Simple sign helps Irish play like champions

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Laurie Wenger had no idea her simple painting would one day be a masterpiece that would inspire hundreds of football players and thousands of fans.

Twenty years ago, she was at her job painting signs at Notre
Dame's arena when Irish assistant coach George Stewart delivered a
request from new coach Lou Holtz.

"He brought me a little sheet of paper that said, 'Play Like A
Champion Today,"' Wenger said. "He said, 'Coach Holtz wants a
sign, he wants it in blue and gold and he wants it for the stadium
for the players to hit on their way out to the field.' "

After Holtz took the Notre Dame job, he went through all the books he could on the storied football program's history and came across a photo with a "Play Like A Champion Today" sign.

"I asked everybody, 'Who took it down?"' he said. "Nobody
remembered it even being up. So I said, 'Get that painted up. I'm
going to put it in the same place and everybody is going to hit it
on the way out to the field to remind them of all the sacrifices
they have made, their families have made and other people have made
for them to be there."

It took Wenger about a week to paint the 4-foot-high by
3-foot-wide wooden sign, preparing the wood, priming it, painting
it gold and then hand lettering it in blue.

"I worked like a bandit on it and got it to him as quickly as
possible," she said. "The rest is history."

John Heisler, senior associate athletic director, said Notre
Dame has tried to find out where the sign Holtz saw in the photo
came from. He said no one, including former coaches remember it.

"I don't even know where the phrase came from, but it certainly
has become associated with Notre Dame," Heisler said.

Few people knew about the practice of players slapping the sign
on the way out to the field until NBC started putting a camera in
the tunnel in 1991, Heisler said.

Wenger said the first person to ask her for a copy of the sign
was former Notre Dame walk-on Rudy Ruettiger, who wanted it for his
basement. Only a few people knew who he was at the point, since it
was still several years before the movie "Rudy" came out.

"We met this crazy Notre Dame fan and it turned out to be Rudy
Ruettiger," said Wenger's husband, Ron. "We thought if this guy
wants it, why wouldn't anyone else? So we went to the university to
seek permission to make copies."

Ron Wenger said the university told them that since it didn't
say "Notre Dame" on the sign, they could do what they wanted. The
Wengers got a trademark, started a business and now sell
screenprinted signs as well as hats, T-shirts and other items with
the saying.

The sign, which Wenger said she had to touch up once about 10
years ago, has become another tradition on the tradition-laden
campus. The Notre Dame players don't know the history behind the
sign, but they all touch it on their way out to the field.

"I don't know if it's tradition or not, but for me,
individually, it adds to my energy," tailback Darius Walker said.
"I'm all energetic coming down the stairs but once you touch the
board its like the board just bounces energy into you so it gets you even more pumped up and hyped up before you go out there."

Holtz talked about the sign when he left the school after the
1996 season.

"I'll think about you coming out of the tunnel. I'll think about you touching the 'Play Like a Champion' sign," he said. "I'll relive it each and every week, and I'll have the fondest