1989 : Dave Russell, First Modern Day Sparty, Debuts

September 6, 2018 all-day

In 1989, a full-body foam and rubber warrior with bulging muscles, ripped abs and cartoonish face was born — and an unknown engineering student became the first official Sparty. His name was never disclosed.

Thirty years later, we found him.

Dave Russell, 55, a businessman from Hastings who flew to the Final Four in his own company plane, was roaming the concourse of U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis waiting to see the Spartans play on Saturday. He was with two women donning green and white when the Free Press randomly stopped them to conduct fan interviews.

When asked what their ties to MSU were, Russell’s girlfriend, Jennifer Reiter Agard of Muskegon said: “He’s the Original Sparty!”

Russell smiled and shrugged, then shared his story.

In 1989, while working at the athletic ticket office at MSU, university officials approached him about a new mascot gig. A snazzy new mascot outfit had been designed, and MSU needed someone to fill it.

There were no applications. There was no competition. There was just 6-foot-tall Russell, who played basketball with one of the Bring-Back-Sparty committee members.

“They just asked me if I wanted to do it,” Russell recalled. “So that’s how I became Sparty. … Nobody knew.”

After Russell said yes, MSU flew him to Atlanta to be fitted for his new getup, which included a vinyl warrior breastplate, Greek-style skirt and giant head. And boy did he sweat.

Dave Russell, of Hastings, posing in his Sparty outfit for the first time during a fitting in 1989 in Atlanta. (Photo: Dave Russell)

“It was very hot. I’d lose about 10 pounds every time I was in the costume. I really did,” he said, noting he worked through the whole game with refresh breaks in between the quarters.

Then there was the secrecy thing.

Russell couldn’t tell anyone about his Sparty gig for a year, though he couldn’t keep it from his roomates: MSU football punter Josh Butland and kicker John Langloh.

“They knew. I was at every game,” he noted, laughing. “Throughout the whole year we never told anybody outside of us. It was great. Nobody really knew but us.”

And his parents, of course. He still laughs at his dad’s reaction when he told him he was going to be Sparty the mascot.

“He said, ‘What are you going to do with that? How’s that going to help you get a degree?’ ” Russell recalled.

Before he knew it, Russell became a cheerleader. The carefree, electrical engineering student who partied with his football buddies in their East Lansing house —”we just lived on the edge a little” is how he jokingly put it —- went to cheerleading camp.

MSU sent him to Tennessee, where he met up with 121 other college mascots.

“It was a whole different experience,” he said. “They taught you how to be crazy and do your thing.”

On Sept. 6, 1989, it was showtime. Russell, the Original Sparty, made his debut at Spartan Stadium, entering the field in a white, Chevrolet sedan convertible to the raucous roar of cheering fans.

“Let’s hear it for Sparty,” the announcer belted over the intercom. “Welcome Home, Big Guy!’

Sparty helps kids

Russell took it all in, and loved it. He is especially fond of a trip he made to Hawaii for the 1989 Aloha Bowl. He and then-head football coach George Perles went to the Naval Academy Children’s Hospital, where he visited a terminally ill girl who was about 12 years old.

The memory of them walking into her room, he said, still brings tears.

“She just instantly perked up. She sat up in her bed and took pictures with us,” Russell recalled. “That was my most memorable moment. … It was amazing.”

Other than his family and a few friends, Russell hasn’t told many people about his Sparty experience. Though “very proud” that he was the first Sparty, he’s not the boastful type, and he doesn’t want to come off as a bragger: He has his two daughters for that, Paiton, 14, and Paxton, 12.

“They love telling people,” he said, laughing.

Sparty first appeared in 1955 at Jenison Field House as a 6-foot-tall, 60-plus pound papier-mache head, designed by three Theta Xi fraternity brothers.

By the 1956 Rose Bowl Game, the papier-mache head was replaced by a fiberglass version that was 30 pounds lighter. Three decades later, the full-body Sparty emerged.

And since then, Sparty has earned bragging rights. He has been voted the best Big Ten mascot by ESPN, crowned the national champion mascot three times by the Universal Cheer Association, and named the “Buffest Mascot” by Muscle and Fitness Magazine.

‘Jud changed my life’

MSU officials confirmed for the Free Press that university records show that Dave Russell, an engineering student and 1993 graduate, was in fact the Original Sparty.

Since graduating from MSU, Russell has never used his engineering degree, but has found great success in business. He is president of Hastings Fiberglass, which makes tools that work on live electrical wires and has contracts worldwide. Among his customers is Detroit Edison.

Corporate duties aside, Russell still gets to work the sidelines at Spartan Stadium. He’s the MSU liason, or host, for the officials during football games. He credits this gig to the late, legendary MSU basketball coach Jud Heathcote, whom he met by accident while traveling on spring break.

Russell’s flight had a layover in Dayton, Ohio, where he ran into Heathcote at the airport. The two sat and talked. Heathcote took a liking to him and told him to see him in his office when classes resumed. Heathcote put Russell in charge of ticketing for Spartan Spirits, which is now the Izzone, and selected him to start traveling with the basketball team.

Over time, Russell got connected in the athletic department, which ultimately led to Sparty.

“Jud changed my life,” Russell said.

“When I was in the Sparty costume I didn’t realize what a privilege it was to represent Michigan State,” he said. “Now, I realize what a privilege and blessing it was … I’m very lucky.”

Tracy Baldas, “Secret identity of MSU’s Original Sparty finally revealed after 30 years”, Detroit Free Press, April 9, 2019.