Notre Dame football: Rees content as his career closes

Al Lesar

South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK -- Post-game emotions surprised Tommy Rees.

After having invested four years into the Notre Dame football program, the oft-maligned and now former Irish quarterback said he wasn’t exactly sure how he would react after his last game.

His older brother, who had been a punter at UCLA, issued a warning.

“It hasn’t set in,” Rees said following Notre Dame’s 29-16 Pinstripe Bowl victory over Rutgers Saturday. “Coming in, thinking about it, I thought I’d be way more emotional. I talked to my brother. He told me, after his last game, he didn’t know if he’d ever put shoulder pads on again.

“He didn’t want to take them off. I took mine right off, and it felt good.”

Maybe it was the relief of not having to carry the burden of an offense on his back any longer.

“I guess, for me, it will set in when I’m not around these guys; not in the locker room,” Rees said. “Being able to see my family on the field, everything they’ve meant to me the last four years, it’s an awesome thing to share with the people you love.”

After everything he’s battled and persevered through - starting as a freshman, a demotion as a junior, then new life as a senior - Rees sounds like a guy who is confident in his own skin.

He’s been the butt of jokes; the target for angry fans; the source of media consternation - yet, at least publicly, he hasn’t waffled.

“The last couple years, I’ve been able to handle (the criticism) better,” Rees said. “Probably going into my junior year, I learned how to deal with some things. At this point, I don’t even think twice about it.

“There’s always going to be people who have an opinion. They’re entitled to that. For me, I’ve never let my confidence dwindle. I’ve relied on my teammates and the guys in the locker room.”

Rees had his share of “Bad Tommy” moments Saturday. Even though he threw for 319 yards (27 of 47, with no turnovers), there were still plenty of passes behind receivers or high and outside.

Still, he commanded a tweaked offense that spread the field and ramped up the tempo.

“I’ll be a Tommy Rees fan for life,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “He ran 90 plays in a different offense (than the Irish have used all season). He hasn’t run this offense in two years.

“He’s so smart. You can go and run a system with him.”

“I’ve been in (the high-octane offense) for a while now, so I knew what we were trying to do,” Rees said. “It’s similar to what we did in the past. For me, it was making sure the other guys knew what we were trying to do.

“We saw an opportunity to spread it out and run it on them. We got a great ‘box’ look. Have me manage it from there. The second half, we really focused on that. We tried to spread them out and get a thinner ‘box’ so we’re able to run up the middle.”

Not only did the Irish run game finally flourish in the second half, but Rees even got into the act. A five-yard gain was his longest run from scrimmage in two years.

“I think what he’s most proud of is that the longest run from scrimmage since 2011 was five yards today,” said Kelly. “He made sure he made me realize that’s part of his package.”

NFL scouts now have his “elusiveness” on film.

So, is Rees now a threat to run?

“It looks like that to me,” Rees said with a laugh. “When they drop eight, you’ve got to do something. The opportunity finally presented itself for me to run.”

Rees’ career has been pocked with potholes. For every up, there had to be a couple downs. After losing his job to Everett Golson last year, he could have packed it in and left. Instead, he stayed and taught Golson the cerebral part of the position.

“Looking back, I made the right decision seeing it through (at Notre Dame),” Rees said. “That was my life all along. I committed to be here. I’m a Notre Dame guy. I cared too much about my teammates to go anywhere else.

“It’s not the right decision for everyone.

“As long as I’ve got the respect and commitment from my coaches, that’s all that matters to me. I know I can leave here with my chin held high. I love the game of football. It’s pretty special to start at quarterback at Notre Dame. It’s something I’ll hold with me the rest of my life.

“I’m going to leave here with my head held high. I’m happy with the way things have gone.”

Even if the emotions weren’t what he expected.

Tommy Rees (11) throws a pass during the first half of Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl game against Rutgers.