‘Champion’ sign painter sees slogan take off
By AMANDA GRAY January 4, 2013 2:10PM
Laurie Wenger, the artist who painted the original "Play Like A Champion Today" sign, stands near one of her several signs that adorn a portion of her basement on Jan. 2, 2013, at her home near South Bend, Ind. | AP Photo
Updated: February 7, 2013 6:26AM
Laurie Wenger was just a campus sign painter and Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz had need for a sign.
The iconic yellow and blue “Play Like A Champion Today” sign that hangs in Notre Dame Stadium, to be exact.
Wenger said the sign was just something Holtz wanted for his locker room, specifically in blue and gold. She painted it in the early fall of 1986.
“He said he wanted this saying painted up,” Wenger said. “The rest is literally history.”
Wenger said she ended up as a sign painter in mid-1980s for the university after she worked a few years at South Dining Hall. She worked as the sign painter for around 25 years and retired from there a few years ago, she said.
“I painted the sign originally, and then other people wanted a copy made,” Wenger said. “The first one went to a guy we know as ‘Rudy.’ ”
After the sign for Rudy Ruettiger, Wenger painted around 700 “Play Like A Champion Today” signs. She also painted many other signs around Notre Dame’s campus, including the list of national championships that hangs above the “Champion” sign, as well as the leprechaun and interlocking ND sign at the top of the stairs leading to the locker room.
Wenger, not the university, owns the copyright to the sign, meaning she makes a profit off whatever is sold bearing its image.
She and her husband, Ron Wenger, incorporated the “Champion” sign’s copyright in 1992. Play Like A Champion Today Inc. works with two printing companies, AP Image Team and Dec-O-Art, to make copies of the signs, Ron said.
“The signs are all local made,” Ron said.
While he didn’t have an exact number, Ron said he estimates around 20,000 signs have been printed since the first one. The successful 2012 football season has boosted sales, he said.
The couple make enough money off the copyright to cover medical expenses, Ron said.
Laurie was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis around 1995. The funds from the incorporated copyright help pay expenses. The couple has also “co-branded” items with the university, Ron said.
“Back then, the university said, ‘It doesn’t have the name on it, go ahead,’ ” Ron said. “ ... For the co-branding, the university was fantastic to work with.”
Laurie said she didn’t expect her simple, hand-painted sign to become a slogan for the football program. However, she’s happy it did.
“I’m blown away. I call it ‘The Little Sign That Could,’ ” she said. “I think of it not as just a saying for football, but a saying for everyone. Whether you’re a cook, reporter, painter, worker — what you do, you can do it well. Anyone can take the saying and apply it to their lives.”
The sign’s popularity has only grown with time, she said. Laurie’s handwriting was turned into a font, available digitally wherever the font has been sent to print the signs. Laurie’s story was even recently the subject of a column written by ESPN’s Rick Reilly.
“We got a call from the university saying Rick Reilly wanted to interview Laurie,” Ron said. “We said, ‘Who’s Rick Reilly?’ We searched and found his name and said, ‘Oh, that’s who!’ ”
In fact, the slogan is so popular, it’s gone galactic — current International Space Station astronaut Kevin Ford wore a shirt with the slogan while on board, she said.
“That was the neatest thing I’ve ever seen,” Laurie said. “It’s been to space!”
And, of course, individuals have altered the wording to fit their needs, such as the “cut like a champion” and “eat like a champion” signs at barbershops and restaurants.
What’s the Wenger prediction for the upcoming national championship game between the Irish and Alabama?
A win, they said.
“I feel like we’re going to win it,” Laurie said, looking on at the sign hanging in her basement. “I feel it in my soul.”