Hadley native Nate Bombardier is Notre Dame’s leprechaun mascot

Laste modified: Monday, April 13, 2015
On Tuesday night, Nate Bombardier wanted to cut down his third championship net of the NCAA basketball season. It’s an experience few college seniors get, but unfortunately the Notre Dame women’s basketball team lost to UConn, 63-53, in the national championship.

Bombardier is neither a coach, nor a member of the training staff. He is the leprechaun mascot for the Fighting Irish.

“It was a little sad,” the Hadley native and Hopkins Academy graduate said. “We’ve been with these girls all year. We’re their cheer squad. I’m their leprechaun. You really see the team through injuries, really fight in all these games — South Carolina was a really close game (in the national semifinal). You see the team really scrap, in that game you just feel so bad for the girls. ... That’s their fourth loss in the finals in five years, but they’ve also been to four finals in five years. It was still an amazing season.”

Notre Dame has three leprechauns assigned to one of three cheer squads. Bombardier is on the blue squad, pepping up the crowds at women’s volleyball and women’s basketball games in South Bend, Indiana, and traveling during the postseason. The gold squad cheers at football and men’s basketball games, while green handles men’s and women’s soccer and men’s ice hockey.

“I’ve really enjoyed blue squad as a senior because you get to go to the football games as a student,” Bombardier said. “Obviously, you want to be the top squad, but it’s still fun and we’re all members of the varsity cheerleading squad. There are just different squads within it.”

Given the women’s basketball team’s tradition, Bombardier was excited about the postseason potential, but didn’t realize he’d get in on the fun. On March 8, the Irish beat Florida State, 71-58, for the ACC championship. Four wins later, Bombardier and the team cut down the Oklahoma City Regional nets after a 77-68 win over Baylor to advance to the Final Four.

“The team cut down one net (at the ACC Championship) and (Notre Dame women’s basketball coach) Muffet (McGraw) looked at me and gave me the scissors and said, ‘Go cut down the other net’ with the cheerleaders and the band,” Bombardier said. “It was just a really cool moment. I know right now, it doesn’t seem super huge to me. It’s still like a great experience, but I know in 20 years when I look back on it, I’ll be like, ‘That was awesome. I got to cut down the net at an NCAA Regional.’”

A mascot’s playbook

Attending the Final Four was Bombardier’s last sporting event as a leprechaun, but the experience was more than just games and occasional mascot dance-offs. Charity and community appearances have given Bombardier more than he ever could have imagined a custom-made leprechaun suit ever would. He said his Make-A-Wish events and visits to children and Veterans Affairs hospitals were some of his off-court highlights.

“It really forced you to come out of your shell. You’re doing a lot of really spontaneous events that I wouldn’t have done before,” Bombardier said. “You learn how to talk with all different types of people, from kids to older people. It was really fun. It was really good to learned how to interact with diverse people.”

Bombardier found himself caring way more about two women’s sports than he ever expected, considering Notre Dame’s football reputation.

“I never thought I would care about our new coach in women’s volleyball or how our women’s basketball beat up against South Carolina’s big men,” Bombardier said.

As the seasons went on, he got to know some of the players personally and it added to the experience.

“Once you get to the know the girls and see them struggling through some of those games, you really become invested,” he said. “It (means) more when you’re cheering for people that you know and you’re rooting for them as a friend and not just the team you’re assigned to root for.”

Bombardier took the duties of being a mascot seriously. The Fighting Irish leprechaun is the rare college mascot that can talk.

“I don’t use an Irish accent. I’m actually pretty bad at that. I think that would crumble pretty quickly,” said Bombardier, who is 25 percent Irish on his father Glen’s side of the family.

When dressed as the leprechaun he can’t say no to a photo request. Bombardier said he has had fans tap on his car window in the parking lot, after it took way too long to get from the game to his car in the first place, for a late post-victory picture.

“It’s a second of my time, but it’s a fun picture for them to have,” he said. “Sometimes you’re in Christmas cards or an refrigerators, people’s Instagrams. It’s something that can feel a little tedious at times and it can take 20 minutes to walk 40 feet on game day, but it’s still totally worth it.”

The hardest part about being the leprechaun was keeping spirits high Tuesday night. The Irish finished the season 36-3, so he didn’t have that much experience exciting a losing crowd. Mascot costumes usually have head pieces that can hide facial expressions.

“The hard part, especially with games like that, is your face is out there,” Bombardier said. “It’s all about keeping positive. You can never quit on the team because everyone can see you. If we’re down 13 and I’m like, ‘It’s over,’ then everyone is going to see that and really bring the team down. It’s all about keeping the energy up at all times.”

A lucky chance

Becoming the leprechaun was unexpected, much like attending Notre Dame. As a senior at Hopkins Academy in 2011, Bombardier waited until the last possible day to pick between going to South Bend or following in his sister Mary’s footsteps at Providence. After a little pressure from his mom, Pam, Notre Dame won and the pestering about becoming the leprechaun began.

“He applied because I wanted him to,” said Pam, who has enjoyed seeing Nate on national broadcasts this season. “When we first stepped foot on campus and saw the leprechaun ... I said, ‘Oh, you should be the leprechaun Nate. You look like the leprechaun!’ He was like, ‘No, mom. No.’”

At 5-foot-8 and with some facial hair, she wasn’t the only one who saw the resemblance, although Nate Bombardier said height, or lack thereof, isn’t a requirement. Jo Minton, coach of the Notre Dame cheer team, saw him in the front row at a men’s basketball game against Duke.

“It was over break, so there weren’t a lot of students,” he said. “The coach came up to me and she was like, ‘Oh, are you an underclassmen?’ and I was like, ‘I’m a junior,’ and she said, ‘Oh, I was going to say you look like a leprechaun. You should try out this year.’ I kind of just laughed it off because that was really before I thought about it.”

After mulling it over he went through the month-long audition process last April for three spots.

A group of 13 was trimmed to six for the final tests that included signing the fight song, a push-up contest, dancing the jig, being interviewed by a local news reporter with hard-hitting questions to judge how the candidate handled pressure, and rallying their friends for a massive fake pep rally.

Late on a Friday night at the end of the tryout, Bombardier and a few of his friends stood outside the Edmund P. Joyce Center waiting for the leprechaun selections to be posted on the door.

“I remember being really excited. It was kind of like making a team in high school,” he said. “I’d been talking to my friends. They thought I’d done well, but you never really know.”

As the lone senior among this year’s leprechauns, Bombardier ran the Notre Dame flag out of the tunnel ahead of the football team in the home finale against Louisville. He led the crowd of nearly 81,000 in cheers and performed a few routines with the cheerleaders in the first half after he and his parents took part in senior-day festivities.

“It was raining, it was cold, but that’s what Notre Dame football is always like,” he said. “It was really fun and I’ve never been in front of that many people in the leprechaun suit so that was really cool. That was one of the highlights of my leprechaun career for sure.”

Bombardier gets to keep his leprechaun suit as a memento of a college experience that will last for more than just his lifetime.

“There are going to be so many memories that I am going to have forever,” said Bombardier, who will attend UMass Medical School in the fall. “I was trying to figure out how many pictures I’ve been in this year, and it really has to be probably at least 100,000. It’s kind of funny to think about all the different Instagrams, Facebook pictures, emails that I’ve been in without even really knowing it.”

Sarah Moomaw can be reached at smoomaw@gazettenet.com.