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.
SOUTH BEND, Indiana [courtesy ESPN.com, Sept 13, 2006]
“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 memories.”