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Nittany Lion and Beaver Stadium Mic Man Bring Energy and Unity to THON as Dancer Couple

by on February 21, 2020 6:04 PM

Zach Sowa and Eric Gaspich are used to spending most of their weekend in the northeastern corner of Penn State’s campus.

As the Penn State Nittany Lion for the last three years and the Beaver Stadium Mic Man, respectively, Sowa and Gaspich said they would often arrive at the stadium at 8 a.m. on football gamedays, no matter the kickoff time. When the game ended, Sowa would hop on a golf cart and ride down Curtin Road to Rec Hall to make it to a Penn State women’s volleyball match before first serve. Gaspich would accompany him in support, even after mic duties were finished. Their day often wouldn’t end until after midnight.

This weekend, they’ll trade their normal 16-hour Saturday for a single 46-hour stretch when they dance in THON as an independent dancer couple.

Two days before they stood alongside their fellow dancers on the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center for the first time, they sat next to each other in a third-floor HUB room discussing their fundraising strategy and how they planned to meet their goal, enthusiastic but seemingly not anxious. Sowa wore a white “7k in Seven Days” shirt. Along the teal walls were rows of white dancer mail packets, neatly organized in cardboard sleeves. Volunteers suffled in and out of the room, adjusting the packets and saying hello to Sowa and Gaspich.

“We’re still grinding hard to get as much money as possible before THON,” Sowa said. “When we were selected as an IDC, our efforts ramped up rather than stopping.”

“We’re so focused on trying to keep on extending the awareness of this cause further and further,” Gaspich said as he scrolled through a text conversation between the two that began at 10 p.m. the night before. They’d been discussing fundraising strategies as they work for THON's mission of supporting the Four Diamonds at Penn State Hershey and its fight against pediatric cancer. “Our biggest preparation is keeping on going.”

Gaspich and Sowa are one of campus’s most recognizable and energetic duos. Their friendship, like so many Penn State friendships, began in their North Halls freshman dorm room. They met when Gaspich helped Sowa and several floor mates with their economics homework. When the problem was solved, Sowa ripped open a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and chugged it in celebration.

“You know the train that people start at a wedding?” Gaspich asked. “We’re the two that get it going, and everybody else is able to latch on and have fun with us.”

Gaspich became the Beaver Stadium Mic Man through his connection with and support of Sowa in the latter’s early days as the Nittany Lion, allowing their energetic similarities to inspire and excite students and fans at the highest level every weekend.

They’ve seen White Out wins, heard Mo Bamba and Humble countless times, and led 117,000 voices in “We Are” chants. But to Gaspich and Sowa, THON remains the pinnacle of all Penn State events.

“What draws me to THON isn’t the atmosphere…I think the White Out atmosphere is the ultimate atmosphere,” Sowa said. “But THON is the ultimate event for the reason of its impact.”

After Sowa experienced his first THON as the Nittany Lion, he decided that his last event dressed as the mascot would be THON 2020. But instead of going about the Lion’s normal THON routine, Sowa knew he wanted to dance, and challenged himself to earn a dancer spot through fundraising as an IDC.

“Who else better to pair it with than my best buddy, the Mic Man, Eric Gaspich?” Sowa said.

The pair wanted to capitalize on the platform and contacts they had generated throughout their collegiate careers to maximize their fundraising contribution to THON. But the journey to their current fundraising total — they had raised 91% of their goal at the time of writing — wasn’t as smooth as they initially expected it would be.

When the pair first began their fundraising efforts, Sowa hadn’t been revealed as the Nittany Lion. They initially reached out to close friends and family. Following the reveal in November, they were able to promote their efforts more publicly. They recently launched the “7k in Seven Days Campaign” in an attempt to maximize the THON total.

“At the end of the day, we want to bring awareness to this cause,” Gaspich said.

“We’re trying to raise more than ever has been raised before, but we would be so happy if five other people did it higher than us,” Sowa added.

“For us not to do great, we’re wasting the platform,” Gaspich said. “We want to share THON with every single person that we can, and we know that we are well equipped to do so.”

Later, as they spoke, the pair interrupted each other with ideas that would further generate donations, excitedly pitching concepts for on-floor antics that could bring attention to the cause.

Though they are intently focused on contributing as much as possible to THON, Gaspich and Sowa’s connection to the cause remains personal.

Gaspich said his own personal experiences helped him relate, in some ways, to the families THON supports. After suffering a severe traumatic brain injury while playing soccer that affected his cognitive and motor abilities, he spent a period of time in the hospital, was forced to miss school while recovering, and had to move during the recovery process.

“My experience is nothing like cancer, and it’s nothing like what these people have gone through,” Gaspich said. “But what I can say is that the experience I’ve had has shown me what it’s like for a kid’s life to be turned upside down.”

He brings this experience, and understanding, to THON in an effort to help and support Four Diamonds children and families.

“I know what it’s like for a family to completely have to change the way that they’re living their lives,” he said. “Really the impact that I know I can have through working with THON is that I can make the experience, even if it’s a tiny bit better, that’s what I want to do.”

For Sowa, this year’s event marks the conclusion of his journey as the Nittany Lion and another chapter in the story of his commitment and connection with THON.

“People ask me very frequently what is your favorite thing to do as the Lion, and they always expect me to say ‘Oh, run out to the center of the stadium and have 110,000 voices at my fingertips at the White Out, because that’s exhilarating to say the least.” Sowa said. “However, my favorite thing about being the Lion is not that, it’s the impact that I can effortlessly have in costume because of the tradition that has really been instilled in the Lion because of the 51 guys before me.”

This tradition of excitement is especially applicable and welcome at THON. Sowa plans to dance in costume for approximately half of the 46 hours. He’s spent about 28 hours at each of the last two THONs.

“I think the Lion has the coolest THON experience of anybody there, potentially rivaled by the kids and their families,” Sowa said. “But I would honestly argue that the kids and their families impact me more than we even impact them.”

Though THON represents Sowa’s final appearance as the Lion and a new chapter in the friendship he shares with Gaspich, its still a weekend that celebrates the sense of unity that their attitude inspires and puts it toward a collective cause.

“Togetherness is the word that really describes THON,” Gaspich said. “Everybody there is together in the cause that they’re fighting for, everybody there is together in spirit, in love…everybody is impacted by cancer, and I think that’s what THON’s about — being there fighting for the cause together.”



Jim Davidson is a Penn State student and Onward State contributor.
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