This week I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with former Notre Dame Leprechaun, and fellow author, Mike Brown. Mike and I chatted about how he got to Notre Dame, how he became the first Black Leprechaun at Notre Dame, how he got into writing in the first place, his new book, “The Leprechaun’s Game Day at Notre Dame”, and what led him to write it. Here we go!
I had no dreams, goals, or ambitions of attending the University of Notre Dame, but when I got there, I put 100% of myself into getting the most out of my time there. I embraced the spirit of Notre Dame, got involved with the traditions, became a part of the culture, got to know the people around me, and opened myself up to everything that Notre Dame had to offer. I joined the gospel choir, and started a step club, among other things. I also infused my own energy into it as well, and never lost who I was at my core, or what I brought to the table. I was living my best life at Notre Dame when my roommates suggested I tryout for the Notre Dame leprechaun. (This was the fall of my sophomore year, 1998.) At first, I thought they were crazy. We were at a football game when they mentioned it, and then it got stuck in my brain.
Then I saw in The Observer a posting for the information session to explain the tryout process, and I decided to go. Then it became real. I went to the tryouts knowing nothing. I didn’t know the fight song, or the alma mater. I didn’t have any knowledge of the traditions behind the Leprechaun or about the coaches. As a result, I tried to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could (kind of a baptism by fire), and then I went out and had fun with it. The tryouts consisted of workshops where you learned the routines and how to stunt. Basically, everything you needed to know before tryouts began. I didn’t expect anything going into it, but after tryouts were over, I felt pretty good about how it went. I had no cheer experience and I certainly never expected to win the Varsity job. I thought maybe at best I’d be the Olympic squad Leprechaun, that cheered at the Olympic sporting events. And then I found out I got the top spot, and man, was I pleasantly surprised.
And then it started. I began to get phone calls from media outlets. The spring blue-gold game was the following weekend, and I didn’t have a fitted leprechaun suit yet, and so I had to wear a “hand me down” suit which was way too baggy for me. The coaching staff told me if I received any letters or phone calls that were negative in nature to let them know. The coaches also told me, “You have blue and gold blood just like everyone else.” I received a lot of support and there was a lot of energy behind my winning the starting position. My roommates were so excited. Back then you had a land line phone in your dorm room, and it had a red light on it that would blink when you had messages. That light was constantly blinking on my phone after I was named Leprechaun. My roommates took so many messages for me, it was hilarious. At the end of the day, I never did receive any negative comments, letters, or phone calls. A few people did call the coach, and wrote letters to the athletic department … “how could you let this happen?” … but I never actually saw anything myself. Molly Kinder, class of 2001, became the first woman to be a part of the Irish Guard, and she had it way worse than I ever did. Even her fellow Irish Guard members didn’t accept her, let alone the Irish Guard alums. She had to deal with direct negativity which I did not encounter. People made cracks and jokes about the my being a Leprechaun, and walking around in a green suit, but pretty much all of the Notre Dame Leprechauns dealt with that, so that was nothing new or unique to my experience
The media did a special where they followed me around for 24 hours starting the night before and going through to my first home football game day. They started filming at the pep rally the night before and then from the morning of game day followed me around to different appearances around campus to right before the game started. It was such an incredible experience. Game days were long for me. There is so much that goes on in that day from the perspective of the Leprechaun. You meet up with the cheer squad in the morning to go to various tailgates, to pep rallies around campus. You do step off. There is a whole series of things that happen long before the game even starts. The children’s book that I wrote in 2020 (published this month) captures the whole game day experience, from waking up in the morning all the way to going to sleep that night. You go to the grotto, to step off, pass the library, to the stadium. You run the flag out, sing the national anthem, do pushups after touchdowns. The coolest thing about the illustrations in the book is the illustrations were created from actual photos of me doing all of these things. It was really fun to do a story based on real events from my life and to be able to capture the true game day experience from the eyes of the Leprechaun.
This children’s book came to life after years of people suggesting to me that I write a book about my experience as the Notre Dame Leprechaun. My original idea was to write a book that contained stories from each person who has been the Notre Dame Leprechaun, and to share all of our stories and experiences. Each one of us had unique experiences as the Notre Dame Leprechaun and I really wanted to capture them all in a book. That idea sat on the shelf for years and in 2020 I decided to dig my feet in and write the book. I started by conducting interviews with former Leprechauns. I also called other authors, including my friend Lisa Kelly, and talked about the process with them. As I was collecting the stories from my fellow ND Leprechauns, 2020 was evolving in ways none of us expected (the pandemic, the shutdown, the murder of George Floyd). I was home more, I was writing more, I was running more, and I started to do a lot of soul searching. I was thinking more and more about social injustice, and the divisiveness that was happening in our country, and just all of the awful things people were saying to each other. This made me ask myself, ‘What can I do to make the world a better place?”
On September 17th of 2020 a highway was named after my paternal grandmother. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a portion of I-43 was renamed the Jeannetta Simpson-Robinson Memorial Highway. I watched the ceremony at home and seeing the highway sign get installed inspired me to write a book about my late cousin, Jeannetta Lacole Robinson, who was killed in 1984 at the age of nine. The story is about how she gave away her birthday presents at her birthday party December 27, 1980, to her friends who hadn’t received Christmas presents that year. It is a story of love and compassion, and it crosses all boundaries. It is a human story that transcends age and color, and it is a story that I thought needed to be told in a world that is filled with so much pain. And so, what did I do? I shifted my focus from my Leprechaun book and wrote a children’s book instead, “Little Netta’s Gift.”
The next thing I needed was an editor. I typed “editor” in the search field on LinkedIn and saw Cara Krenn’s name. Cara was a cheerleading teammate classmate of mine (I was a senior when she was a freshmen), and so I immediately sent her a message. “Hey, it’s been a while. How are you? I see you are an editor … will you help me edit this children’s book I’m writing.” And she said yes. As we were working on “Little Netta’s Gift,” we talked about writing my ND Leprechaun story in a children’s book format, and that is how my most recent book came to life. In addition to “Little Netta Gift” and “The Leprechaun’s Game Day at Notre Dame,” Cara and I have also written three other books that will be coming to life in the future.
The next thing I needed was an illustrator. I already had an illustrator for “Little Netta’s Gift,” but I also needed an illustrator for my Leprechaun book. Cara lived in Farley Hall when she was a Notre Dame, and reached out to a network of friends about our need for an illustrator. One of Cara’s Farley Hall friends (Allison Walsh, class of 2004) connected us with Maryn Arreguín, who was a professional art director at Sourcebooks. Maryn had played soccer at Notre Dame, class of 2003, and it was her lifelong dream to illustrate a book about Notre Dame and so she jumped at the chance to illustrate my second book. And just like they say, “the rest is history.”
“The Leprechaun’s Game Day at Notre Dame” is officially licensed through Notre Dame. Licensed items help fund teaching, and research, and help improve the lives of people around the world by supporting student groups and helping students with financial need. The book delightfully brings to life the magic and pageantry of a Notre Dame game day, and the reader experiences game day in a way they’ve never seen before. The joy, excitement, and energy of a Notre Dame game day vividly pops off the pages for you to see. I also made sure that whoever picks up a copy of this book sees themselves represented in the characters in the book by including people of varying skin tone, hair color/type, height, men, women, all in various game day roles (cheerleaders, band, Irish guard). This helped me bring to the forefront the importance of representation. We wanted to make sure the readers can see themselves in the book and see the possibilities of all the things they can do.
Even better … want to meet Mike Brown and have him sign your book in person? You can do just that as he’ll be signing books at the Hammes Notre Dame bookstore on Saturday, October 15th, from 9:30-11am.
Thank you to Mike Brown for sharing a bit of his story with me. He is truly an incredible person, and I am honored to call him a friend. I hope you all pick up both of his wonderful books. The stories are beautiful, and they make great gifts!
Cheers & GO IRISH!