Oct. 20, 2006
By Katie Stuhldreher
Senior wide receiver Jeff Samardzija keeps fairly busy these days. Between classes, Coach Weis’ grueling practice routines, throwing pitches in the Wrigley Field bullpen, playing minor league baseball, and defending his XBox bragging rights from his Irish teammates, Samardzija has little free time.
But anything less – for Samardzija – would be just plain boring.
And he didn’t waste any time, either. Samardzija started playing soccer, basketball, and baseball at age five in his hometown of Valparaiso, Ind.
“I’ve been playing football my whole life. I started playing organized ball when I was seven, in a Pop Warner league. Other than that, I was playing in the yard and park with my brother,” Samardzija says.
He continues, “Baseball was the same thing. In fall and winter I’d be playing football, in spring and summer it was baseball.”
Samardzija’s father, Sam, taught him to play ice hockey at a young age, too. Sam Samardzija played several years in a semi-pro hockey league in Chicago.
At 12 years of age, Samardzija added wrestling to his list of activities, earning Indiana state runner-up in his weight class.
Senior offensive tackle Ryan Harris told Blue and Gold Illustrated of Samardzija: “He’s one of those guys who could take up golf or tennis for the first time and be good right away.”
Yet when the time came to consider college recruiting offers, Samardzija knew he had to narrow his interests-but only slightly.
Samardzija said he wanted to play both baseball and football at the collegiate level, but his chances initially looked grim.
“I was recruited a lot for baseball, but I think a lot of the football stuff scared people away. Some programs didn’t want to recruit me if they thought I was just going to go and play football,” he says.
However, once Samardzija made the decision to attend Notre Dame, he began talking to baseball head coach Paul Mainieri about the possibility of playing for his team in the spring.
“Originally, I didn’t think it was going to happen but it all worked out in the end. During my freshman year I just kind of jumped at the opportunity,” Samardzija recalls.
On the baseball diamond, Jeff Samardzija finished his Notre Dame career with a 21-6 record and a 3.82 earned-run average. He was selected in the fifth round of the June Draft by the Chicago Cubs.
And by the end of Samardzija’s freshmen year, Mainieri was glad he allowed the wide receiver join the team. Samardzija put together an 8-1 record with a 3.89 ERA and was selected as a Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball magazine.
“Playing both is pretty hectic, but overall being able to compete in any sport helps you get better at other sports. You’ll always find that. I’m always competing, so even though they aren’t really the same, that aspect carries over between the two,” says Samardzija of his decision to play both sports.
His breakout season for the football team, however, came during his junior year when he had the opportunity to fill in as a starter after senior Rhema McKnight injured his knee.
Samardzija recorded several big games during 2005 – 10 receptions against Brigham Young University, 191 receiving yards at Stanford, and scored 3 touchdowns against Michigan State.
He finished the year setting Notre Dame single-season records for catches (77 – tied with Tom Gatewood’s 1970 total), yards (1,249) and touchdowns (15) to take consensus All-American honors and was selected team MVP along with quarterback Brady Quinn.
“That’s tough to think about. It’s one of those things that takes time to sink in. It’s not just a matter of it happening, but happening at a place like Notre Dame,” Samardzija comments. “It’s kind of funny to see your name up there with so many great players that went through here before. It’s funny, but humbling at the same time.”
Adding to his athletic endeavors at Notre Dame, Samardzija participated in bookstore basketball, a campus-wide 5-on-5 outdoor tournament held each spring. Samardzija teamed up with former Irish football players Carlyle Holiday and D.J. Fitzpatrick to win a championship his freshman year.
It’s clear Samardzija likes to keep busy during the fall and spring seasons, so why should the summer be any different?
Following his junior year, Samardzija was drafted by the Chicago Cubs. Growing up, Samardzija always was a White Sox fan, but his youthful loyalties made him no less anxious to sign with the Cubs. During the summer, he was invited to Wrigley Field to throw in the bullpen.
“I pitched at Wrigley. It was a great experience. A lot like playing in Notre Dame Stadium. It’s kind a of cool thing how they go hand-in-hand,” he says. “After I was done pitching at Wrigley, I went to play on the minor league team for the Cubs for about a month and a half. I did that for the summer to kind of get my feet wet in the organization.”
Samardzija said he was happy with his performance in the minors, but turning pro still required some adjustments.
“Obviously the players are better. It’s really just a matter of adjusting and having the confidence to know that you can do it,” he remarks.
Samardzija believes he’s more focused on football than baseball at the moment, He hopes to get drafted by an NFL team in the spring. Donning a Chicago Bears baseball cap, Samardzija says he’d love to play both sports in Chicago.
“It’s exciting. Being a kid, growing up that’s something you want to do – play football or baseball with a major league team,” he says. “To be able to do that in baseball and maybe have the opportunity to do that in football is really exciting. I’m just trying to soak it up and let it sink in. I don’t want it to pass me by without letting it sink in.”
In Samardzija’s little free time between practices, classes, and working on his curve ball, he enjoys playing video games with senior safety Tommy Zbikowski.
“We play X box, go out and watch movies. We get into trouble here and there, but overall it’s pretty funny,” he adds.
Samardzija likes to point out that both he and Zbikowski are among the most competitive players on the team and often allow this competitive streak to show up off the field.
“A lot of the time we don’t finish a game because a controller gets thrown or we get into an argument. But we cool off pretty quickly,” he jokes.
When asked if the rivalry was all in good fun, he laughs and replies, “Sometimes.”
In addition, Samardzija is working hard to complete his degree in the Mendoza College of Business.
“I’m a marketing major. Anyone who goes to Notre Dame can understand what it’s like. So other than football and baseball, it’s something else you learn to do. But I think it builds character,” he says.
Although Samardzija handles the pressure of playing two sports at Notre Dame with ease, he enjoys taking some time to get away from campus to spend time in the outdoors. He enjoys camping and fishing with his older brother in Michigan and Indiana.
“When I get my opportunities, I go. There’s a couple of places back home where I like to go to, just relax and be outside in the sun. It’s nice to just relax. It brings you back down,” says Samardzija.
When asked if he was any good at fishing, he replies, “I like to think so. If you ask my brother, he’d probably say no. He’d probably say he’s better. Jealousy can hurt sometimes.”
Samardzija enjoys attending a college close to his hometown so that he can keep in close touch with his brother.
“We hang out a lot and talk pretty much every day on the phone. I text him at work, to break it up. It’s like my relationship with Tommy. It’s a brother relationship. It’s fun,” Samardzija says.
Although he likes to stay busy and holds himself to very high standards, Samardzija says he always leaves time to have some fun.
“You’re last year can go by fast – all four years can go by fast. And if you aren’t having fun it’ll just go by faster. So I’m just having fun and soaking it up while I can, enjoying every minute of it,” says Samardzija with a grin.