A glimpse into the world of Pat Johnson, one of Notre Dame’s famed leprechaun mascots.
The world of mascots is shrouded in a veil of mystery. Who are they? What happens behind the scenes? When most people think of the person behind the mask, they picture a class clown, a slacker, or a stoner. Notre Dame’s leprechaun stands in stark contrast to these stereotypes. The Notre Dame leprechaun is a professional role that embodies the slogan, “God, Country, Notre Dame (In Glory Everlasting).” No Notre Dame fan is more passionate than Pat Johnson, a student at Notre Dame and one of the school’s leprechaun mascots.
I sat down with one of my friends, Leprechaun Pat (as he is known around campus), for a video call as he explained who exactly the leprechaun is and what this role means to him.
“The leprechaun is way bigger than one person. In my mind, it’s the foremost ambassador to the university and it’s that person who really embodies the Fighting Irish spirit. For a long time, there was only one leprechaun who would travel everywhere doing football, basketball, etc. but now we have four. This idea that a leprechaun should be a little 5’5 white guy with red hair – that’s not how we view it anymore. The leprechaun is who can really embody and represent the university.”
“What does it mean to me? It’s a hell of a role - I get to have fun representing the university that I love.”
How does anyone even become a leprechaun in the first place? Since the leprechaun is a role model for all Notre Dame fans filling the position is no easy process. Applicants face a gauntlet of interviews in front of judging panels and have to perform at mock pep rallies before they can put on the green suit. When asked about his cheer background, Pat said,
“It definitely helps. I would say it helps because you know the coaches and they know your personality… A lot of these people are incredibly talented people with unique voices. Sam Jackson is one person that comes to mind: he was incredible. I don’t know if he was classically trained, but this kid could think on his feet. You can tell if a leprechaun was a cheerleader too because they’ll understand the importance of working a crowd and connecting with them.”
Sam Jackson, was the second African American leprechaun in Notre Dame’s history, again showing that the leprechaun is representative of the entire Notre Dame family. Pat emphasized the importance of the platform the leprechaun possesses. On and off the field, all eyes are always on the mascot and the leprechaun must constantly maintain their professionalism. The leprechaun is a proud symbol for the entire Notre Dame family, and so they have to keep a cool head, despite how unruly and crude college football fans can be at times. As Pat described,
“I’ve been at Florida State where fans have been booing at me and giving me the finger and I have to respond the right way, smiling. I can’t be Mr. Met giving them the finger back.”
On the topic of maintaining professionalism, Pat also offered sage advice in an era of cameras and little privacy, reminding us how mascots always have to be “on.”
“Know where the cameras are. If you don’t want to get caught doing anything stupid, don’t do anything stupid.”
The Notre Dame leprechaun is unique from other mascots because they don’t wear a mask of an sort. Pat explains that this complicates the idea of anonymity, which he experiences differently than other traditional mascots, saying that his classmates will recognize him as “Leprechaun Pat.” To Pat, this is “kind of awesome and kind of weird.” In many ways, he’s a campus celebrity.
Pat further touched on the differences between the Notre Dame leprechaun and other college mascots, jokingly noting his rivalry with Bucky the Badger from the University of Wisconsin:
“Oh I don’t like Bucky. The first thing Bucky did was take my hat off my head and then take my shillelagh. I was like ‘Who does that?’ That’s very rude. I can talk and they can’t. That’s actually kind of a challenge because I’m one of the few mascots that can talk. It’s like I’m talking to a bunch of giant stuffed animals. It’s a lot of ad-libbing and guessing what they’re saying. That’s why Bucky has to resort to stealing stuff; because he can’t talk smack.”
Of course, when entertaining thousands of Notre Dame fans every week, confidence is a key trait a leprechaun must possess. Pat shared that his own confidence has evolved, and that he struggled with confidence during his first year as the leprechaun.
“This year I took a different approach. I hate to be like the ‘you’re not that guy, pal’ but I told myself I am that guy. If people think I am that guy, then I am and I have to start acting like it.”
His main tips for faking it until you make it? Be yourself and remember why you’re doing the thing you love.
On game day, Pat talked about how the magnitude of the moment - being the center of attention for one of the country’s premier college football teams, impacted him on game day:
“If I’m holding the flag, what I’m thinking is definitely don’t trip. First of all, gratitude, like, 'Wow, I am so grateful to be here right now.' It’s also, like, do your job. Be the best leprechaun I can be and a lot of that is being a positive role model, especially for little kids. Whenever I see a little kid in a leprechaun outfit, I want to go talk to him or her and get a picture because that’s what made me want to be a leprechaun.”
Currently, Notre Dame has 4 leprechauns. As we talked, Pat consistently emphasized the importance of teamwork - behind the scenes and - while performing on game day.
“In public, we are on our own islands. Were kind of like mythical creatures, like Santa Claus or Peter Parker in Spiderman - we can’t be in the same place in suit at the same time. If we're doing games close by well have to take different routes out of the stadium so people don’t run into any of us at the same time.”
Of course, Pat has an incredible variety of game day interactions, including run-ins with Hells Angels look-a-likes at Virginia Tech after getting separated from his “lepra-pod” security detail of male cheerleaders, and people asking him to hold their baby. His most frequent request from fans is to take a simple photo with them, but Pat’s favorite interactions are “the ones where people send me a text or DM on Instagram saying ‘Hey this is the pic we took, thanks so much for talking to us, it makes my day.’ It can be hard to forge a connection [with fans] but in times like that, it makes me reflect and realize how much it means to them, which is incredibly gratifying.”
Pat doesn’t have any superstitions before a game, but he does have a process to prepare for each game. It starts the night before, with getting a good night’s rest. In the morning, he eats a hearty breakfast since he doesn’t get to eat much for lunch. He also places a heavy emphasis on caffeinating and during the long days, he has a little trick he uses to keep himself alert. He also gives a pregame speech, referencing the “Be the Best” mentality he learned at Chaminade High School.
“You know how hard we’ve trained to be here in this stadium. You know how much this means to not just us but to every person out here. Just be the best you can be. Smelling salts are cool, too.”
Sometimes, Pat doesn’t need any smelling salts to stay awake. Last year, he participated in the field storm after Notre Dame upset ACC powerhouse Clemson. He described the chaos of the moment and the surreal nature of the event with one word: insane.
“We knew it was going to happen if we won, even if you asked us weeks ago. As soon as that touchdown was scored, everyone immediately started running. The first thing I did was look around and see if anyone was going to yell at me, and all the authority figures turned their backs so I said cool! I ran and it was incredible. Every person if they wanted it had their moment on that field.”
Finally, as our conversation neared its end, Pat wanted to impart what his role as the leprechaun has taught him, and how pretending to be someone else has actually helped him better understand who he is as a person.
“Its helped me to be a better self-critic. I feel more comfortable talking and just having fun. My biggest point is just to have fun. Fun is contagious, its electric. If people see you having fun, they want to have fun and vice versa.”
The professionalism and intensity it takes to be a Notre Dame leprechaun shows just how passionate the fans of Notre Dame are. Pat puts an incredible amount of work and focus into being the best version of a leprechaun he can, taking just as – if not more – seriously than the players on the field. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a sports mascot, then Pat’s insight probably tells you that it’s a lot harder than it looks. Be sure to tune into Notre Dame’s games on Saturdays to see Pat rocking his green suit.