Football Saturdays bring a certain energy and magic to Notre Dame’s campus every fall. As some 80,000 fans filter into Notre Dame Stadium, they await the moment that the team charges onto the field, led by cheerleaders and the Notre Dame leprechaun.
Notre Dame’s mascot is iconic and instantly recognizable. Clad in a bright green jacket, vest, tie and hat, the character poses for countless pictures on any given weekend.
In 2019, the Fighting Irish made waves by welcoming their most diverse cast of leprechauns to date. For this month’s issue, Scholastic explored the history of the Notre Dame mascot, this year’s leprechauns and the response both from outside and within the university.
History of the Mascot
The history of Notre Dame’s mascot sounds more like the beginning of a small zoo than that of a beloved sports icon. While the famous leprechaun logo was drawn in 1964 during Ara Parseghian’s first year of coaching, before this, a bulldog, canary, goat and several terriers each served as the face of Notre Dame.
“With this aggregation of animals, the kangaroo hurdling hedge fences, the goat bucking the line and the dogs doing tricks on the side- lines, Notre Dame should present a terrifying appearance to any antagonist,” a Sept. 22, 1900 South Bend Tribune article read.
In 1924, Notre Dame began heralding terriers as their team’s mascots. Clashmore Mike I, the most well-known of the bunch impressed the crowd with sideline gymnastics. Clashmore was beloved by fans and students for 10 years, running around campus and entertaining at sporting events until his death in September 1945. He was buried in Notre Dame Stadium, according to a Dec. 7, 1945 Scholastic article.
Terriers — prone to running away or getting run over — slowly faded from the university’s history, but the leprechaun of today’s games didn’t make an appearance until 1960. In fact, Notre Dame did not officially become the Fighting Irish until 1927, and were known simply as the Catholics in the 1800s and the Ramblers or the Rovers in the early 1900s.
Today, Notre Dame athletics describes the leprechaun as representing “the tenacious spirit of the Fighting Irish and their determination,” referencing the Irish immigrant soldiers who fought in the Irish Brigade during the Civil War. The brigade’s chaplain, Rev. William Corby, C.S.C., served as the third president of Notre Dame.
Regardless of what animal or name represented Notre Dame, the spirit was the same: relentless in the fight to the top. Years ago, it was goats and terriers leading the way, and now, three leprechauns cheer on the university. Each one has their own background and strengths to bring to the Notre Dame community.
Sam Jackson, a senior majoring in film, television, and theatre and American studies and the second black leprechaun in Notre Dame history, has been enthralled with performance for as long as he can remember.
“Whenever I would go to plays ... I was always so fascinated with everything I saw,” Jackson said. “[I was] peeking backstage, trying to find out what was going on.”
In high school, Jackson first got involved in
theater by performing in “In the Heights.” At Notre Dame, he has been involved in Show Some Skin, PEMCO, Opera ND and Halftime A Cappella, amongst other productions.
Two of Jackson’s friends, Monica Bell and Shyanne Pryor, suggested that he try out to be the leprechaun his sophomore year.
“What an idea ... I thought, I’m a huge performer and I also love Notre Dame, so maybe it’s not a bad idea,” Jackson said.
Not long after, Jackson, Bell and Prior ran into Mike Brown, the first black leprechaun in Notre Dame history, on Notre Dame Day. It took a moment for Jackson to discover that Brown had been the leprechaun.
“It was kind of miraculous how [Bell and Prior] were there with me. They were the exact people who had been pushing me to do this, and we met Mike Brown. That’s when I knew,” Jackson said.
Brown also remembers the interaction fondly.
“He had the personality and the energy and a positive vibe about him. I told him to seriously consider trying out,” Brown said.
Junior year forced Jackson to make some decisions. Weighing a variety of options — to be a resident assistant, running for student body president and trying out to be the leprechaun — Jackson asked himself in which role he could find a home.
He chose to try being the leprechaun.
“My mission overall is to build a more inclusive space. [As the leprechaun] I could serve as a marker of hope and inclusion and represent what Notre Dame prides itself to be,” Jackson said.
The tryout process was exhausting, but he impressed the coaches immediately.
“Sam was dynamic. His crowd control, his stage presence — he had your emotions,” Brown said.
“Sam’s strong suit is that he’s a performer. In any instant, he can be on,” cheerleading head coach Delayna Herndon said.
Not everyone welcomed Jackson with open arms during the tryout process. Upon walking out into the gym during the open tryout, one person mouthed two words to Jackson: “you suck.” Thus became Jackson’s first test in responding to negativity as the Notre Dame leprechaun.
“I still was hurt, but it’s about moving forward and using it as a tool for you, ultimately, and for everyone,” Jackson said.
As part of the tryout, Jackson had to lead a mock scenario in which Notre Dame lost power during a USC home game. To set up the first cheer, Jackson called out the student and made him a USC fan. Gradually, Jackson made him smile and laugh. By the end of Jackson’s tryout, they hugged.
Jackson was named the gold squad leprechaun not long after his tryout, much to the joy of him and his mother. Upon coming back to school in August, he began weeks of early workouts and long practices in preparation for football season.
Although Jackson has been in the public spotlight for just over one month, he has already made memories. When in Louisville for the season opener, a white man came up to Jackson and shared that he had an adopted son from Ethiopia. The family lived in a town of Notre Dame fans, and the son and his classmates were asked to draw the leprechaun. The son came home crying, saying he that had drawn the leprechaun wrong — he drew its skin with a brown crayon while his classmates used apricot. The father asked for a picture with Jackson, saying that he would show it to his son as proof that he had drawn the leprechaun right.
“That was the best moment, and I’m excited for more to come,” Jackson said.
For Conal Fagan, trying out to be leprechaun for a second year was a “no brainer.”
“When you run out and there are people screaming for you, it’s a pretty cool experience. And over the course of the years, the experiences you have, you just want more and more of it,” he said.
Being a returning leprechaun is not the only thing that distinguishes the junior from fellow mascots Lynnette Wukie and Samuel Jackson. Fagan, who hails from Derry, Northern Ireland, is the first native Irish student to fill the role.
Fagan, however, had never envisioned doing the job until after arriving in the U.S. In fact, during his first year at the university, Fagan was considering pursuing professional soccer and spent some time on the men’s soccer practice squad.
“I never expected to be where I am today. It’s pretty surreal,” Fagan said.
Making the jump from soccer player to leprechaun was not as foreign as one might think, according to Fagan. In addition to playing soccer, he also attended many games while growing up and always made sure to sit in the section that led the chants.
He brought the same level of enthusiasm and spirit to the Notre Dame games he attended, and eventually decided he liked cheering so much he wanted to give it a try on a larger scale.
“I wanted something more, to get more involved,” Fagan said.
Fagan described that both times, the tryout process made him feel nervous and excited.
“Once you get out there, once you hear the fight song playing, you sort of get into your confident zone,” Fagan said. “So there is nervousness but I think it’s because you realize how prestigious this position is ... and you want to portray it in the best way you possibly can.”
Fagan also joked that being Irish did not necessarily give him a leg up during tryouts.
“If anything I feel like other people have an advantage because they know what a mascot is — we don’t really have that back home,” he said. “But when you love doing something it just comes natural.”
While he loves cheering, Fagan also said that one of his favorite aspects of being the leprechaun is the ability to form unique relationships with people. Last year he met a fan at a tailgate who had never been to a Notre Dame game before; he told Fagan he had only six months to live and always wanted to meet the leprechaun.
“Having something like that happen just shows you how important your role is ... You can impact lives in so many ways you don’t even realize,” he said.
Being able to develop personal relationships with fans through his role as the leprechaun has contributed to Fagan’s desire to pursue a career in which he combines sports with social justice.
Looking ahead to the near future, Fagan expressed his excitement to work alongside his fellow leprechauns who he described as “the epitome of Notre Dame spirit.”
“It’s pretty surreal having this position,” Fagan said. “It keeps highlighting to me that the more you give yourself to this university, the more it gives in return.”
When asked why she auditioned to be the leprechaun, Lynnette Wukie has a simple answer: she loves Notre Dame.
School spirit comes naturally to Wukie. She was a high school cheerleader, and says that she loved how the experience allowed her to give back to her school. So when Wukie became a student at Notre Dame, she wanted to give back in a similar way. At Notre Dame, she found it natural due to her passion for the university.
“My friends from home have always known me as someone that, ever since I went here, loves Notre Dame,” Wukie said. “But now, that’s literally who I am: the love of Notre Dame.”
Representing Notre Dame is a major responsibility that Wukie holds with pride and humility. Even though Wukie didn’t grow up in a Notre Dame family, she’s excited to meet fans of all ages.
“I’m not a legacy, I’m not someone who was born into a Notre Dame onesie,” Wukie said. But, she added, “I see how much it means to those people that are born into Notre Dame onesies. And I interact with kids all the time [whose] dream [is] to meet the leprechaun.”
At a recent soccer game, when Wukie was performing as the leprechaun, she noticed a young girl gazing up at her. The girl looked just like her. Wukie said that moment made her realize just how powerful a role model she could be.
“It was a very literal moment ... someone physically looking up at me and looking up at the leprechaun,” Wukie said. “I think just being a role model is something I always want to strive for in everything that I do, and this is the best way possible I could get to do that.”
As the first female leprechaun, Wukie is certainly a trailblazer. But she explained that she simply seized an opportunity that had already been there.
“This path was already existing,” Wukie said. “It just took someone to take it and to show other people that you can do anything you want, as long as you’re willing to be brave enough to risk whatever it is you need to risk.”
Wukie is excited about this year’s diverse team of leprechauns. That diversity and inclusivity, she says, is emblematic of the University.
“I think the leprechaun is definitely something that’s not exclusive at all. It’s for everyone. Whether you like Notre Dame or not, the leprechaun’s going to be nice to you. It’s going to give you a high-five, ask you how you’re doing,” she said.
However, Wukie argues, the Notre Dame spirit is about more than just this year’s mascots.
“For all of us—allthreeofus—wealways talk about how it’s so much bigger than us,” Wukie said. “The leprechaun’s going to last long after I’m gone, and I hope that there’ll be many more girls to follow my path.”
A DIfferent Kind of Fight
Although the response to this season’s diverse class of leprechauns has been overwhelmingly positive on campus, the decision has sparked some pushback from public figures and fans.
Dave Portnoy, the founder and president of sports and pop culture website Barstool Sports, tweeted that he disapproved of appointing non- Irish looking students to the role.
“You know what is sad,” Portnoy tweeted. “Internet outrage culture has made me afraid to say that I think the ND mascot should always be a midget looking ginger. So I’m just not going to say it.”
Portnoy later posted a blog defending his tweet, saying that he “[didn’t] think [the leprechaun] should be a ripped tall white guy with black hair either.”
When Jackson was asked how he would respond to such negativity, he said, “I would honestly say, ‘Go Irish.’”
Indeed, Jackson tweeted a photo of himself waving the Notre Dame flag while dressed in the leprechaun outfit following the Portnoy controversy. It read, “Like it or not, this guy right here is still one of your Notre Dame leprechauns! How about we use this negative energy to bring us together this season? See ya’ll next game. #GoIrish.”
He talked further with Scholastic about the way he handles conflict.
“I don’t view it as me versus you,” Jackson said. “I view it as us versus this larger problem which we can tackle together.”
Others within Notre Dame offered similar response with how they handle pushback and negativity. Both Mike Brown and coach Herndon talked about the need for a positive response and the fact that “we all bleed blue and gold.”
“Notre Dame condemns in no uncertain terms the racist comment directed towards Sam. We wholeheartedly support his response and stand in unity with him, as we do with Lynnette and Conal. All three already have proved to be dynamic and poised representative of the university,” University Spokesperson Dennis Brown said when asked for a statement on the Portnoy controversy.
Others have disapproved of the leprechaun being represented by a woman, claiming that it breaks longstanding tradition.
To the people that are opposed to Wukie taking on the role, Christine Caron Gebhardt, director of the Gender Relations Center, posed the question “What are you afraid of?”
“We have many symbols on our campus, including the sacred heart of Jesus which says ‘come to me all,’” Gebhardt said. Female representation in the role of the leprechaun is important because “it says as a university that all are welcome here, that Notre Dame is for everyone,” Gebhardt added.
Gebhardt acknowledged that “change is always hard but change is not always bad ... Father Hesburgh, in his wisdom in 1972, broke the tradition that talked about the place of women at Notre Dame and I would ask ‘how is this not a continued living out of his vision of who Notre Dame could be as our lady’s university?’”
Gebhardt also pointed out that gender is not the defining characteristic of the leprechaun.
“While I know some people might focus on that one aspect, I would encourage us to think about who they are as holistic athletes, as holistic people — because that’s who they really are.”
Over the years, Notre Dame’s mascots have evolved alongside its student body. When a canary was the face of the university, Notre Dame was a small school of young men. In 1924, the same year Clashmore Mike took the helm, Notre Dame students fought off anti-Catholic Klu Klux Klan rioters who had stormed the campus. Since then, Notre Dame has grown into an even more diverse and vibrant community: women now attend classes alongside men. Students hail from all 50 states and 100 different countries.
In 2019, the university is still growing and changing. Notre Dame’s traditions speak to the school’s fighting spirit, close-knit community and rich history. And as Notre Dame continues to evolve, so do its traditions. This year’s leprechauns represent the diversity, school spirit and enthusiasm of the student body.
Of course, there will always be growing pains. The backlash against this year’s leprechauns is a reminder that change never comes easily. Yet, true to Notre Dame spirit, the school is rallying behind its leprechauns.