Senior leprechaun and Hesburgh-Yusko Scholar Conal Fagan treats every game as though it is his last and someone else’s first. Conal has been wearing the famed Notre Dame leprechaun mascot’s green suit since his sophomore year and has defined many fans’ experiences along the way. After meeting one family from New Mexico visiting for their first game, he kept in close touch with them and has watched their children grow up. At another game, he fulfilled one lifelong fan’s wish of meeting the Notre Dame leprechaun before he passed away.
Lynnette Wukie, a senior Evans Scholar, became the first woman to wear the leprechaun uniform last year and has received dozens of messages from parents of young children thanking her for taking on the role. One little girl approached her at a basketball game in February to tell Lynnette that she wanted to dress up as her for Halloween – eight months from then. The leprechauns are always at the center of football game days, as well as other athletic events. This year more than ever, all eyes have been on them as public examples of mask-wearing, social-distancing, and keeping a positive attitude in the ever-changing campus environment. What hasn’t changed is their commitment to the position and their passion for representing Notre Dame.
“When you’re an athlete at this level, you are someone’s role model, which I sometimes forget,” Lynnette said. “There’s always someone looking up to us, and we’ve all been that little kid looking up to college athletes. I’m not just another fan, but I’m part of the game, which has made me more cognizant of what I’m doing and how I’m representing Notre Dame.”
Lynnette and Conal, along with junior Stamps Scholar and cheerleader Jonathan Couri, all say that they joined the program because of their love for Notre Dame.
“I joined the cheer team because I fell in love with the school when I visited, and my freshman year, I wanted to find a way to share the spirit that I had,” Jonathan said. “I was also involved in athletics in high school and missed that community aspect of challenging myself with others.”
Jonathan did not have to wait long to feel Notre Dame’s school spirit at its height. His first game cheering on the Notre Dame sideline was the 2018 home opener against Michigan, which the Irish won 24-17. Surrounded by a frenzied sea of green shirts in Notre Dame Stadium, Jonathan still thinks back to this first game day experience to inspire his cheer performances today.
“I try to remember the energy I had at my first Notre Dame game, my freshman year when we played Michigan, and how insane that experience was,” Jonathan said. “I try to bring that energy to every game that I cheer for and show people why we’re the best in the country.”
But the visibility of the leprechauns and cheer members has its own challenges to balance with these adrenaline-fueled highs. The leprechauns — unable to disguise themselves in a mask or fabric head like most mascots — are public figures as well as student athletes. The people holding the shillelagh and flying the Irish flag have lives as students and scholars, as well as stances on social issues that they hope to share.
“As a woman of color in the role that I’m in, I don’t want to hide what I think, and I haven’t been about racial injustice in this country,” Lynnette said. “I’m happy I have this platform to speak out against what I think is wrong, and Notre Dame Athletics has been super supportive of that.”
“Becoming the leprechaun doesn’t make you a different person,” Conal added. “It allows us to connect with a lot more people but still be ourselves in the role.”
Off the field, the leprechauns and cheer team attend development events, visit local schools, and volunteer at organizations like the Ronald McDonald House, though this academic year’s challenges have limited outreach opportunities.
Lynette, Conal, and Jonathan are joined on the cheer team by senior Scott Scholar Kaitlyn Solarz, senior Landon Scholar Rachel Mazzini, and junior Stamps Scholar Gabriel Ramos — the latter of whom was recently named a new Notre Dame leprechaun as well. The scholars say that their commitment to the cheer team has provided them with better time management skills, more mentorship opportunities, and personal discipline.
“You have a huge support system on the team,” Jonathan said. “When I was pre-health and deciding between medical and dental school, I was able to reach out to the upperclassmen on the team. They really helped me in discerning whether I wanted to go into healthcare and helped me pick which classes to take to succeed.”
However, when the stadium lights turn on, everyone on the team has only one goal in mind: to make each game day as memorable for Notre Dame fans as it can be.
“It can become easy, especially in the middle of the season, to think of it as just another game,” Conal said. “But if this year taught us anything, this game or any game might be your last. I try to think about making it as special as we can.”