DeShone Kizer was a speller in the spotlight.
The sixth-grader stood on stage inside Elmhurst Elementary School, deprived of a dictionary, surrounded by teachers and classmates, awaiting a final word. One by one, his opponents popped under the pressure. They came, and they crumbled.
Spell “junco,” the teacher said.
A junco, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “any of a genus of small, widely distributed North American finches usually having a pink bill, ashy gray head and back and conspicuous white lateral tail feathers.” Its origins date back to 1887, with both Latin and Spanish roots.
Kizer didn’t know that then, and he doesn’t know it now.
“I had no idea what it was,” Kizer said last month. “I had never heard of it in my life.”
No matter. With the correct combination of consonants and vowels standing between Kizer and eternal glory, the future Notre Dame quarterback trusted his instincts and fired away.
“That literally is top two, top three (on my list of all-time accomplishments),” the sixth grade spelling bee champion said with a sarcastic grin. “At that time, everything is competitive when you have all your buddies around you. Me and three of my buddies were the final four contestants.
“To come out victorious in that is huge.”
It’s impressive, but it isn’t surprising. Take Kizer’s first game as Central Catholic High School’s starting quarterback, for example. Kizer was a sophomore, and he was tasked with leading a drive in the final minutes to knock off Crockett Tech.
He drove, and he scored. But one score wasn’t enough. Crockett Tech returned the ensuing kickoff inside the Central Catholic 10-yard line, and quickly scored again to put itself back ahead.
Kizer had to drive again, so he drove again. Only this time, the march ended when a fade route intended for current Louisville Cardinal tight end Keith Towbridge fell incomplete in the end zone.
Central Catholic lost, 25-20. But head coach Greg Dempsey saw something inside the sophomore.
“He took us down and scored once and had a chance to score twice inside of two minutes in his first start ever,” Dempsey said. “When your back’s against the wall, he’s a great guy to have in there.”
Brian Kelly saw it, too.
“You hope what you saw in high school (translates to college), and that was a couple of drives that I really liked in the fourth quarter that showed this is the kind of guy I'm looking for that has that kind of, ‘Give me the ball,’ (mentality),” said Kelly, Notre Dame’s seventh-year head coach. “‘Hand me the ball late in the game, and I'm going to get you the win.’
“He had that, but you've still got to be able to do that at the next level. We felt like he had the makeup. Then it's just a matter of, can he go out and do it?”
In Notre Dame’s second game of the 2015 season against Virginia, Kizer was a sophomore (again). His team trailed late in the fourth quarter (again). He was asked to lead the climactic winning drive (again).
Maybe, in retrospect, Kizer’s go-ahead 39-yard touchdown heave to Will Fuller with 12 seconds remaining shouldn’t have been quite so shocking.
There was one guy, at least, who saw it coming all along.
“He had a flair for the dramatic (in high school),” Dempsey said. “I’ve seen (games like) the Virginia game multiple times, where he makes that big throw where nobody thinks anything is there and it wins the game for you.
“I’ve seen it in the rain. I’ve seen it when it’s sunny. I’ve seen it when we’re down. I’ve seen it when we’re up and he’s icing a game. None of this surprises me.”
Teams change, seasons change but the results keep rolling in. Kizer showed up in primetime at waterlogged Clemson, where his team trailed 21-3 after three quarters and the Irish scored 19 fourth quarter points to pull within a two-point conversion of overtime. He passed for 321 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 60 yards and another score.
He did it in the 2015 regular season finale at Stanford, with a playoff berth on the line. Trailing 35-29 with a little less than seven minutes left, Kizer orchestrated a masterful 15-play, 88-yard drive, culminating with a determined lunge across the goal line in the final minute.
That should’ve been Kizer’s defining moment. Instead, the Irish defense withered, and it faded into a footnote.
He did it in the 2016 season opener at Texas, accounting for six touchdowns and decisively ending Notre Dame’s quarterback competition in front of more than 102,000 fans.
Shine a spotlight on DeShone Kizer, and the results are often C-L-U-T-C-H.
“Look, if you've got a really good quarterback you've got a chance, and he's a really good quarterback,” Kelly said. “He knows what he's doing. He knows how to do it and he's working to get better at it every single day. He gives you a shot at winning every game you play.”
The same goes for Saturday night, when No. 18 Notre Dame hosts No. 12 Michigan State under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium. Through two games, Kizer has completed 71.4 percent of his passes, throwing for 371 yards and seven touchdowns with just one interception. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior has also rushed for 112 yards and two more scores.
Again, Notre Dame’s playoff hopes hang delicately in the balance. Again, Notre Dame needs its quarterback to keep calm and lead the charge.
“It’s Notre Dame football. It's going to be the same way,” Kizer said. “We're going to walk out. There are going to be 100,000 people surrounding the walkways as we walk into the stadium. The stadium is going to be packed as it has been the last 20-plus seasons. It's going to be really loud. There are going to be some lights on and a lot of yelling, and we'll try to play the same football we play anytime we've played at home and defend our house.”
For DeShone Kizer, pressure isn’t a problem. The whole world may be watching, but he’s already been through worse.
“If you thought it was tough playing in Death Valley against Clemson,” Kizer said, “try playing against a couple cute girls in sixth grade and trying to win the spelling bee.
“Now, that’s pressure.”