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Michael Brown reflects on time as ND leprechaun

| Friday, September 13, 2019

This year’s trio of leprechauns mascots is the most diverse in University history. Senior Samuel B. Jackson and junior Lynette Wukie are the second and third African Americans to serve in the role, and Wukie is the first woman. Junior Conal Fagan is the first native-Irish leprechaun.

Jackson took the field for the first time in Notre Dame’s football face-off with Louisville on Sept. 2. On That same day, Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy tweeted a series of racist tweets in response to seeing Jackson represent the Irish.

The Observer spoke with the first African-American leprechaun, Mike Brown, who served in the role from fall 1999 to the spring of 2001, on his experience in the position.

John Daily | The Observer

A scan from the front page of The Observer Vol. 33 No. 28, published Oct. 4, 1999, featuring Brown as the leprechaun.

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Brown said he hadn’t considered Notre Dame until a graduate he met during his senior year of high school suggested he apply. Brown was accepted, but said his enthusiasm was curbed by the cost of tuition, especially after he was offered a full ride to Marquette University.

“I talked to the pastor of the church I attended at the time [about choosing] between Marquette and Notre Dame, and he said, ‘Go with your heart,’” Brown said. “I said, ‘My heart to Notre Dame.’”

Once on campus, Brown said he dove into the Notre Dame experience, playing inter-hall football and getting involved with dance groups. He even started his own dance group, First Class Steppers.

Brown said he cheered at football games but hadn’t considered trying out to be the leprechaun until his roommates gave him the idea in the fall of his sophomore year. He initially brushed off his suggestion but said he started thinking about it when his application to study abroad the next fall was turned down. In the spring of 1999, he tried out.

“Afterwards, I felt good,” Brown said. “I felt like I had a good time. If nothing else, this was fun. At the time, there were two spots for leprechaun [Varsity and Olympic]. And I said, maybe I’ll get the second spot, the Olympic spot. … That night, they posted the results outside the Joyce Center, and it said ‘Michael Brown: Varsity leprechaun,’ and it was crazy. It was kind of a surreal experience.”

Brown was named Varsity leprechaun in April of 1999 and filled the role for the next two years.

Though he had tried out for fun, after he was chosen for the role, he quickly saw the impact it had and the excitement it caused among his friends and family, he said.

“You see, it spread nationally,” Brown said. “Because I was the first African-American leprechaun, it became a story in itself. I wasn’t going out to prove a point or make any kind of statement, I was just going to do something fun. But you quickly saw the significance of it nationally. It was a whirlwind from day one. I got calls from local papers and local television stations, but then it really got real, if you will, when USA Today contacted me for an interview. Then Sports Illustrated and Jet Magazine did a story on it — and growing up, I was a really big Jet Magazine person.”

Brown said one of his favorite parts of the job was interacting with fans.

“The experience was amazing,” he said. “You get to interact and engage with so many people. I think back to all the kids that you high-five — not just on game days, but visiting hospitals and community centers — and they’re all excited to meet the leprechaun. You’re high-fiving, you’re signing autographs, you’re taking pictures, you’re part of people’s wedding proposals.”

The Notre Dame leprechaun is one of the few mascots in college football for which the mascot’s actual face is visible. Because of this increased visibility, Brown said, the leprechaun is always in uniform.

“Because the position is an actual person’s face, you kind of truly embody the position,” he said. “It’s unique, and I think it’s a great honor and a privilege. It’s something I tried never to take for granted.”

Brown said he doesn’t recall receiving any backlash or negative reactions based on his race, at least first-hand.

“At that time, there wasn’t much social media,” he said. “There was no Twitter, there was no Facebook, there was no Instagram. So people didn’t necessarily have as much direct access to you, number one, and if they made a comment, it wasn’t as public. What my coach did tell me is that there were people who wrote letters, but I didn’t get to see them. … I have heard from some classmates and friends that there were people who were pretty negative about the whole thing, but no one came to me and said it to me directly. It was just really a celebration.”

Comparing the role of Notre Dame leprechaun from 1999 to today, Brown said the biggest difference is the increased social media exposure.

“Your life is definitely more under a microscope than ever before. … At the same time, it’s an absolutely wonderful opportunity,” he said. “That same exposure is an influence you can have to be positive and spread the spirit of ND even more. I think they’ve got a great opportunity to spread the spirit of ND more than I had the opportunity to do because of the way they can reach so many people — not just in person, but through online channels and social media.”

Brown said he wouldn’t pay any attention to tweets like Portnoy’s.

“I don’t think it’s something that’s worthy of even taking up any oxygen,” he said. “Number one, a leprechaun is not a real person anyway. It’s a fictional character. And number two, when it comes to being the leprechaun and the mascot for the University of Notre Dame, it’s more about embodying the spirit of Notre Dame, and that’s not limited to a certain height, it’s not limited to a certain weight, it’s not limited to a certain look.”

Brown said he sees the time he spent as leprechaun as a particularly formative part of his time at Notre Dame.

“I’m just grateful for the honor and the privilege to be able to serve as leprechaun,” he said. “It’s something that I didn’t take lightly, and I really tried to embrace the whole experience and take it all in and not take it for granted.”

Brown still works with the University as regional director for the athletics advancement team, and was one of 10 individuals on the panel that selected this year’s leprechauns, which he’s participated in four times since graduating from Notre Dame.

Some read the diversity of this year’s team as a political statement on the part of the University, Brown said.

“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said. “It plays out how it plays out. … Each year, all of the leprechauns had to earn their spots.”

Three things, Brown said, are used as criteria for selecting the leprechauns.

“I say this often and I’ll say it again — it’s energy, passion, and spirit,” Brown said. “Those have to be ingrained in you as a person because you can’t teach those things.”

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About Andrew Cameron

Andrew is a senior from Orange County, California. He is an associate news editor at the Observer, and is majoring in Biological Sciences and English. While he has greatly enjoyed his time at Notre Dame, during the winter months he often wonders why he ever left the perennial warmth of Southern California.

Contact Andrew