PNW Pioneer

Unmasking the fan favorite: Leo the Lion

Matthew+Kiel+%28left%29%2C+freshman+engineering+major%2C+Ruben+Gonzalez+%28left+center%29%2C+freshman%0Acriminal+justice+major%2C+and+Kalina+Ziemlo+%28right%29%2C+freshman+elementary+education+major+hang%0Aout+with+Leo.
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Unmasking the fan favorite: Leo the Lion

Matthew Kiel (left), freshman engineering major, Ruben Gonzalez (left center), freshman
criminal justice major, and Kalina Ziemlo (right), freshman elementary education major hang
out with Leo.

Matthew Kiel (left), freshman engineering major, Ruben Gonzalez (left center), freshman criminal justice major, and Kalina Ziemlo (right), freshman elementary education major hang out with Leo.

Mariah Mendoza

Matthew Kiel (left), freshman engineering major, Ruben Gonzalez (left center), freshman criminal justice major, and Kalina Ziemlo (right), freshman elementary education major hang out with Leo.

Mariah Mendoza

Mariah Mendoza

Matthew Kiel (left), freshman engineering major, Ruben Gonzalez (left center), freshman criminal justice major, and Kalina Ziemlo (right), freshman elementary education major hang out with Leo.

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Over the past couple years, two Hammond students have both shared the limelight of portraying the mascot: Shayla McNeal and Matthew Chodor.

McNeal, junior visual communication major, is the student most likely to be found performing Leo.

“Whenever there are girls’ or boys’ basketball game, volleyball game or some other event going on around campus, 80 percent of the time you’ll catch me in the suit,”she said.

McNeal may be a familiar name for PNW sports fans since she is an active forward on the Purdue Northwest soccer team. After tearing her ACL while competing, she found the bright side of the situation by noting her newly acquired scar had given her Darth Vader leg tattoo the perfect lightsaber mark.

McNeal said she feels like a superstar when she plays Leo.

“I have tons of fans that like to talk and take pictures with me. Sometimes I smile inside the suit, then I have to realize that they can’t see me. I get to interact with the crowd and hype them up all game,” McNeal said.

Dawning the persona in 2016, McNeal decided to portray Leo because of the potential to have fun while making some money on the side. She continues to travel with multiple sporting clubs to help motivate the fans and hopefully the team.

McNeal highlighted the importance of having Leo the Lion as the university’s mascot.

“He gives students, teachers and administration a sense of pride, loyalty and unity. He brings together all diversity groups in our school while bringing us luck and energy 24/7. Whenever Leo is around, he puts smiles on everyone’s faces,” McNeal said.

The other student who plays Leo is Chodor, a basketball superfan with an intended major in sports management, but his major is currently undecided.

Chodor, freshman, always had an interest in mascots ever since childhood.

“I went to a lot of Chicago Bulls games as a kid, and I always had an encounter with Benny the Bull. The way he could get the whole United Center hyped up and jumping is just amazing to me. My inspiration to play Leo stems from watching Benny.”

He began playing the mascot in high school when his sister got him an opportunity to represent Purdue Northwest’s old mascot, the Peregrine. After the Peregrine was retired, Chodor continued his mascot path through Leo the Lion during his senior year of high school.

Since then, he has participated in numerous basketball games, Fall Sports Festivals, and even a Railcats game. He recounts that one of the most memorable experiences he has had as a mascot was being invited to play laser tag after an event. Though Chodor said he’s learned a lot throughout his time, one dream of his remains to one day perform at Midnight Madness.

According to Chodor, his favorite part of being Leo is putting smiles on kids’ faces.

“There are times some kids are afraid of Leo, but I’ll usually run away covering my face, which usually gets a laugh. Anytime I finish up a day as Leo, I always feel so good about myself because of all the smiles that appear amongst the audience. It’s just so much fun to me. I can’t think of a better feeling,” Chodor said.

Chodor said Leo’s significance to Purdue Northwest is a product of unity.

“Having Leo the Lion as the face of the PNW family is just what makes him such an important figure for the university, and I’m lucky enough to act as him, which is amazing to me.”

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