The scar is new. The bruises are new. The scabs are new. The leg damage is new. The inability to swallow is new. The inability to talk is new. The Horner’s Syndrome is new. The inability to move my right shoulder is new. The weight loss is new. The bags under my eyes are new.
But, I don’t care about those things. They mean nothing to me. They are frustrating and bothersome. But, I don’t care.
To me, what is most different is my mind; my mind and my heart. Over the past 18 days I have never felt happier. —Elli Thatcher, May 3
This is the soundtrack that plays in DeShone Kizer’s head these days.
It drowns out the twinges of angst of abruptly going from afterthought/upside-laden/curiosity to a viable piece in Notre Dame’s 2015 quarterback picture in the time it took to hit the send button on Everett Golson’s prepared statement on Thursday regarding his impending severance.
For the sophomore-to-be’s first 12 months on the Notre Dame campus, spent incubating as a redshirt, the defining question that shadowed Kizer was who and what he might become in the context of Notre Dame football. It’s now all about who he is.
And the most indelible thread to the still-evolving answer starts with the large doses of perspective provided to him by his girlfriend, Elli Thatcher.
Less than a month ago, Thatcher had a baseball-size tumor removed from her neck during a 17-hour surgical procedure at James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio — the culmination of chasing five years of inexplicable symptoms that until recently escaped clustering into a viable diagnosis.
It’s a journey Thatcher and Kizer have shared through her blog, 271 Miles: A glance at a life of tumors, touchdowns and triumph (https://271miles.wordpress.com/).
“I don’t think many adults could handle it as well as he did as a college freshman, competing for a spot at Notre Dame, competing in the classroom at Notre Dame,” marveled Kizer’s high school football coach at Toledo Central Catholic, Greg Dempsey.
“You throw it right in spring ball, when the spring game was coming, and she was having her surgery and what not. But that’s what he’s like. He’s the kind of kid who can handle multiple things that are very tough, and he prioritizes them very well also.
“That’s how he’s able to pull things off like that and still do well under tough times.”
With Golson, a two-year starter at ND who ended an open spring QB competition vs. junior-to-be Malik Zaire with his request for a release to transfer, Kizer’s next step becomes being a viable backup to one-game career starter Zaire.
Beginning in the middle of June, when the Irish holdovers return from summer school and most of the freshman class enrolls, the 6-foot-5, 230-pounder will try to separate from incoming 6-2, 212-pound incoming freshman Brandon Wimbush.
“The next stage in his development is going to be having to do it on the field,” Dempsey said of Kizer. “I’m sure in practice and in the meeting rooms, he’s great, because that’s what he is. He’s a hard-working kid, very intelligent.
“At least his senior year in high school, it was very much like having another coach on the field, and you were able to take what he was saying and use it. And I’m sure that’s still going on now. I think it’s a matter of getting out there and doing it on that big stage as the next step in his progression.
“He told me after spring ball, he was going to prepare as if he had to be ready to start, because you never know what’s going to happen at that position. And I’m sure that’s the way he’s attacking it, even after (the Golson) news.”
Life is not about eliminating the imperfections. Everyone has battles and everyone has flaws. It’s about accepting those and learning to live with them and turn them into motivation. I can’t change my flaws. I can’t eliminate my inability to talk. I can’t eliminate my inability to walk. But I can do so much more than I can’t. —Elli Thatcher
Kizer was never so much as even a poorly kept secret to Dempsey and his staff when the three-sport prep star was in middle school.
Dempsey, in fact, followed Kizer’s dad, Derek, when the elder Kizer was a college basketball player at Bowling Green. DeShone, a power-hitting first baseman/outfielder in baseball, found his way into the starting lineup on Central Catholic’s hoops team by the middle of his freshman season.
And he helped the, yes, “Fighting Irish” to the first Final Four hoops appearance in school history that year, playing point guard.
“Most people thought basketball was going to be his way to go,” Dempsey said. “You saw his size. And when you saw him throw the football and saw that he could move and then saw his football IQ, I knew pretty early on that football was going to be his ticket to college.
“They just don’t make many quarterbacks with all of his athletic ability and all of his intangibles.”
Kizer ended up going 34-6 as a three-year starter in football, leading Central Catholic to a Division II state title as a junior. He had a 30-to-6 TD pass-to-interception ratio as a senior and rushed for 539 yards on 62 carries (8.7 average).
He may be the second-best punter on the Irish roster, to newly anointed first-time starter and classmate Tyler Newsome. Kizer averaged 41.2 yards per punt his senior season at Central Catholic.
Alabama and then LSU were the first two schools to offer scholarships, per Dempsey, and LSU seemed to have the inside track until Notre Dame, via former QBs coach and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, came into the picture.
“It got real serious then,” Dempsey said. “It was just what he was looking for. And I think he’s everything that Notre Dame is about — on the field, off the field. There was just such a fit. And when he got to spend time with coach (Brian) Kelly, the day he went there with his family (for a recruiting visit), that just closed the deal.”
Kizer’s modest numbers in the Blue-Gold Game last month —1-for-5 passing for 3 yards and a sack — don’t sync up with what the Irish coaching staff overall felt was a promising and progressive spring.
“He’s a dynamic player,” Dempsey said. “He’s a big, athletic kid, who can throw the ball vertically and really stretch a defense multiple ways. He’s just got that big, pocket body, that’s kind of prototypical. Just like high school, he’s going to get better with every snap he takes and produce very well.
“I thought heading into college he had so much more upside to explore than a lot of kids who were specializing at the quarterback position. I really think over the next two years, we’re going to start to see him do some special things.”
And the motivation to do so is never far away.
I was given these battles to fight and learn. To struggle and push myself. To teach and to love. I have done all these things. I will continue to do all of these things.
Love hard. Love fully. Love like someone is dealing with something so detrimental each day. Realize what you have and how beautiful they are.
It changes everything. — Elli Thatcher