By Michael Rodio | Dec. 5, 2012 | The Daily Domer
Revere La Noue ’99 wasn’t sure why, but something compelled him away from the TV set and to his drawing board.
An award-winning professional artist who played lacrosse at Notre Dame, La Noue had just finished watching his Fighting Irish lose to their longtime gridiron rival, the U.S. Naval Academy, for the first time in 44 years.
As La Noue started sketching on that November evening, the game’s final images washed over him. After three overtimes, both teams stood in opposite corners of the still-full Notre Dame Stadium, singing along as each band played their alma maters for thousands of fans in the stands. It was a show of sportsmanship and respect – and a sign of something greater than the game.
“After watching that game, I began thinking about how special the Notre Dame traditions are,” La Noue says. “Like the service academies, the passion for Notre Dame is truly national… So what do we all have in common? That’s one of the questions that got me started making sketches for this piece.”
From those first sketches, La Noue crafted a painting he called “The Original Fighting Irish.”
There are no football players on the canvas. No Gipper, no Rockne. Instead, “The Original Fighting Irish” portrays a band of working-class toughs, standing shoulder to shoulder in a united front of muscle and determination.
“The piece is both a scene, thousands of tough immigrant men defending a green flag, and a metaphor for an attitude, a conviction, and a sense of honor that I see equally in men and women,” La Noue says.
In a sense, the painting’s most striking features are actually the features that aren’t there: faces. La Noue creates immense detail in the landscape – the emerald flag snapping overhead, the glowing sun’s Celtic designs – but the men and women in the painting have no identifying facial features. There is a priest among them, recognizable from his white Roman collar and black vestments, but even he is a faceless, nameless figure.
This is why Brian Kelly decided to hang “The Original Fighting Irish” in his office.
“I met Coach Kelly in his office in the spring of 2010,” La Noue says. “Of course he hadn’t coached a game at Notre Dame yet… We talked about what makes Notre Dame a special place and what it meant to play for the Fighting Irish. We talked about the need to stoke the spirit of grit and toughness.”
Before La Noue left Kelly’s office, he gave the new coach a print of the painting.
“You never know what a football coach will say about a piece of art,” La Noue says, “but he looked at it and said, ‘I get it, this is it, this is exactly it.’”
As Kelly took up Notre Dame’s tradition-rich legacy, he decided to rebuild the program on a foundation as strong and unyielding as the nameless immigrants who first built the little Catholic university into a symbol of pride and resilience. And even though “The Original Fighting Irish” is resplendent with Irish tricolor's green and orange, the people in his painting aren’t even necessarily Irish. They could be, say, Hawaiian.
“I love it when a play happens and everyone who touches the ball is from a different part of the United States,” La Noue says. “I love when a quarterback from South Carolina fakes the handoff to a running back from New Jersey and passes to a receiver from Hawaii. For me, that represents a common set of values.”
In Kelly’s office, La Noue’s painting became a blueprint for success. As Kelly steered the modern-day Fighting Irish through his first two seasons, he and his staff consistently emphasized the core Notre Dame spirit that resonates in La Noue’s painting. The Original Fighting Irish have their sleeves rolled up, a reminder that no success can exist without flinty toughness and plain hard work. “Next man in,” the faceless workers seem to say, echoing one of Kelly’s favorite refrains.
Even during Kelly’s third season, the Fighting Irish have gone undefeated in a style akin to whatever manual labor La Noue’s tough guys are doing. Game after game, Notre Dame won with tough line play and tenacious running reminiscent of a bulldozer. Players have started toting a well-worn sledgehammer on the sideline. Short of trading their iconic gold helmets for hardhats, the 2012 Fighting Irish couldn’t embrace their hardworking roots any better.
So while “The Original Fighting Irish” may be illustrative of the team’s success and of Kelly’s style, the painting is also emblematic of the university as a whole and its underdog spirit. And even though the Irish faithful are now riding a wave of excitement before the BCS National Championship, La Noue is quick to point out that the Notre Dame spirit will always transcend mere touchdowns or tackles.
“Don’t see the National Championship as the ultimate end,” La Noue cautions. “Notre Dame is generations deep. It’s alumni, it’s students, it’s fans, it’s subway alumni. It’s not a statistics thing, it’s a character thing. It’s working because the kids are having fun and playing hard.”
Ultimately, La Noue’s painting is more than a blueprint. It’s a reminder of art’s power to convey an ethic of respect, a ritual of identity, and a ceremony that unites a family.
It’s also a call to action.
“We should welcome everyone who respects the great contributions immigrants have made to this country and values a hardworking, unglamorous pursuit of a dream,” La Noue says. “The piece isn’t about the success of the team, it’s about the ethic that binds us together.”
Some might call it the spirit of Notre Dame.