Tradition and THON are two things that Michael McDermott, the Nittany Lion, holds dear. McDermott is a fourth-year psychology student from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. For the past three years, he has been Penn State’s Nittany Lion mascot.
McDermott feels greatly inspired by Zach Sowa, the Nittany Lion before him. Both McDermott and Sowa attended the same high school, and McDermott admired Sowa as a person and the Lion.
“What if I did that?” Mike says he thought during his first year at Penn State when he saw Sowa as the Nittany Lion.
Toward the beginning of his first year, McDermott saw Sowa downtown, and they talked for hours about their families, high school, sports and finally being the Nittany Lion. McDermott questioned whether he would be able to balance Army ROTC with being the Lion. Sowa walked McDermott back to his dorm and advised him to try out. He also advised McDermott to start working on his one-armed push-ups.
Taking Sowa’s advice to heart, McDermott started preparing for his try-out. From then on, he started taking note of how Sowa portrayed the Lion. He devoted his focus to watching the Lion at football games and other events to learn how to be the Lion.
“If I saw the Lion, I would only watch him, and encode some of the little movements that he did,” McDermott says.
The try-out process begins with an application of essential information and deeper questions about what being the Nittany Lion could mean to the applicant. McDermott asked his parents to revise his answers multiple times, wanting to submit the best work possible. Next, a group of selected applicants advances to an interview by a panel of 10 to 12 judges and participate in a physical try-out.
“I thought my interview did really well, and that was kind of the start of the belief,” McDermott says.
Before the physical try-out, he found out that there were only six contenders left, and McDermott could see his dream becoming more attainable.
“I thought to myself, ‘Six? I’m that close?’” McDermott says.
The physical try-out involves putting on the suit and performing a skit. McDermott performed a skit pretending to be Bob Ross making a painting followed by a Napoleon Dynamite bit, which he later performed in Beaver Stadium during a football game. He also demonstrated his crowd involvement abilities.
Next, he picked a random item out of a trash bag without looking and had to improvise a funny action with that item. McDermott selected a frisbee, and he pretended to eat out of it like a plate, pretended it was a baseball base and tossed it at one of the judges. To practice before the try-out, he would pick up random items in his room and try to use them in funny or unique ways.
Finally, he got the job. After shadowing Sowa, McDermott only had the suit himself for a few weeks when the pandemic began. He cites this as a difficult time for him after riding the high of his success in getting the position. Finding out that there would be no March Madness or football season in fall 2020 and few events at all that he could participate in at all made his time as the Lion feel even more limited. For his third year, he was ready to get back to it.
“As soon as I hit junior year, I just hit the ground running,” he says. “I was so excited to be so busy.”
Not only does McDermott attend sometimes multiple events per day as the Lion on top of being a student and participating in Army ROTC, but he also won a National Mascot Championship. Sowa made Nationals all three years of his time as the Lion, and McDermott did as well.
“Zach and I are extremely similar,” he says. “Zach, for me, just being next to me as much as he could when I was the Lion and going through Covid, we talked all the time, and he is just the biggest role model for me.”
“He’s one of the best lions to ever go down in history, so they were big shoes to fill,” he says. “But I have to try to make it mine and looking back so far, I think I can say that I did that.”
On a Penn State football game day, McDermott is in Beaver Stadium three hours prior to the start of the game, already starting his time in the suit. During the game, he dances, entertains, runs on and off the field, crowd-surfs and, of course, does his one-armed push-ups.
“You literally get to act like a three-year-old, but with zero consequences,” McDermott says.
However, the Lion attends more than just football games. McDermott may get up as early as 5 a.m. for Army ROTC, go to multiple classes and attend multiple events per day as the Nittany Lion.
“I expected what I thought the workload was, but what I didn’t expect is what the workload is,” he says.
While some may shy away from hard work, McDermott feels that the job has made him more disciplined than ever. Being busy inspires him to keep going and manage his time to spend more time with his family and expand on hobbies like playing the guitar.
“I’m definitely 10 times more disciplined than I was,” he says. “I love the saying discipline equals freedom.”
Being the Nittany Lion is a completely unique experience. Most university mascots are performed by multiple students sharing the experience, but Penn State’s Nittany Lion suit stays with one student at a time for a three-year term.
“I have such a bond to the suit, that I need it next to me at all times,” he says. “It’s so special.”
On Saturday, Nov. 26, McDermott finally revealed his identity as the Lion in Beaver Stadium for the last home game.
“It was definitely emotional,” he says about the reveal. “I’ve gone through a lot as the Lion. Covid was an emotional time in my life.”
To McDermott, no football game or event compares in meaningfulness to his time participating in THON. He admits that you may hear the Nittany Lion teary-eyed at the event because the cause makes him emotional.
“THON is the most special thing ever,” he says. “And that’ll be one of the greatest things I’ve ever done at Penn State, and it is the greatest thing to ever happen to Penn State.”
McDermott cites the looks on the faces of the families and their kids as something that makes him particularly emotional about THON. Bringing joy to everyone at THON as the Lion is special to him.
“I don’t want people to know it’s me,” he says. “I’m happy enough changing someone’s day by seeing the symbol of our best, the Lion,” he says.
Penn State’s traditions are long-standing and unique, and McDermott says he feels honored to be a part of such important traditions.
“There’s just something about it. When I see the Blue Band, I get goosebumps, when I see the Lion, I get goosebumps, when I see the blue stripes, black shoes, I get goosebumps.” he says. “Penn State is a school that’s very rooted in tradition, and the fact that I’m even a part of that tradition is incredible.”