There’s a lot of hustle and bustle surrounding Friday night high school football games.
There’s the roaring student section, there’s the marching band playing “Hey Baby,” there’s cheerleaders with pompoms swinging in the air, and, of course, there’s the mascot; grooving out along the sidelines, greeting kids, taking pictures, and keeping everybody’s spirits high.
That’s exactly where junior Zach Conner comes in. He has been Emmaus High School’s mascot since the beginning of his sophomore year; and recently unveiled a new uniform at Friday’s football game. His journey all started with his mother, Jennifer Conner, who wanted him to become more involved with his school.
“My mom told me at the end of my freshman year, ‘Zach, you have to get involved in something! The school is way too big for you not to get involved in something,’” Conner said. “And then I saw on Twitter, a job posting, ‘Mascot wanted,’ and then I emailed Mr. Zimmerman, the former Assistant Athletic Director, back and forth behind my parents’ backs. On the second day of [my] sophomore year, he had a meeting with me between third and fourth period, and saying, ‘Zach you got the job, there’s cheer practice tonight, and the cheerleaders would all like to meet you.’”
This, of course, came as a surprise for Conner’s mom.
“[Zach] never said a word [about the mascoting job], ever,” Conner said. “And on the second day of school, [when] Mr. Zimmerman called me and told me that he just met with Zach… I was like ‘What?’ And then I just started to cry.”
When Zach was three, he was diagnosed with autism, and identifies as highly functioning. Despite this, he is not hindered from participating in events with his peers. His mascoting allows him to interact with all kinds of students, in and out of the suit. This hobby provides him opportunities to meet people and make new friends.
“I got invited to several games, cheerleader routines, and did some fundraising for the football and dance teams,” Conner said. “I did a cheer clinic with the future cheerleaders, and I got invited and crashed three graduation parties.”
Conner is open with his friends about his hobby, so some students are aware that it is him underneath his uniform. He often uses social media sites like Instagram and Snapchat to inform others about his mascoting events.
“Since my identity is revealed, [most students] know it’s me,” Conner said. “And when they see the hornet it’s like, ‘Hey, that’s Zach behind the mask,’ and then, ‘Hey, let’s have the hornet over to get some pictures!’”
EHS students have a lot of admiration for Conner, not only as a mascot, but as a friend.
“[Zach is] very fun and outgoing; a very loving kid,” junior Alexa Van Doren said. “I think he makes a really awesome hornet, and he really brings it to light.”
Mascoting has brought up a lot of opportunities for Conner since he started. He has attended a mascoting camp, met the Lehigh Valley Ironpigs’ Ferrous and Fefe, and participated in the Special Olympics at Whitehall High School last May.
Just like other hobbies, being the mascot also has a few downsides. Conner used to have to do his job in an old, poorly ventilated uniform.
“You get hot in this suit,” Conner said. “You know, summertime is a mascot’s worst time of the year because you’re dripping sweat. I learned at camp [some new] ways to combat it. If I get excessively overheated, at an appropriate time I can fake an injury and get one of my handlers [to relieve it.] And you worry about the suit getting damaged.”
With the combined efforts of the entire Conner family and the EHS community, the mascot uniform got a fresh new look. Last spring, a GoFundMe page was started by Jennifer Conner, and many fundraising events were hosted to help fund a new suit. The page started with a goal of $5,000, and last month reached $3,508. The page was updated with a message thanking donors and families, and revealing that the uniform had been replaced.
“We were very touched by the community, and very surprised at how people were wanting a story like this, and wanting to donate toward something like this,” Jennifer said. “They wanted happy, they truly wanted something happy to be. We just want to say thank you.”
In the past, Conner had struggled because of his relationships with his peers.
“Freshman year, it was kind of a crappy year for me… I was struggling to maintain friendships with people,” Conner said.
Having a condition like autism can make any student a target for issues such as bullying. This was not only hard for Conner, but for his family as well. Mascoting has helped create a better life, not just for himself, but for others and his family as well.
“[Zach is] happier, he’s calmer, he’s just kind of chill,” Jennifer said. “His overall demeanor has just changed from ‘Why me? Poor me,’ to ‘This is me, why not me?’ So, it totally shifted not just him, but us as a family. It went from ‘Why us?’ to ‘Thank God this is us.’”
The Hornet’s new uniform, which debuted on Aug. 24 during the halftime show at the football game versus William Allen High School, has some cool new features. The suit has a new stinger, tall antennae, bulky wings, green sneakers, and sport uniform-inspired padding.
During halftime, a hornet’s nest-like structure was wheeled out onto the field and the EHS marching band played along as the old mascot came out of the nest, went back inside, and then reappeared wearing the new suit. The Hornet then performed a dance with the EHS dance team.
Conner plans on remaining the mascot until his senior year. He will continue to liven up the EHS community for the rest of his high school career. As for his family, they couldn’t be prouder of him and his accomplishments.
“I look at [Zach] and I just can’t believe that we’re here- this is our life, that we, as a family, and Zach as the Hornet, can provide a whole lot of happiness to the community,” Jennifer said. “It’s just been a fun, hardworking journey.”
In the end, Conner is happy to provide his mascoting skills to the school.
“[I can] promote school spirit by being the mascot,” Conner said. “Every good school, every good sports team, needs a good mascot.”