Members of the Michigan State University marching band are braving below freezing temperatures to take part in "Sparty Watch" — a more than 50-year-old protection scheme devised to fend off attacks on MSU's beloved mascot, The Spartan, in advance of their rivalry football game on Saturday.
It's 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, and 22 degrees. Twenty members of the MSU marching band and color guard are huddled outside in the snow flanking the 9-foot bronze statue.
Students are dressed in calf-length parkas, puffy jackets and stocking caps. Some wear three pairs of socks just to stay warm. They're standing guard so that Sparty isn't defaced by any University of Michigan football fans before the Wolverines and Spartans face off for the 112th time this Saturday.
The tradition is inspired by equal parts of pride and folklore. As legend has it, some mischievous University of Michigan fans defaced The Spartan sometime in the 1960s, painting the statue blue and maize.
Over the years, the attacks have differed. Some involved paint hurled from water balloons; others involved spray paint on the sidewalk. According to The Athletic, there have been six successful paint attacks during "Michigan week," the week leading up to the game.
The block "M" on the University of Michigan's campus has also occasionally been vandalized by rival Spartans.
Members of the MSU band began sitting vigil in the 1960s to keep Sparty untarnished. Now, the nightly watch is run by Kappa Kappa Psi, the co-ed service fraternity affiliated with the MSU marching band.
On any given night, a handful or dozens of marching band members guard the statue. Freshman Gigi Dauphinee plays the mellophone in the band. She grew up hearing tales of Sparty Watch from her Mom, an alumna of MSU.
"When she was here, some Michigan fans came with water balloons full of yellow and blue paint and tried to paint Sparty, but instead turned him green. That's the story that I grew up with and so we're here to protect against that. And I just think that's really cool," Dauphinee said.
She, like most bandmembers gathered around Sparty, was first exposed to the MSU, UofM rivalry when she was a kid.
"Ever since I was in elementary school it was kids on the playground being like, 'Are you a Michigan State fan or a Michigan fan?' And it was always a huge divide," she said. "So, I just think it's so cool being in one of those schools now, growing up in Michigan and being a part of that rivalry."
Ryan Malburg is the president of Kappa Kappa Psi and a baritone section leader.
"Most people think we're crazy. It's definitely bragging rights if anything. We try to stay out. Only a few people end up staying each night. But, you know, it's a great experience. You get to know a lot of people in the band," Malburg said.
Most students leave around midnight but a few stay all night. Lauren Cichocki plays alto saxophone for the band. She's a senior and a seasoned veteran of Sparty Watch.
"My freshman year I found myself out here until six o' clock in the morning. From Thursday night into Friday morning and then I went to class at 8 a.m. And it was just fun. It was just an adventure to say that I did it," Cichocki said.
She heckled bandmate Charles Tucker to stand watch overnight. Before long Tucker caved to the pressure. He wanted the bragging rights.
"So, you know, it'd be nice to say 'Oh, I stayed out 'til midnight,' to all my Michigan friends back at home," he said.
Around midnight, the cluster starts to buzz with excitement before launching into MSU Shadows, harmonies hanging in the cold air.
"MSU, we love thy shadows," the group sings. "When twilight silence falls, Flushing deep and softly paling. O'er Ivy covered halls; Beneath the pines we'll gather. To give our faith so true, Sing our love for Alma Mater. And thy praises, MSU."
For the band mascot guards, the watch is nearly over. Members of ROTC will protect Sparty starting Friday, so band members can rest before the big game.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Sports fans have all kinds of rituals. Take the group keeping watch over the noble-looking bronze Spartan statue from Michigan State University. Abigail Censky of member station WKAR reports.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I wasn't planning on coming back.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Sparty watch.
ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: It's 9:30 at night, 22 degrees, and 20 members of the MSU marching band are huddled outside in the snow around the 9-foot bronze statue of MSU's beloved mascot. His nickname is Sparty. They're here so that Sparty isn't defaced by any University of Michigan football fans before this Saturday's game between the archrivals. This mascot protection scheme has been going on for more than 50 years.
Freshman Gigi Dauphinee grew up hearing tales of Sparty Watch from her mom.
GIGI DAUPHINEE: When she was here, some Michigan fans came with water balloons full of yellow and blue paint and tried to paint Sparty, but instead turned him green. And so that's the story that I grew up with, and so we're here to, like, protect against that.
CENSKY: Most students leave around midnight, but a few stay all night. Lauren Cichocki is a Sparty Watch veteran.
LAUREN CICHOCKI: My freshman year, I found myself out here until 6 o'clock in the morning from Thursday night into Friday morning. And then I went to class at 8 a.m. And it was just fun. It was an adventure just to say, you know, that I did it.
CENSKY: She encourages bandmate Charles Tucker to stand watch overnight.
CHARLES TUCKER: It'd be nice to say, oh, I stayed out till midnight, to all my Michigan friends back at home.
CENSKY: Around midnight, the cluster starts to buzz with excitement before launching into an MSU song.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) We love thy shadows.
CENSKY: For these mascot guards, the watch is nearly over. Members of ROTC will protect Sparty starting tomorrow so that band members can get rest before the big game.
For NPR News, I'm Abigail Censky.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Beneath the pines we'll gather to give our faith so true. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.