It's a Saturday night in October. A sea of maroon and gold floods Mountain America Stadium. The student section crawls with animated fans. Surging with adrenaline, Talen Osborn decides this is his chance to do the unthinkable — hop onto the railing and steal the show.
"I thought, 'I could fall, but no one is going to tell me to get down,'" said Osborn, a senior studying economics.
Osborn was right — he wasn't reprimanded for his dangerous stunt. In fact, he was encouraged as the cheers of the crowd echoed through the stands.
That's because Osborn was one of a select few ASU students while he was enrolled at the University who enjoyed such special privileges — as long as he remained in disguise and kept his identity secret.
"When a student looks at the character, they shouldn't think of the person inside," Osborn said. "If you connect a name to the character, it becomes the only thing you see."
No, Osborn is not a superhero, nor is he a part of some ultra secret society. Instead, his character required the performance of a lifetime. He was Sparky, the ubiquitous face of ASU and its athletics department.
"Sparky's the coolest guy in the room," Osborn said. "(Knowing the) name (of the person in the suit) automatically diminishes his reputation because he's the coolest. You can't beat him."
Life as a devil
The idea of being Sparky first popped into Osborn's mind his senior year of high school when his brother, then an ASU cheerleader, brought him to a practice.
"The spirit squad is really close with Sparky, so I remember seeing (Sparky) and thinking, 'That's an opportunity for me,'" Osborn said. "My parents encouraged me to do it, and I already had game-day experience (in high school), but I didn't join until second semester freshman year."
As an "athletic Sparky," Osborn attended sporting events with two major responsibilities: promoting Sun Devil Athletics and hyping up the crowd.
"Our main focus is the student section," he said. "During timeouts and halftime, Sparky will get on the billboard to do promotions. We also have a game script that we stick to."
Osborn said when he wasn't expected to follow this game script, he was free to do whatever he chose as Sparky — with a few limitations.
"You're not allowed to jump from anything crazy, and you're not allowed to bring props unless you have permission," Osborn said. "But there's not really a whole lot Sparky isn’t able to do."
Sparky's stunts, he said, must meet strict standards set by the risk management team to ensure the safety of the mascot — and the student in the suit. "We have to ask, 'What are the safety protocols that need to take place?'" he said. According to Osborn, these protocols primarily mandate what safety equipment is required for particular stunts the actors perform, such as a gymnastics mat for backflips.
Though Osborn isn't experienced in gymnastics, the Sparky retiree is a trained acrobatic dunker and avid wakeboarder, both skills he was allowed to flex as Sparky due to the high level of visibility the suit provided.
"We see through the (suit's) eyes, which a lot of mascots don't," Osborn said. Mascot costumes can also provide visibility through the suit's mouth, neck, nose or body.
"It gives us a lot of flexibility to do tricks," he said. "I'm able to do a lot in the suit."
The birth of a legend
Even though it may be difficult for current Sun Devils to imagine a time when the instantly recognizable Sun Devil wasn't the face of ASU, Sparky — who turns 77 on Nov. 20 — is actually third in the University's lineage of mascots, which spans over a century.
The student body selected the Owl as the school's first sports mascot in 1889. The Owl later became the Bulldog, a trendy mascot that was popular among East Coast schools like Yale and the University of Georgia.
It wasn't until 1946 that students voted to oust the Bulldog and replace it with the now-iconic Sun Devil, partly due to repeated requests run by The State Press. Berk Anthony, a former Disney animator, was tasked with designing Sparky's appearance.
In 1951, Sparky appeared in person for the first time by attending an ASU game, decked out in a satin jumpsuit, pitchfork in hand — a motif that has continued to the present. In fact, Sparky may have even been one of the first costumed sports mascots in history, according to ASU News.
Dick Jacobs, who died in 2020, was the first student to perform as Sparky. As an experienced gymnast, Jacobs would engage in dangerous, now forbidden stunts — including his famous handstands from the goal post — and would often be accompanied by two "Sparkettes," or female student acrobats.
Since then, Sparky has undergone dramatic changes through the years: wardrobe upgrades, facial reconstruction and even a prominent social media presence. The devilish mascot makes over 300 appearances each year and has been known to attend weddings, visit local schools and appear at other special events on request, as long as it won't potentially damage ASU's reputation.
Because Sparky is in such heavy demand, each campus, as well as some of ASU's largest schools and departments, has its own copy of the suit. This allows Sparky to attend events in different places at the drop of a hat, despite the University's attempts to maintain the illusion that only one Sparky exists, according to Osborn.
"The idea is that there’s only one," he said. "(Sparky) has the superhero powers to transport between events. He'll be at a football watch party, and an hour later, he'll be charging the field with the football team in California."
Although ASU intended for the Sun Devil to reference Arizona's blistering climate, some fans have viewed Sparky as offensive and even creepy. In 2020, thousands of fans petitioned for the "Sun Devils" moniker to become the "Sun Angels."
"Anyone with an ounce of Christian belief will have a hard time pledging allegiance to…being loyal to…or spending money with the devil," the petition stated. "With every T-shirt, souvenir and game ticket they sell, they solidify their consent that idolizing the devil is just ﬁne with them."
Nothing has come of the petition, as a majority of fans disagree with the proposed change. But this was not the first time ASU has come under fire for Sparky. In 1987, St. John Paul II, the only pope to have visited Arizona, hosted an evening mass for over 75,000 people at what was then Sun Devil Stadium — under the condition that all Sparky advertising and references at the stadium be covered up.
Maintaining the brand
"He’s really unique," said Jill Andrews, the University’s chief brand officer of Enterprise Brand Strategy and Management. "We hold tightly to tradition because it’s one that’s rare. It's precious, and we want to preserve (Sparky’s image) over time."
Andrews said she oversees the direction and "creative articulation" of the ASU brand, including the instances in which Sparky is used for commercial purposes. She also typically deals with requests to modify the mascot. When making decisions about Sparky's brand, Andrews must often ensure her choice will promote spirit, pride and tradition for ASU.
"You're never going to see Sparky on a grant proposal or academic document because that's not what the logo was intended for," Andrews said. "I've gotten questions like, 'Can you put a lab coat on Sparky?' and 'Can he wear swimming goggles?' I just have to say, 'No, Sparky is great how he is.'"
Anyone outside of Sun Devil Athletics and registered student groups seeking to use photos or icons of the mascot are required to receive approval and are restricted to using Sparky’s likeness only in a way that reflects "tradition and university spirit," according to ASU's brand and marketing guide. Requests to use Sparky for fundraising, research communications and "conveying quality of student, faculty or alumni" will not be approved.
Typically, Andrews responds to requests from staff members or student groups to use Sparky, she said. Requests made by ASU bookstores and vendors to use Sparky for merchandise are filtered by the University's licensing office.
Despite the strict parameters surrounding Sparky's professional brand, Andrews and other representatives who oversee the mascot do not influence his online presence or reputation, she said.
"We don’t closely monitor how (Sparky's) being conveyed on social media," Andrews said. "We're generally not managing the discussion around Sparky himself. We control the usage of the logo, so if Sparky is being used by an external party that is not licensed to do so, we’ll work to dissolve that issue."
Inside the suit
"I told my scholarship advisor that my one goal was to be Sparky by my senior year," said Katelyn Andersen, an ASU alum. "He helped me with that goal and directed me to what people did to become Sparky."
Andersen is one of very few women to perform as Sparky throughout the mascot's lifetime. Prior to tryouts, she recalls feeling intimidated by the lack of women who had donned the devil mask.
"Sparky is usually played by male gymnasts, so I was afraid I wouldn't make the cut," Andersen said. "But at the end of the day, it didn't matter. Anyone can try out (for Sparky)."
Unlike Osborn, Andersen decided to be a community Sparky after injuries she had previously sustained would have kept her from effectively performing as an athletic Sparky.
"I just opted to go for a public relations Sparky," Andersen said. "I mainly took pictures and went to events, which was perfect because I still got to be Sparky without subjecting myself to further injuries."
Andersen's previous experience as her high school's mascot did help her fill her new role as Sparky. But the job surprisingly extended beyond quick photo-ops, as the former student said she had to adjust her mannerisms to match the mascot's manly physique and "lady’s man" reputation.
"He's very masculine, and I am not," Andersen said. "When I first started in the suit, I'd have my mom videotape me at events so I could see where I needed to improve."
For Andersen, the biggest challenge in emulating Sparky’s devilish nature was retraining her naturally feminine stances.
"I noticed that when I was standing, my hip stood out to the side," Andersen said. "It was a big adjustment. I watched videos of previous Sparkys and tried to copy their signature moves. I even trained to walk like Sparky."
Although Andersen had to transform the way she carried herself to immerse herself in Sparky's role, the alum said having multiple Sparkys on the Downtown campus, where she worked, made the job less stressful. "For me, the job wasn’t very draining," Andersen said. "The Downtown campus didn't use Sparky very much, but there's a couple people working on campus (ready to help)."
According to Osborn, Sparkys are paid a $500 stipend per semester and are expected to attend multiple events every week. "It's not that much compared to how many hours we're putting into the program," he said. "But we sign up for events because it's fun and enjoyable."
Those who become the mascot seem to enjoy the tricks and antics they can get up to while donning the suit, and this unique opportunity for playful fun as a maroon and gold Sun Devil often overshadows their long work hours. "Sparky was something I always wanted to do, so I was just happy to be a part of it," Andersen said. "I was grateful to have a little extra (money) here and there."
Andersen said she believes playing Sparky is a unique experience for anyone, but especially for die-hard Sun Devils. "Growing up and going to ASU games with my family, I was there to see the cheerleaders and Sparky," Andersen said. "These are memories I'll always remember because Sparky is so exciting. I hope that I emulated that when I was Sparky, and (I hope I) got kids excited about sports and school (like he did for me)."
Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen
This story is part of The Element Issue, which was released on Nov. 1, 2023. See the entire publication here.