Goshen News, Goshen, IN

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January 5, 2013

ND leprechaun mascot staying busy before the big game

MIAMI — As the rich and famous stream into this glamorous city for Monday night’s BCS National Championship Game, 22-year-old Bryce Burton — all 5-feet-7, 145 pounds of him — just might be the biggest celebrity in South Beach the next few days.

As No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama prepare to battle for college football’s biggest prize, Burton is in demand as the leprechaun mascot for the Fighting Irish.

“We’ve been so busy,” the Notre Dame senior said between events Friday afternoon. “We’re getting ready to go visit The Covenant House right now.”

Media appearances, alumni parties, hospital visits and pep rallies have Burton and the rest of the Notre Dame cheerleaders booked solid for the next three days. Such is the life when you put on the little green suit and become one of the most recognizable mascots in all of sport.

“I take an untold amount of photographs, especially on campus during a game day,” Burton said. “I definitely get a lot of attention.”

When Burton is in character he is legitimately famous. Those countless snapshots of him often end up as Facebook profile pictures, family Christmas cards and desk photographs in a stranger’s office.

He realized how unique the job was at his first appearance at the former College Football Hall of Fame in downtown South Bend two years ago.

“That day both Rudy and Jon Gruden asked me to take a picture with them,” Burton said. “I thought that was pretty funny.”

“Rudy,” of course, is Daniel Ruettiger, a former Notre Dame walk-on who inspired the iconic 1993 sports movie, “Rudy.” Gruden is a former NFL coach who is now a top NFL analyst for ESPN. He coached the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl title in 2002.

Burton grew up in southern Indiana and played running back for the Newburgh High School football team. He was a Notre Dame fan, but was denied admission as a freshman. After a year at Indiana University he was able to transfer to Notre Dame for his sophomore year.

He didn’t have the size or skill to play football, but he did have the central casting qualities necessary to pass for a leprechaun.  

“I’m thin, short, have red hair and I can grow facial hair,” Burton said with a laugh. “People had been telling me for a long time that I should try out. When I finally got to Notre Dame I figured I might as well give it a shot.”

A rigorous, three-week tryout process included intensive interviews, a push-up contest, a dance contest and a mock pep rally. The cheerleading coaches then met and consulted a special panel to select three mascots and assign them to teams.

Last year Burton made it as a Blue Squad Leprechaun. His jurisdiction was women’s basketball, volleyball and soccer. In July 2011, however, Burton suffered a setback when he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. A month later his intestine perforated and he was rushed to Indianapolis for emergency surgery.

“I thought I was going to die,” he said in an ESPN blog.

For the next few months of his junior year Burton lived with a colostomy bag until the surgery was reversed in December 2011. He slowly regained his strength and was cleared to resume physical activity in February. He re-joined the cheerleader squad and participated in Notre Dame’s run to the 2012 women’s NCAA basketball Final Four.

“Right now I feel as well as I did since before it happened,” Burton said of the surgery. “I’m certainly not limited in any way anymore, but it took a long time.”

Back at full strength, Burton struck gold at tryouts this school year and was named the “Gold Squad” leprechaun. Football would be his business.

“I was very happy about it,” Burton said. “Everybody recognizes Notre Dame football. To find out that I would be on the sidelines during the games was very humbling and something I was very proud about.”

Being the Notre Dame leprechaun is much more than just jumping around on the sidelines, said Burton, who is officially a member of the cheerleading squad. There is practice each day of the week and plenty of community events service projects to keep the squad busy.

 “We don’t just show up for games,” Burton said. “When we travel we go to schools and we go to hospitals and nursing homes for appearances. … All sorts of things.”

When Notre Dame plays at home, Burton said, he performs at as many as six pep rallies. For a 3:30 p.m. kickoff, Burton’s squad starts around 10 a.m. to fire up the home fans. When ESPN’s College Game Day crew came to the campus for the Stanford game back on Oct. 13, Burton’s day began around 8 a.m.

Burton was a prominent part of the popular pre-game telecast that travels to the biggest college football game of the week. At the end of each two-hour show, analyst Lee Corso predicts a winner of the upcoming game.  He often does so by putting a foam mascot head over his own.

In this case, Corso dressed up in a leprechaun suit and danced an Irish jig with Burton on the set.

“That was a lot of fun,” Burton said. “He told me I had to carry my weight up there. It’s fun seeing the commercials for Game Day when they use that clip.”

Burton will have plenty more face time with America this weekend. He’ll likely take hundreds more photographs with starry-eyed Irish fans and shout, “Go, IRISH” with absolute conviction each time an ESPN camera finds him on the sideline Monday night.

And in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, he hopes to be with the Irish football team holding the crystal football trophy that is college football’s pot of gold.

“It’s been an incredible year for us,” Burton said. “Just one more to go.”

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