A college football champion is about to be determined in a single game in Miami. For the entire season, and decades before, the Fighting Irish Football Team is reminded that they should always Play Like a Champion.
While the simple message is a part of Notre Dame Legend, few people realize the inspirational story behind the iconic sign.
It's a reminder of a commitment. To Play Like a Champion at the University of Notre Dame is both an honor and a responsibility. Many people think the sign slapping tradition has been around since the days of Knute Rockne.
“It hasn't been there that long,” explains Laurie Wenger who painted the sign. ”It's been there for a while but not that long.”
Laurie Wenger should know. She hand painted the sign in 1986.
“I was doing something that I loved to do,” says Wenger. “That was such a blessing.”
Before the days of computers and vinyl printers, the University relied on a team of sign painters. One fall day, Laurie got a sheet of paper with specific instructions.
Coach Holtz wants this,” says Wenger. “It said Play Like a Champion Today. He wanted it in blue and gold so I used the colors that I had at the time.”
She kept it simple and she did it quick.
“It's something fast that I did because the coach wanted it,” explains Wenger. “As soon as possible, and that was what I did. And that's what he got. It ended up a part of history.”
An important part of Laurie's future. She and her husband Ron own the copyright and they work with the university to market the merchandise.
“You'll find play like a champion on things like Frisbees, hats and even baby bibs,” explains Ron Wenger husband of Laurie. “But Laurie was especially thrilled to see it in outer space.”
She was watching TV, when astronaut and ND alum Kevin Ford was interviewed aboard the International Space Station.
“It was like ah, I made it in space,” says Laurie. “I was breathless I couldn't talk. It was kind of neat to see. I never would've thought in a million years that it would be up there in outer space. But that is so cool.”
Laurie's lettering can also be found on hundreds of game balls, and that list of championship years posted above the iconic sign.
I am hoping to add another championship to that list,” says Wenger. “Coach Kelly has them whipped into shape, and our team has done so fantastic this year. They're such a great group of men.
The message meant to inspire a football team is a message that keeps Laurie strong too. Laurie was born visually impaired, and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the mid-90's.
“You just charge on, because you can't do anything else,” says Wenger. “I refuse to let this get me down. Just keep on carrying on.”
Because of MS, Laurie no longer paints and she retired from Notre Dame. While she struggles with her balance and mobility, she remains cheerful, especially when talking about her beloved Irish. She wants this team to live the message and make it a reality.
“Bring home the glory again,” says Wenger. “I feel like they can with all my heart.”
Perhaps that's a good sign, because Laurie truly has a heart of a champion.
While Laurie has a nice collection of autographs from coaches and players there's one person she hasn't had the opportunity to meet, and that's Coach Kelly.
She says she looks forward to getting his autograph on one of her signs after the Irish win the National Championship.