We tailed six super students for one weekend at the top mascot training program in the country to discover: What does it take to be Purdue Pete?
The mascots are a rowdy bunch. Outgoing, goofy pranksters, they are constantly laughing and joking with one another. They act pretty much exactly how you’d expect a mascot to act. The antics come naturally for Nick Sprecher, a first-year Pete from Pittsboro, Indiana. “I’ve always been an energetic, whimsical guy,” he says. “I like to bring the juice to every environment. If it’s dead, I liven things up. That’s just my personality.”
Personality is a big part of playing Pete, but it takes more than slapping on a costume and acting silly. At Pete tryouts, Pete alums assist Steve Solberg, spirit coordinator and head cheer coach, in evaluating students on physical fitness as much as character performance. The Petes work out in the weight room with a strength coach three times a week. They also receive some of the same perks as any other athlete, such as access to the Brees Academic Performance Center, tutoring, nutrition station, travel expenses to basketball and football games, and hundreds of dollars worth of Nike gear. They are the ultimate Purdue ambassadors, but unlike athletes, the Petes remain relatively unknown during their mascot career. They don’t mind.
“Friends and family can tell when it’s me by my dance moves,” says Kevin Wissler, a third-year Pete from Indianapolis, Indiana. “But I don’t broadcast the fact that I am Pete. It adds to the effect when nobody in the stands knows. I want them to see Purdue Pete, not me.”
Although he views the mascot he portrays as a different character with its own traits and characteristics, there are times when Wissler, a Boilermaker since birth, isn’t able to separate himself from Pete. His own reactions to victory and defeat shine through the suit. “When Pete acts really happy, or really disappointed, that is genuine emotion that comes from me,” he says. “The guy on the inside, behind the mask, is so passionate about Purdue sports and the school itself.”
As a veteran Pete, Wissler has seniority that places him in the position of role model for the others, particularly the rookies. It’s not a charge he takes lightly. Each time another Pete suits up during camp, Wissler is observing the performance and taking mental notes, ready to review what went well and what could have gone better. It can take a year to really feel the suit and become Pete, he says. Attending camp helps to fast track the process, which is why the rookies are given plenty of opportunities to suit up. It’s the creative feedback from other mascots that is the most valuable, although it also can be quite intimidating.
Connor Chambers, a first-year Pete from West Lafayette, was nervous going into a character evaluation session alongside Sprecher with a roomful of veteran mascots critiquing their performances. “Talking to some of the other rookies beforehand, we were all jittery,” he says. “Everyone in that room knew exactly what to look for, and it was more critical than any other crowd I will ever face.”
This trial by fire is just one of the camp experiences that bond the mascots in a solidarity that supersedes school rivalries. The Petes don’t hesitate to offer assistance carrying the heavy case containing the University of Arkansas’s nine-foot-tall inflatable Boss Hog. Another Pete pauses to adjust Hink’s collar before the Butler Bulldog steps outside for a community appearance. For the Petes, these actions are merely an extension of the care and support that stems from the 60-year brotherhood of men who have borne the university’s most famous face.
“It’s like belonging to your own separate fraternity on campus,” says Wissler. “It’s a very unique bond that we share.” Heading into his final year as Pete, Wissler reflects on the mascot moments that have meant the most to him. “One of my favorite events is the Homecoming parade,” he says. “Nothing gives me more goosebumps than to see all the alumni lined up along the street when I go by in my Pete mobile, and the crowd goes nuts. There is nothing more special than that. Everyone loves him. And I love being Pete.”