This Notre Dame football article originally appeared in a magazine issue of Blue & Gold Illustrated. Sign up for a subscription or order a single issue here.
Mike Brown keeps a rejection letter close to his vest.
His green, official Notre Dame Leprechaun vest.
A 2001 graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Brown applied for a study abroad program in London in the fall of 1998. He received the letter that has helped shape who he is the following February.
Brown never went to London. But he has lived a life of great adventure regardless.
“It’s my reminder that when one door closes, it’s an opening for something else,” Brown told Blue & Gold Illustrated.
“Something else” ultimately manifested in Brown becoming the first ever Black Leprechaun on the Notre Dame cheer squad. The two years he served as the Fighting Irish’s mascot molded an ongoing lifelong pursuit of inspiration and fulfillment.
This is Brown’s story.
Following His Heart
Around the same time Brown applied for the London program, his sophomore roommates implored him to try out to be the Notre Dame Leprechaun. The Notre Dame Leprechaun. The one dressed to the nines in green garb, pumping up Fighting Irish faithful at sporting events. Namely, football games. Brown lived for those in a way he never thought he would.
He didn’t grow up a Notre Dame fan in downtown Milwaukee. He was set on attending Marquette on a full ride. That changed when he met 1983 Notre Dame graduate Mike Peterson at a function welcoming him as an intern at his church.
Brown told Peterson about himself. He was No. 5 in his high school graduating class, the captain of the football team, a churchgoer five to seven times a week, etc. Peterson heard all he needed to.
“Have you thought about Notre Dame?” Peterson asked.
No. He hadn’t.
Brown couldn’t point to Notre Dame on a map. He thought it was on the east coast. The only things he knew about Notre Dame were of Tim Brown’s excellence and that the clipping call that wiped Rocket Ismail’s would-be game-winning 90-yard punt return touchdown off the board in the 1991 Orange Bowl against No. 1 Colorado was a phantom flag.
“That wasn’t a penalty,” he said.
Peterson made sure to see Brown’s application off in the mail. He was elated when affirmation of acceptance was returned. Brown would have to take out student loans and take on a job in South Bend to attend Notre Dame, but it still came down to a 50-50 proposition. He called his pastor the day before he had to decide.
“He said, ‘Son, go with your heart,’” Brown said. “I said, ‘Well, my heart is at Notre Dame.’”
That was that. Brown packed his bags and headed southeast.
A Campus Icon
Brown immersed himself in Notre Dame’s culture. It was the only way he operated.
“Everything I’ve done my whole life, I’ve poured my heart and soul into it,” Brown said. “No matter what it is.”
He joined the gospel choir and a dance group. He even created his own dance group, the First-Class Steppers. He was a member of the League of Black Business Students and a student-alumni relations group. He played fully padded inter-hall football to get his sports fix.
But that wasn’t enough to satisfy the athletic gene.
When Brown knew he wouldn’t be going overseas, he took the Leprechaun idea seriously. He saw an ad for tryouts in The Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper. Of course, he poured his heart and soul into the audition.
He won the job. And the rest is history.
For two years, Brown was the heart and soul — those two words again — of the spirit of Notre Dame. From beating up on Michigan State’s Sparty in front of a roaring Notre Dame Stadium crowd in his second home game as the Leprechaun in 1999 to making ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 for knocking down Oregon State’s Beaver mascot with a 20-yard running start at the Fiesta Bowl his senior year, Brown turned himself into a South Bend celebrity with the quality of his energetic antics on the Notre Dame sideline.
“Mike was an absolute campus icon at the time,” said Cara Krenn, a 2004 Notre Dame graduate and a teammate of Brown’s on the Irish cheer team for one year. “When he became the Leprechaun, it was almost like he was the school’s biggest celebrity because of his charisma. Obviously the Leprechaun is a fixture every year, but Mike brought such an energy and charisma that made it a very, very special time for that role.”
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A Story Of Love
Such a special time that it had to be documented.
Krenn and Brown co-authored a children’s book called “The Leprechaun’s Game Day at Notre Dame.” It depicts illustrations from Maryn Arreguín, a 2003 Notre Dame graduate and a walk-on on the Irish soccer team, that take readers through the sights and sounds of a South Bend Saturday. The main character is unmistakably Brown, right down to his skin tone.
“We didn’t want to hide it,” Brown said. “The illustrator said, ‘You were a Black Leprechaun, so there is going to be a Black Leprechaun on this book.”
Typically, Brown left personal outward projections on the field. Game days were his time to shine, but even then it wasn’t all about himself. It was about the thousands of fans he went into character for. A selfless person by nature, it was new for Brown to write about himself.
That’s why the Leprechaun’s game day book was not his first to publish.
Brown is also the author of “Little Netta’s Gift.” It’s about his late cousin, Jeanetta Lacole Robinson, who held a sixth-birthday party on Dec. 27, 1980. Jeanetta asked partygoers what they received for Christmas. Some of them said nothing. She bestowed upon them gifts of her own. Her altruism lives on through Brown’s account, even after she was murdered along with Cheryl Robinson, Jeanetta’s mother and Brown’s aunt, at 9-years-old in 1984.
Brown wrote the tribute children’s book in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest dominated everyday lives in the United States. It’s a part of SOULSTIR, the company Brown created as “a social enterprise focused on enriching lives by creating soul-stirring experiences that inspire empowerment and action.”
“I tried to really dig deep within myself and figure out, what can I do?” Brown said. “What can I do to help? I’m not one to protest or march. So what can I do? I wrote. I used my cousin’s story as a story of love, a story of kindness, a story of having compassion and empathy for others. I felt that was a story the world needed.”
That’s what the world needed. What Brown needed was an editor. He found one in an old friend: Krenn.
Brown enacted a simple LinkedIn search. Krenn came up. A wordsmith as an editor, writer and poet, Krenn helped Brown publish Netta’s story. She’s also the one who pressed him to write the Leprechaun’s game day book, just like when Brown’s friends encouraged him to try out to be the Leprechaun over two decades prior.
“I’m so proud we have a physical embodiment of Mike’s legacy,” Krenn said. “He’s such an important figure for the university and to this day really inspires people. So the idea that we have a concrete thing we can pass on to the next generation is so exciting.”
A door closed on Brown when he wasn’t selected to study abroad in college. So many doors closed on the world when lives changed forever in 2020. Brown viewed the latter just as he viewed the former: as a “London moment.”
“The book isn’t something I wrote for myself,” he said. “It’s a book I wrote for kids and families who enjoy Notre Dame, who love the magic and spirit of Notre Dame. The book is just a vehicle through which that magic can spread.”