'Oh, that!' — Tobias Merriweather makes his long-awaited splash for Notre Dame football
SOUTH BEND — For 18-year-old Tobias Merriweather, his first career catch for Notre Dame was “a surreal moment,” a 41-yard touchdown that otherwise defied description.
“My whole life I’ve been watching guys on Saturdays on TV, just scoring touchdowns,” the freshman wide receiver said Tuesday, three days after that long-awaited breakthrough against Stanford.
He thought back to what he’d tell himself in those moments of youthful reverie: “I want to be that!”
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Watching last Saturday night’s game on TV back home in Portland, Ore., 2,200 miles from the appreciative roar his talented son’s touchdown triggered at Notre Dame Stadium, Dom Merriweather was initially confused by the buzzing of his cell phone.
“I must have been on a 30-second delay on my TV,” the 47-year-old said this week in a phone interview. “My phone starts blowing up. My (alerts) are like, ‘Tobias! Tobias! Tobias!””
Still shaking off the disappointment of an overthrown pass in his son’s direction a few minutes earlier, the elder Merriweather thought back to what he told himself at that moment of parental pride: “I look at the TV, and I’m like, ‘Oh, that!”
Lining up for what would be his 10th and final play of a 16-14 loss, Tobias Merriweather scanned the Cardinal defense and did his best to stifle a smile.
“I knew it was going to happen because it was a play we ran all week: ‘If you get this look, you’re going to score,’“ the 6-foot-4, 200-pound freshman said. “But you just can’t fathom in your brain scoring in front of 80,000 (fans).”
On-site witnesses included his mother Beverly Merriweather and grandparents Malcolm and Audrey Scott, who made the trip from Fresno, Calif. Beverly has moved to South Bend, about two miles from campus, to help her son with the transition.
“I watched it back and I’m like, ‘Is that even me? That’s me?’ “ Merriweather said of his score. “It will take me a while to digest. Hopefully there’s more to come soon.”
When Dom Merriweather, director of finance for an affordable housing nonprofit, went back and watched the replay, he didn’t have to mask his joy. He laughed out loud as he saw the precision of his son’s post route and the helpless reaction of the Stanford safety.
“The swing of emotions was really strong in that moment,” he said. “Then the Coach Dad in me comes back to what did the route look like? And then I saw the route, and I was like, ‘Oh, God, the dude was dead.’“
That dude was Kendall Williamson, a fifth-year senior from Snellville, Ga., making his 34th career start. One series earlier, Merriweather had raced past Williamson on a slot corner route only to have Drew Pyne’s pass sail too far on what should have been a 31-yard touchdown.
A few minutes later, on second and 14, Merriweather timed his leap perfectly, snatched the football out of the 42-degree night and left No. 21 face down in the end zone.
“I had seen that before,” Dom Merriweather said. “A lot of Notre Dame fans hadn’t seen that before, but I kind of knew when the guy (was burned). We call it the ‘Barbecue Chicken.’ I kind of knew when the “Barbecue Chicken’ was ready.”
A skilled chef who famously watched Brian Kelly scarf down three helpings of smoked brisket, only to bolt for LSU sometime during that home visit on the heels of the last Irish-Cardinal game, Merriweather is as forthright as his son is fearless.
“(Tobias) put him in the smoker, for sure,” Dom Merriweather said. “I’m being honest with you. I’m just a straight shooter.”
Notre Dame fans have been clamoring for more of Merriweather ever since the Washington state champion sprinter (200 meters) enrolled in June.
It has been a painfully slow rollout, even as the Irish wideouts have struggled to gain footing in the wake of season-ending injuries to Avery Davis and starting quarterback Tyler Buchner. Asked if he’d seen the #FreeTobias hashtag on social media, Merriweather smiled.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’ve seen the account. I just think it’s funny. Nothing really to say about it. We always say don’t listen to anyone you wouldn’t take advice from. I don’t know who it is, who runs the account.”
“Any publicity is good publicity,” he added.
Slowed briefly by a tight hamstring at the start of training camp, Merriweather has packed on 15 pounds of muscle since June and patiently waited his turn.
“I think it’s just part of the journey,” he said. “Every guy is taking their turn, sitting down, waiting, getting better in practice every day. That’s what it is about.”
Limited to four snaps against Cal and three more against BYU, Merriweather understood why that was happening. Coming from a run-and-shoot offense in high school, he was still adjusting to coordinator Tommy Rees’ complex offense, one that features seemingly endless variations of the route tree and sight adjustments at the line.
“It’s a collegiate offense,” Merriweather said. “There are a thousand plays, and we’re putting new ones in every week. Just learning the offense, learning what we’re trying to do against defenses, learning coverages, where the soft spots are, all that stuff. It’s just been a process, but I love learning.”
While the fan base shrieked at weekly talk of “building trust” that came from Marcus Freeman and Rees, all that public fretting about the transfer portal was wasted energy. Merriweather was quietly setting his foundation, both in the classroom, where he has a 3.5 GPA so far, and in the football building.
“It’s not that Tommy didn’t want to play me,” Merriweather said. “He’s told me he wants to play me, but I have to be ready. Because imagine I go in that moment and I’m not ready for it and then I don’t run the right route, I get the play wrong, drop a ball. Then the whole media is like — it’s a lot different story.”
Daily conversations with Rees and receivers coach Chansi Stuckey helped buoy Merriweather’s spirit while building his knowledge base.
“They’ve been clear on what they’ve needed from me, and obviously I did what I needed to do to get on the field,” Merriweather said. “They trust me now, so just take advantage of it. Don’t lose their trust.”
Still a month from turning 19, Merriweather speaks rapidly, but the words that spill out display an underlying patience and maturity well beyond his years.
His father traces that back to a family dynamic that saw Tobias wait his turn while watching three older sisters pursue their dreams in track and volleyball. Twin sisters Dai’lyn and Jai’lyn, 23, ran track for Oklahoma after padding their father’s coaching resume, which reached nearly 40 state championships over 27 years.
The twins will be at Saturday’s home game against UNLV.
“Tobias is the youngest in a pretty athletic family,” Dom Merriweather said. “When you’re the baby, everybody wants to keep the baby in the baby’s place. You knew his time was going to come. It was just a matter of him maturing and waiting for it to happen.”
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Being a freshman role player on Union High School’s 4A state championship football team proved valuable as well. Waiting his turn behind older teammates who would go on to play at Washington State and Nebraska, Merriweather chipped in on special teams and defense while gradually seeing his role increase at receiver.
Those experiences, his father said, helped form the “patience factor” that Merriweather is drawing upon once again.
“It’s being situationally aware,” Dom Merriweather said, “and being able to be nimble with your feelings and expectations. I think that’s all helped in some way.”
Tobias Merriweather didn’t hesitate when asked this week if he had any regrets about waiting until June to enroll at Notre Dame. The modern trend in college football is to show up in January in hopes of hitting the field sooner in the fall, but that wasn’t the path he chose.
“The moments that I had in my spring in high school were just moments you can’t get back in life,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen. Just enjoying my life, enjoying my time at home with all my friends, my family, was just worth it. I wouldn’t trade anything.”
Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.