As he made his way to the Friday pep rally on a recent Notre Dame home football weekend, Johnny Romano made the seemingly fatal mistake of putting on his jacket while still several hundred feet away from the Purcell Pavilion. His plans of arriving to the rally a half hour early were gone.
Within seconds, children, students, alumni and fans — some with few real ties to the school at all — noticed the familiar green look of the leprechaun. One would stop him for a picture and so would another. And then another. And another.
Romano, a senior, estimates he poses for at least 500 pictures on a given football weekend. And he loves every opportunity.
"Ever since I was a little kid, I came here and it was a magical feeling you get," said Romano, a Glencoe, Ill., native. "You get 100,000 people here. Everyone's excited. They're all bleeding blue and gold. Now that I'm the leprechaun, I enjoy it so much more."
Football weekends in South Bend, Ind., are different, to be sure. Wear an opposing team's jersey and you will likely be invited over to a tailgate, rather than having beer or other items tossed your way. Bring your little son or daughter and rarely will you have to worry about earmuffs, unlike most testosterone-fueled environments. Walk by an usher or game-day official wearing a trademark white hat and you will immediately be greeted with a "Welcome to Notre Dame."
Then there are the rallies, too, one of several events the Irish still treasure like few others. The indoor ones draw crowds that rival those of the men's and women's basketball teams, a pair of postseason regulars that also inhabit the building.
"Friday has been more of a focus day and it's allowed us now to really embrace the pep rally," coach Brian Kelly said recently, adding, "But we've been able to have fun, and we want to have fun at the pep rally because it's a great event. So I think we are really seeing it in the right way as embrace it and have fun with it, and I think that's helped us a lot."
Every little change is meaningful to the regulars, be it this year's moving of the pregame mass to Friday, or the alternating of the pregame walk two years ago. There are still Friday luncheons and there is still the walk from the Hesburgh Library — you may recognize it as Touchdown Jesus — to Notre Dame Stadium, a building that gets its fair share of work in the lead-up to game day, with many first-timers taking stadium tours.
The venue seats 80,795. It lacks the modern-day FieldTurf or Jumbotron that will both be sources of debate so long as such amenities stay away. But what it lacks in bells and whistles it makes up for with history — whether it's the statues outside of all five Notre Dame championship coaches or the famous "Play Like A Champion Today" sign.
Athletic director Jack Swarbrick said two summers ago that he wanted the Notre Dame game-day atmosphere to be the Augusta National of college football. Just this past week, a column in The Oklahoman called the stadium an "American treasure."
And for all of the recent headlines about attendance in college football, there remains this: The Irish have a home sellout streak dating to 1973.