Paint like a champion

This simple, inspirational sign has helped Notre Dame win a lot of football games and helped its painter even more. AP Photo/Joe Raymond

Does your stomach curdle at the very mention of Notre Dame? Would you like to see the leprechaun mascot crushed by a pot of gold? Do you wish Knute were not?

If so, you'll hate this little story.

It's about the sign every Notre Dame player slaps as he's coming onto the field -- "PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY." That sign has been reproduced nearly 20,000 times and has made its way onto reproductions of the original, coffee mugs, T-shirts and key chains.

Yet Notre Dame doesn't make a dime off it.

All the rights money goes in the pocket of the little sign painter who made it -- Laurie Wenger. And that's a good thing. The 53-year-old needs it.

"I have MS," says Wenger, who retired from Notre Dame in 2009 but still lives in South Bend. "So it really helps pay my medical bills."

How a simple sign painter has made all that money off Notre Dame starts with Lou Holtz.

He was the new football coach at Notre Dame in 1986 when he was leafing through an old football picture book and saw a black-and-white picture of a sign that said, "Play Like a Champion Today." He had to have one.

He dispatched one of his assistant coaches, George Stewart, to the campus sign shop.

"Coach wants something like this painted up ASAP," Stewart said, handing Wenger a piece of paper.

Now, Wenger can be just a little more flighty than a butterfly on its first day, so an order from the very famous football coach at a very famous football school nearly made her spill her turpentine. "I started painting like a mad hatter," she says.

It took about three days. When she finished, she closed her eyes, said a quick prayer and rushed it over to the football office.

Prayer answered. Holtz loved it and had it hung on the wall of a narrow staircase leading to the field.

"I told my players, 'Every time you hit this sign, I want you to remember all the great people that played here before you, all the sacrifices that your teammates have made for you, all the people, your coaches, your parents, who are responsible for you being here.'"

Since that day, some of the greatest players in Notre Dame history have touched it -- from Tim Brown to Rocket Ismail to Manti Te'o, the senior linebacker who will lead the Irish against Alabama in the BCS title game in Miami on Jan. 7.

Holtz believed in the sign so much that he had Laurie make another one and took it with him to road games. It became so screwed into Notre Dame lore that you'd think George Gipp had slapped it, too.

"People think that sign has been up there since Christ was in diapers," Wenger says. "But, really, it's only been about 25 years."

Right away, somebody wanted a copy -- Rudy Ruettiger. Yes, that Rudy, from the movie of the same name, although that came seven years later. "I thought, 'Wow, this guy is into it," she says. "And then my husband thought, 'If he wants it, maybe other people would want it." So her husband set out to get it trademarked.

"We checked to see if we could have the rights, and the school said 'Well, it doesn't say "Notre Dame" on it, so go ahead.'"

At first, Holtz disapproved.

"To me, that sign belongs to Notre Dame," he says. "Just because you painted the sign doesn't give you the right to own the rights to it. But now that I've heard it's helped with her medical bills, well, OK, God bless her.'"

Until lately, when the MS recently stopped Wenger from painting at all, she was churning them out for fans. "I've probably done nearly 700 of them for people."

It's nearly as famous as the Golden Dome, and, as it has turned out, worth almost as much.

"It hasn't been millions," Laurie says, "but it's definitely helped keep my nose above water. It's been so fun. I was watching the game [on NBC] one day, and I saw they had a camera just for the sign! And I thought, 'Wow! I did that! This is my fault!'"