Students weigh in on mascot tryouts
Marek Mazurek | Wednesday, April 20, 2016
It is humid in the Pit in the Joyce Center early Tuesday evening. And full — but not quite crowded — as Notre Dame cheerleaders set up mats and begin stretching.
A tall, clean-shaven man with red hair walks in the door and begins organizing the congregation. Meet John Doran, the Notre Dame Leprechaun. The one on the August 10, 2015, cover of Sports Illustrated.
“I was like, ‘wait, I’m going to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated?’ That’s every kid’s dream,” Doran said.
In his time at Notre Dame, Doran has been at 26 consecutive football games, two consecutive Elite Eights and an ACC tournament championship.
With all his experiences on the field and the court, the New York native shed light on some of the most rewarding aspects of being the most visible figure of Notre Dame sports.
“Most people only see you at the games,” Doran said. “They don’t see you going to special events. They hear that I spent the week in [Washington] D.C. for the ACC tournament, but they don’t realize I’m up at 6 a.m., going to the hospital with all the ACC mascots. You do a lot of different stuff outside of just the games. That’s what I didn’t know coming into the job. At first, you’re like, ‘Man that can be overwhelming,’ but then you grow to love it and it’s been awesome.
“Don’t get me wrong, you can’t beat being on the football field. You can’t beat it being there for an ACC championship in basketball, you can’t beat it being at the Elite Eight two years in a row. … But there’s a lot outside of just going to the games that we do that’s pretty rewarding.”
However this day isn’t about Doran, nor is this week. Tuesday is about getting one step closer to finding Doran’s replacement as the No. 1, or Gold Squad, Leprechaun.
Mingling with the cheerleaders in the Pit are three individuals who hope to take up Doran’s mantle: Tom Hellios, Joe Fennessy and Mitchell Meersman.
Meersman, a junior living in Carroll Hall, echoed Doran’s focus on service. Meersman has two years of experience under his belt as a Leprechaun and, in addition to serving the University in a cheerleading capacity, will be a Resident Assistant in Carroll next year.
“What you are is an ambassador for the University,” Meersman said. “You do a lot more things than going to games. I would say at least 60 percent of my time is spent going to charity events, community functions, interacting with the community at large. Not even Irish fans: Sometimes it’ll be traveling, say North Carolina, Greensboro for the ACC, we did a food drive at a local grocery store. North Carolina doesn’t have a whole lot of Irish fans, so you have to represent the University to the best of your abilities all the time. That’s something I hold extremely important.”
Joining Meersman as a returning Leprechaun, the sophomore Fennessy is currently the Green Squad Leprechaun and said the experience helps with navigating the often enigmatic tryout process.
“It’s a lot easier knowing what’s going on, for sure,” Fennessy said. “It’s a lot more fun, too. You can really enjoy it, enjoy the process, enjoy the spontaneity. … This year’s fun, it’s cool talking to the new Leprechauns trying out. It’s fun waiting till the end of practice where they have the Leprechauns do the spontaneous stuff with dancing and singing or mock pep rallies and stuff like that.”
When Fennessy mentions dancing, he isn’t kidding: At the tryouts, the potential Leprechauns watch as the other cheerleaders practice lifts, but at the end of the session, each Leprechaun is led out in front of the cheerleaders to perform a mock pep-rally routine.
“I was expecting a more conventional tryout, I would say, as opposed to get you thinking on your feet,” Tom Hellios said. “As the Leprechaun, you’re going to be out there in front of people and they need to make sure you represent the University well. I think part of that is being able to think on your feet and act accordingly. When you’re in front of a crowd of people, it’s easy to get nervous. I think part of that putting you on the spot, making you feel awkward now is to see how you’ll react in front of a big crowd.”
Hellios, a sophomore, is trying out for the first time and understably looks a little nervous as he waits for his turn at the mock pep-rally. And as he prepares to make his mark on the coaches and fellow cheerleaders, Hellios reflected on his journey to the Pit.
“It’s pretty cool to see the Leprechaun,” Hellios said. “He’s the face of Notre Dame and the football team. John, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated this year. … It’s really cool to see stuff like that. And then on top of that, I love Notre Dame, and I love Notre Dame sports and all the tradition that comes with it. Being able to be a part of that is something I find very interesting and attractive.”
Hellios’ routine is brisk, beginning with the “Let’s go Irish” chant and ending with a joke about Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, the opponent of choice in the simulation. After Hellios is finished, he runs out of the gym and Fennessy comes on; none of the Leprechauns are permitted to see the routine of the others.
Though the ordeal is technically a tryout, with only three people vying for three spots it is only a matter of which squad each applicant is assigned to. Hellios said this format allows the more experienced Leprechauns to give him advice, even if the advice is a little unorthodox.
“A lot of it’s sort of try to get you out there and see how you do, and then when you’re done, they’re like ‘Good job man,’” Hellios said. “They’ll bring you in like a brother and supportive afterwards, but at first it’s like, ‘Alright, let’s see how he does. Let’s see if he can fend for himself.’ And then once you’re back it’s like, ‘That was great.’”
Fennessy’s routine is slightly more polished, going into an anecdote about Knute Rockne and ending with a Gaelic chant. Despite only three people trying out for Leprechaun duties, Fennessy said he thinks the tradition is stable.
“I think there’s definitely a good energy surrounding the Leprechaun culture,” Fennessy said. “Between John being Gold Squad for two years, I really got to look up to him. … I think there’s definitely been some good energy. Tom [Hellios] is awesome. I haven’t gotten to see him because they put us in a back room when stuff goes on, but I’ve heard good things about him. It’s exciting, not as many guys as you would want to try out, but definitely quality guys.”
Meersman comes out last and is undoubtedly the loudest. He asks multiple times if that’s as loud as the audience can be and each time they manage to be louder. For the Mishawaka native, the Leprechaun role boils down to passion, something Meersman has in spades.
“You should definitely be outgoing, That goes without saying,” Meersman, a junior, said. “You shouldn’t be uncomfortable in front of crowds. … You should be gracious, you should be passionate — Definitely passionate, that drives a lot of what I do. You have to bring your enthusiasm and channel that through other people and a lot of that comes with how passionate you are.”
Doran’s replacement will be finalized Friday, the last day of tryouts, and the graduating senior had some advice for the successors to the venerated tradition.
“Enjoy every single minute of it, because it flew by,” Doran said. “Know that you’re going to be able to make people’s days. Some people come here once in a lifetime, to watch a football game. And if they meet you, it’s like the greatest thing ever. Don’t forget to appreciate that, that you get to be here for four years and be an extension of the school.”
No matter who ends up getting Doran’s Gold Squad spot, they will carry take on a role that transcends the individual.
“I know it wasn’t even me,” Doran said of his time as the Leprechaun. “That’s the underlying basis for pretty much everything I do, it’s not John Doran they want in the picture, it’s the Leprechaun. So that was kind of cool to be able to slip into that role for two years.”