Campus Life

The symbol of our best: Penn State Nittany Lion mascot revealed

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of iConnect, the alumni magazine of the College of Information Sciences and Technology, based on an interview conducted in November 2019.

Spring 2020 graduate Zach Sowa sits on the steps of Old Main for a rare picture of the Nittany Lion mascot out of costume, shortly after his identity was revealed at the 2019 Senior Day football game. Credit: Jordan Ford / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — During his time at Penn State, Zach Sowa was one of the most popular students on campus. Everywhere he went, he was stopped for photos with adoring fans of all ages. His schedule was filled with events and celebrations at which he connected with thousands of members of the Penn State community. And he took center stage in front of 107,000 fans at Beaver Stadium on fall Saturdays.

But despite his fame, for the better part of three years nobody knew who he was. That’s because he held one of Penn State’s best-kept secrets for the majority of his college career.

As the Nittany Lion mascot, Zach has suited up and rallied fans at more than 350 University and community events each year. He recently earned a degree in cybersecurity analytics and operations in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), balancing a heavy course load with one of the most demanding student-mascot schedules in the country. Because unlike at most other Division I schools, Penn State reserves the honor of being the mascot for a single individual.

“That is one of our strongest traditions,” said Zach. “And while the majority of people know that there’s only one student in the role, there are a significant amount of people that assume, just because of how many places the Lion appears, that there’s no way one person does all that.”

But Zach did. Every day, he transformed from a typical college student into the symbol of our best, then back again.

“It very quickly became like flipping a switch,” Zach said. “When I put on the costume I had no urge to talk. I had no urge to act normally. You literally just flip a switch, think like a 5-year-old, and act on everything you think.”

As the Lion, Zach got into character for a variety of events, from early morning ROTC drills to late-night photo shoots with fans after basketball games — and plenty of things in between. While he said that every opportunity to entertain fans is a great one, there is one particular experience that was especially impactful.

“I can’t point to a single greatest moment as being the Lion, but what I’ll tell you is the most emotionally moving that there ever will be is THON,” he said. “There are times when you just knew that your effect meant so much more, and THON was a 46-hour reminder of that.”

He added, “When I put on that costume and put on that persona, I could walk into a room and see so many faces brighten by my presence as the Lion. Just being able to walk into a room and know that you’ve positively affected the lives of that many people is the greatest feeling in t