Oct. 17, 2013
By Denise Skwarcan
The glare on any quarterback with regard to his team’s record is often unfair, but part of the high-profile position. At Notre Dame, one of the most storied programs in the country that has turned out more than a few All-American signalcallers, it can be downright blinding.
Just ask Tommy Rees. The senior quarterback has endured a lifetime of ups and downs during his four-year collegiate career. It certainly was apparent after the Irish dropped to 3-2 following a loss to Oklahoma. But Rees has earned the respect of his coaches and teammates — and he deserves it. He has been the consummate team player while at Notre Dame regardless of his situation. In typical Rees fashion, he credits others for helping him be successful.
“(Being a team player) always is something I’ve tried to exhibit and it’s something I’ve been taught from a young age, but it can be tough sometimes,” Rees admits. “So you have to rely on the people that mean the most to you and, I have a great support system here at Notre Dame and back home…whether it be my teammates or my coaches or my family who do a good job of keeping me even-keeled.
“When things are good they’re never a good as they seem, and when things are bad they’re never as bad as you think. That’s kind of an old mantra in football. So there’s always room to improve and there’s always room to get better, and it’s always about finding a way to do those things.”
The Lake Forest, Ill., product has had football blood in his veins since he was born. Rees’ dad, Bill, played quarterback at Ohio Wesleyan before working as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at UCLA from 1979-93 under Terry Donohue. He also worked in scouting and pro personnel for the Chicago Bears, the Cleveland Browns, the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers, and served as an assistant coach at Northwestern for three years (1976-78).
“I remember being in his office and just looking up at the big board and seeing all the different guys they were recruiting or scouting,” Rees recalls about Bill, who currently is a college scout for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “I would hang out in the equipment room and get gear handouts, and I’d sit where the quarterbacks were during practice.
“It was just kind of the way things were for me, although it was pretty cool too. But really it was just an opportunity for me to hang out with dad.”
Growing up, the younger Rees was a three-sport athlete, but he dropped baseball from his repertoire when he entered Lake Forest High School. Basketball, which Rees loved, made the cut along with football and, as a senior in 2009, Rees completed 215 of 308 passes for 2,572 yards and 23 touchdowns. Shortly thereafter, Rees moved to the Notre Dame campus where he was an early enrollee in January of 2010…a decision that wasn’t too difficult to make.
“I think I accepted football as my future when I was a sophomore in high school, but I continued to play basketball right up until I came to Notre Dame,” says Rees who also has an older brother, Danny, a former punter/holder at UCLA, and an older sister, Meghan, a graduate of Miami (Ohio). “Once I visited here a few times and got familiar with the campus and understood what Notre Dame was about and the values and the people…it just kind of drew me in.”
Despite the firing of head coach Charlie Weis at the end of his final prep campaign, Rees remained committed to the Irish and new head coach Brian Kelly. After the benefit of spring practice and then fall camp, Rees moved into the No. 2 position on the depth chart behind Dayne Crist. By the second game of the ’10 season, Rees was thrust into the lineup when Crist was injured. In an eventual loss to Michigan, Rees’ first collegiate pass became an unforgettable – albeit learning – experience.
“We ran a flea flicker, and I’ll never forget it,” Rees says. “Obviously when your first pass is an interception, you’re not too happy afterwards. But it didn’t do much harm to me in the long run. It opened my eyes to seeing how quickly I could be trusted with going from the backup to the starter, and made me work harder to be ready for the next opportunity.”
That came eight games later when Rees started the last three games of the regular season and the Hyundai Sun Bowl versus Miami, leading Notre Dame to four straight victories and an 8-5 record. In the process, Rees also became the first freshman quarterback in Notre Dame history to ever lead the Irish to a victory in a bowl game. Rees started the 2011 season behind Crist once again, but entered the very first game of the season against South Florida at halftime. He never relinquished the starting position that season which also resulted in an 8-5 mark.
As the 2012 campaign got underway Rees once again found himself the bridesmaid…this time to redshirt freshman bride Everett Golson. But Rees still was a critical part of Notre Dame’s offense, coming off the bench to lead the Irish in wins over Purdue (when the crowd booed him as he entered the game), Michigan and Stanford in overtime. Despite being 14-4 as a starter during his first three years, Rees on occasion has been criticized by the media for having limited arm strength and lack of mobility along with a penchant for turnovers. But Rees also has been credited for being ready when his name was called and never lowering it when it wasn’t.
“I don’t think you ever accept being the backup because then you become complacent,” Rees says. “The quarterback is one of those unique positions where there’s one guy out there and unless you’re that guy, you’re always trying to get better.
“Everyone has something that they can’t do. But understanding where your limitations are and working on those along with using your strengths will combat that. That’s what I’m always trying to do and, to be quite honest, I really don’t care what other people have to say about me.”
As the quarterback of the Irish, Rees knows and understands that he has some detractors; it goes with the territory of playing the high-profile position at Notre Dame. By and large, Rees has received nothing but positive support from those outside the confines of the Notre Dame locker room, but knows that he has the full backing of those that really matter — his head coach, the Irish coaching staff and his teammates.
“I haven’t had many issues with people being negative,” Rees notes. “The student body has been good and, for the most part, I get along with everybody. (Beyond campus), people usually have very positive things to say. People that understand Notre Dame and Notre Dame football always have an encouraging word for myself and my teammates.”
Just as Rees has always had for the other quarterbacks on the roster, regardless of where his position was on the depth chart. It’s just another example of Rees’ willingness to put the team first.
“I’ve always tried to do a good job of having a great relationship with the other guys in the room,” Rees says. “Obviously Everett’s (Golson) not here right now, but he and I really grew throughout the year (in 2012) where we could go to each other with anything we needed both on and off the field. We continue to communicate, and I wish him the best moving forward. And it’s the same with Andrew (Hendrix) and Malik (Zaire) and Charlie (Fiessinger). We all get along well.
“I think I understand team sports and, at the end of the day, winning is all that matters. So whoever can help us should play.”
In any event, Rees turns to his dad for help and support, and upon whose advice Rees has used to approach how he plays the game.
“My dad does a good job of trying not to crowd my mind with (a lot of football stuff),” Rees says of Bill who, along with wife Susan, will be in attendance for all of Rees’ games this season. “We’ll watch some games together and break down some film, whether it be mine or another quarterback just to watch. But whenever I need something I can go to him because I trust him with everything.
“And he told me to just to enjoy playing the game. I think a lot of times people forget why they play football because you’re competing so much and the stakes are so high. But he told me to enjoy what I’m doing and enjoy my teammates and being out on the field because you never know when it’s going to be up.”
Rees is conscious of the fact that his time in an Irish uniform is winding down. Then he will graduate from the Mendoza College of Business with a management consulting major, and begin a new chapter. Since he’s been around football his whole life, there’s a good chance Rees might seek out a position as a coach or in some team’s front office. But that’s going to have to wait for a little while longer.
“That’s a big question for me because I don’t know exactly what I want to be doing in five or 10 years,” Rees says. “I’m sure that my experiences at Notre Dame will set me up and give me several different avenues to choose from. But, for the next couple of months, I’m going to put everything I have into finishing it up here.