Leprechaun exhibits fight of his own

The most recognizable mascot in college sports could not even get off the staircase.

Bryce Burton was keeled over, the pain in his stomach bringing him to the steps inside his off-campus apartment, his Notre Dame roommates finding him and bringing him to the hospital.

This was July 2011, three months after Burton had become the Fighting Irish's blue squad leprechaun, a job requiring duties at several Olympic sport games and a virtual path toward the signature football spot the following year.

But before Burton could take the Notre Dame Stadium sidelines, before he could appear in commercial after commercial and at function after function as the lucky charm accompanying his school's historic return to college football's main event, he had a much more difficult obstacle to overcome.

"I thought I was going to die," a healthy Burton said more than a year later.

He had grown up as an Indiana kid in love with Notre Dame, even though both parents -- and eventually a younger sister -- ended up at Purdue. An early rejection sent him to Indiana before he transferred after his freshman year.

"I'm 5-foot-8 and I have red hair and I can grow facial hair and I'm also a Notre Dame fan, so people always told me I should be the leprechaun during high school and things like that," he said. "It was something that had been in the back of my mind for a long time. I said I might as well go for this, so I tried out and was lucky enough to be selected."

He stayed in school that summer, some early minor bellyaches giving way to the stair scene. His appendix was fine, but his intestines were inflamed. A colonoscopy was scheduled nearly two weeks later near his hometown of Newburgh, Ind., to confirm doctors' belief that he had Crohn's disease.

But he never made it to the appointment. His intestines perforated two nights before, the burning bringing him to the bathroom floor inside the home of his parents, who immediately took him for another hospital trip.

He was transferred to Indianapolis that night, undergoing 2 a.m. emergency surgery to install a ileostomy, which extracts the small intestine onto the surface of the abdomen. A pouching system was attached to the skin to collect waste.

He celebrated his 21st birthday two weeks later, on Aug. 18, by sitting on the couch watching a replay of the Rose Bowl. He was still in a lot of pain, and he was taking more than a handful of medication. He could not run, and he was not allowed to lift more than 10 pounds at a time -- no picnic for a former running back at Castle High.

But with med school dreams and a set timeline of college goals already in place, he made it back to Notre Dame for the fall semester. And after assurances from cheerleading coach Jo Minton to not worry about his standing, he resumed his mascot duties.

"There was no way I'd even consider changing his position with someone else, because he earned it," Minton said.

Still, walking to class was a struggle. Weekend nights were usually confined to his dorm room. Getting through soccer, volleyball or women's basketball games presented their challenges. He was still in pain, and he had to change the pouching system frequently.

The man who symbolized the energy of school spirit was a shell of his former figure, at any given time 30-50 pounds lighter than his previous weight of 190.

"It was tough," Burton said. "People are used to the leprechaun running around and being super active, and that wasn't me. I was very stationery, and I even took some criticism for that. You heard from fans occasionally. But I wasn't going to tell them what was going on. How do you tell a fan: 'Oh, I'm not running around because I have an ileostomy, and I'm not actually allowed to run around right now'? I kind of just swallowed my pride in that respect."

He thought about leaving school before meeting Marie Ostrander, a nurse at South Bend Memorial Hospital who helped him manage the ileostomy and ease back into things. He went in for surgery to have the ileostomy reversed during winter break, getting out three days later on Christmas Eve, surpassing doctors' goals by a day and receiving the best gift of all.

He returned slowly but surely in the spring, there every step of the way for a women's basketball team whose season ultimately ended in the national title game.

He fended off six challengers later that semester, handling the improvisational speaking and dancing tests thrown his and every other contestant's way, getting promoted to the gold squad and the football and men's hoops games that come with it for his senior year.

A colonoscopy this past July showed no active Crohn's within his body. He will arrive in South Florida next week as the figurehead of the nation's No. 1 team, a national title one more upset away in a season and a career full of them.

"It's kind of funny," he said. "Coach [Brian] Kelly would probably disagree -- he would probably say it's been based on his preparation -- but my mom says that this season's kind of a reward for what I had to go through.

"But this year's been awesome. I think a little more than all of us expected, but certainly welcomed. I didn't become Notre Dame's leprechaun only to support a national championship team, but this has certainly been an awesome experience this year."