion would come back out. Zach was already out of costume and never puts it back on, but in this instance, he did. After a few moments, the Nittany Lion appeared from the locker room and greeted Cooper with a high five, an ear rub and big hug while Stacey snapped photos.

“He (Cooper) always is so happy-go-lucky, said Hostetler. “He loves when he can do things that everyone else does. The fact that Zach met with him and gave him a little bit of attention made him feel so special, but also like a normal kid. We looked at those pictures later and he talked about it the whole way home and he was very happy.”

For most, the story would end there, but Zach was so affected, he got the contact information for Cooper’s mom, and has kept in touch.

“Usually around the holidays we exchange texts asking how things were going and it really meant a lot,” said Hostetler. “Not just because I went to Penn State or he is the Nittany Lion, but as Cooper’s mom. He’s a young adult who didn’t have to take the time to reach out, but he did and that really says a lot about him as a person, not just the Nittany Lion.”

Things you might not know about the Nittany Lion mascot, from Zach Sowa

There is only one Nittany Lion. Penn State is the only Division I school to have one person doing the mascot job.

Zach is the first three-time modern-day Nittany Lion mascot.

He has done between 1,000 and 1,100 events in his career.

In Sowa’s first two games as the Nittany Lion, the visiting mascots from Akron and Pitt were also graduates of Trinity High School and St. Teresa elementary school in New Cumberland. Logan McNally served as Zippy the kangaroo, while Matthew Gregiore was Roc the Panther.

The Nittany Lion does a one-armed push-up for every point PSU scores. Sowa says he could only do one when he won the job. The most he has done in a game was 464 in a 79-7 win over Idaho. “So, I’ll admit on the way to 79, I got on my knees and faked it making the students laugh,” Sowa said.

Because of all the one-arm push-ups, Sowa’s right arm and chest are considerably bigger and harder than his left.

The head is custom fit and is actually a football helmet with the molding on top. The whole costume, when dry is about 15 pounds. It is estimated to be about 30 degrees warmer inside than the outdoor temperature so it is rarely dry. “Super smelly, super heavy and absolutely soaking wet,” said Sowa of the costume after a game. “The heavy and wet are intertwined.”

Zach’s top three rules for mascots:

Never speak while in costume.
Never break character.
Never drink milk beforehand. It will definitely make you sick in the hot costume.

Zach has qualified to compete in the Universal Cheerleading Association mascot competition three years running. Before his time, the lion had not been invited to compete since 2005.

“Every school that is a big school with a strong mascot knows who Zach is because he has built such a strong reputation,” said Curtis White, Spirit Squad head coach. “He’s been ranked a top-10 mascot his entire time. As Penn Staters we know he’s a great mascot, but many people across the country who aren’t Penn Staters, also recognize him as one of the best in the country.”

Zach and his friend Eric Gaspich, the Penn State football Mic Man, are hoping to dance at the 2020 Thon. Here is their website with more information and where you can support them in their efforts.

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