Got 'Milk'? Notre Dame football does, and his promotional glass is overflowing

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Michael Vinson before Notre Dame football practice Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021 at the Irish Athletic Center in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — The “Milk” train just keeps gathering steam for Michael Vinson.  

Notre Dame’s multi-talented long snapper, better known as “Milk” around campus, made his first-ever visit on Tuesday to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Thanks to his NIL promotional partners at the American Dairy Association of Indiana, the newly minted Notre Dame graduate was able to park in the infield, meet racing legend Mario Andretti during a tour of Gasoline Alley and experience how it feels to race around the famed rectangular oval at 110 mph. 

Sporting his “Winners Drink Milk” cap and a Notre Dame golf shirt, Vinson folded his 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame into the passenger seat of a Chevy Malibu and let an expert driver take him on a single “fast lap” around the 2.5-mile layout. 

“It was really, really cool,” Vinson said by phone as IndyCar engines roared in the background during a practice session for the May 29 Indianapolis 500 . “I’m just sitting here in the grandstand, taking it all in.” 

Shannon Vinson and her son, Michael, the Notre Dame long snapper, are shown during a tour of Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Tuesday May 17, 2022

Better still, Vinson, 22, was able to bring his mother along after she celebrated her birthday on Monday. Shannon Vinson actually grew up around auto racing, learning the sport from her late father, Tom Mitchell, who competed at Road America in Plymouth, Wis.  

A 1986 graduate of the famed Skip Barber Racing School, Shannon was raised in Chicago’s northern suburbs and raced Indy Light cars at Road America until 1994. Tennis eventually won out for her, but she still has fond memories of accompanying her dad to IndyCar and NASCAR events. 

Until Tuesday, she hadn’t been at The Brickyard in 25 years. 

“It was the weekends at the track with my dad that were so amazing,” Shannon Vinson said. “Our best conversations were sitting in the grandstands between practices or watching other races, and now I'm sitting up here in the grandstands with my son.” 

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The emotional aspect only made Tuesday more memorable. Stories flowed freely about Tom Mitchell, who died in 2002 at age 61. 

“I’m beyond words that (ADAI) could provide this opportunity for us,” she said. “It’s like the next generation sitting here. My dad’s no longer alive, but I feel like he would be loving this moment.” 

'Match made in heaven' 

Rarely in the brief, sordid history of the NCAA’s experiment with name, image and likeness has a branding opportunity made this much sense. 

That was Michael Vinson’s belief when he first reached out to the ADAI with the idea last fall. The 2021 season was well underway when Vinson, then a preferred walk-on who has since been placed on scholarship, crafted a proposal letter offering his services as a brand ambassador for the nonprofit.

Racing legend Mario Andretti, left, and Notre Dame long snapper Michael Vinson pose on Tuesday, May 17 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Scott Vinson, a consultant in the healthcare industry, gave his son’s letter a quick proofread and offered his encouragement. It included the backstory of how Vinson earned his distinctive nickname, which came courtesy of former Irish punter and team captain Tyler Newsome in the summer of 2018. 

For some reason incumbent specialists were calling themselves the “Cheese Unit.” Vinson, yet to earn his cheese status, was dubbed “Milk” and the rest is history. 

Notre Dame’s Michael Vinson (65) celebrates with Kyren Williams (23) during the Notre Dame vs. Stanford NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021 at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.

Former Irish running back and staff analyst Tyler Plantz, now coaching at his old high school of Providence Catholic in New Lenox, Ill., also deserves credit, Vinson said, for keeping the “Milk” gag going. Plantz would tease Vinson that he should carry a milk jug around campus to distinguish himself from other walk-ons. 

With those mentors in mind, Vinson figured he had nothing to lose. 

“I just sent the initial email: ‘Hey, I go to Notre Dame. My name is ‘Milk.’ Let’s partner together,’ “ Vinson said. 

Brooke Williams, communications director for the Indianapolis-based organization that represents some 720 dairy farms in the Hoosier State, was previously unaware of Vinson. ADAI had partnerships in place with placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship of the Indianapolis Colts and IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden, but Williams had heard about NIL after it came online last July and she was intrigued. 

“She responded fairly quickly,” Vinson said. “She said, ‘We have to do something together, right?’ It’s just a match made in heaven.” 

Williams negotiated the deal directly with Vinson, a political science major who wasn’t looking to break the bank. 

“We went back and forth a couple times there, but it was a pretty quick process,” Williams said. “He’s just enthusiastic to have a partnership and to help us get the word out about dairy and youth wellness. I just think it made a lot of sense. You can’t get a more natural fit than somebody whose nickname is ‘Milk.’ “ 

Vinson went public with his new partnership on Nov. 12, posing on the front porch of the house he shared with former Irish teammates Kurt Hinish, Drew White and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa. Decked out in his new “Winners Drink Milk” cap and T-shirt, Vinson posted the photo for his combined 3,170 followers on Twitter and Instagram. 

The folks at ADAI were pleased with the resulting publicity, which included a supportive social-media comment from the otherwise “lactose intolerant” Paul Moala, the former Irish and Penn High defender.

“Today I can tolerate it,” Moala posted. 

Virtual tour guide

During Notre Dame’s spring break on March 11, Vinson joined Williams and dairy farmer Jill Houin on a 36-minute virtual tour of Homestead Dairy in Plymouth, Ind.

With elementary students watching from 50–plus schools in five different states — Missouri, West Virginia, Iowa, Ohio and Indiana — Vinson gave the educational Zoom added zest with his charming manner and informed questions.

“He was very curious,” Williams said. “You could tell he’s a good student.”  

Vinson amazed his co-hosts with his accurate guess on the average weight of a newborn calf (90 pounds); his daily food regimen, which includes a massive breakfast, two lunches and two dinners; and a detailed account of his personal milk-drinking history. 

Notre Dame’s Michael Vinson (65) tracks Cincinnati's Ryan Montgomery (22) during the Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

His favorite all-time milk: Chocolate. 

Unlike his mother, he does not indulge in the “controversial” practice of dropping an ice cube in his glass of milk. 

“That was just a really cool thing,” Vinson said of the virtual farm tour. “Me and the farmer were walking through the farm and all the different aspects of it, teaching the kids the importance of drinking milk, how well the cows are taken care of and all of the technology that goes into it.”

He was surprised to learn Homestead Dairy partners with Notre Dame to add campus food waste to the “digester” process that ultimately helps create electricity for thousands of Plymouth-area residents. 

The plan is for Vinson, a projected third-year starter and potential team captain this fall, to make additional in-person appearances at schools and dairies around the state. 

Next week the Vinsons will return to IMS as special guests at the annual Fastest Rookie Luncheon. A glass of cold milk will be raised in honor of the best new qualifying-lap performers, all of it culminating with the traditional post-race presentation of a cold bottle of milk in Victory Circle on May 29.

Vinson won’t be asked to handle any of those duties at this year’s Indianapolis 500. Indiana dairy farmers Tim Haynes and Kerry Estes will carry on a tradition that dates back to Louis Meyer’s buttermilk-toasted win in 1933.

But Vinson does plan to be in attendance on race day for his first Indy 500. Shannon Vinson, trying to juggle a remote work schedule as the family drives 14 hours each way to its new Dallas-area home, hopes to join him for that experience as well.

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This month has been quite a whirlwind for the family, which traveled to Tuscaloosa for twin sister Jacqueline’s graduation from the University of Alabama. A football recruiting operations intern for the Crimson Tide, Vinson’s sister will intern in football operations with the Colts during training camp before returning to Alabama to pursue her master’s degree. 

The Vinsons already have an open invitation to make the 40-minute drive down from South Bend to Plymouth for a day with Farmer Jill, who served as honorary Milk Person after the past two Indy 500s. During the virtual tour in March, Vinson was given the opportunity to name a 5-day-old calf among the 4,900-strong herd at Homestead Dairy.

As his proud mother eavesdropped from the next room, he chose “Shannon” as the permanent name for Calf No. 44910. 

“That,” Shannon Vinson said, “was awesome.”

Staff writer Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for the South Bend Tribune and NDInsider.com. Email him at mberardino@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.