In September 2007, Tommy Rees started his first high school football game for . It began a three-year run where the boyish, unassuming teenager transformed into a phenom: 5,529 career yards, 50 touchdown passes — both school records.
Now, more than four years later, Rees is the triggerman for arguably the most scrutinized position in sports: starting quarterback of the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame. He won his first four games as an 18-year-old freshman in 2010, beating traditional rival USC and leading Notre Dame to a bowl win over Miami (Fla.). Despite being 12-3 as the starter, Rees' deficiencies are a never-ending debate in South Bend and by subway alums.
Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Patch reporter Jon Kerr interviewed more than a dozen former teammates, coaches, teachers, friends and family members and put together this oral history, tracing Rees' path from the family backyard to Touchdown Jesus.
- I. “Tommy Being Himself Can Get The Party Started."
Danny Rees (older brother by four years; played college football at UCLA): We were always ball boys when my dad was with the Bears, 49’ers, and Browns. Hanging out with pro athletes and coaches and seeing how they practiced and the nuances other kids never had exposure to gave us an edge.
Dominic Robinson (family friend, former college coach): My dad happens to be a longtime pro and college coach (Greg Robinson, Syracuse head coach 2005-08, longtime NFL defensive coordinator). He coached with Bill Rees (Tommy’s dad) at UCLA in the 1980s. We were close family friends by the time the Reeses had kids. For a long time, we came back to Southern California in the summer and took vacations together. By the time I was in high school and college, the Rees kids were always hanging around. They were my shadows. It was clear they looked up to me as a big brother.
Danny Rees: We were in San Francisco when he was an eighth-grader. He threw an NFL ball from the 40 yard line and it hit the cross bar. He had smaller hands at the time than everyone else. No one believed it. It was a real eye-opener.
Chip Stride (middle school football coach, Lake Forest attorney): We were in the North Suburban Catholic League. It was 8-on-8 and we didn’t want him to be playing. We wanted another kid to play because he (Tommy) didn’t have the best arm. The other kid didn’t want to play. He had no interest in being a quarterback. Tommy was next in line.
Robinson: I had the good fortune of moving to Chicago to go to grad school. Tommy liked jumping on the train and coming down to Chicago (Rogers Park area) with me. We always had a special bond. I always loved hanging out with the Rees kids in Lake Bluff and how Tommy was always the ringleader among his friends. He wasn’t a bully, he was the guy everyone was naturally drawn to. It cracked me up watching him hold court with his buddies. The thing with Tommy that struck me is he’s always had the same personality. He had a calm sense of self-confidence, always comfortable in his own skin. One time I took him to a seventh-grade dance. It was the first time he had gone to a dance. I remember it was one of the few times he was completely petrified, completely nervous about what was going on. One piece of advice I gave him was to be yourself, have a blast. You’ll be surprised. So I come to pick him up three hours later. He’s standing in front of the school with his necktie tied on his forehead. He was jumping up and down and he got in the car and he’s saying “I started dancing and it was so much fun!” Just completely amazed that’s all it took. Tommy being himself can get the party started.
Stride: He always had an uncanny ability to understand what we wanted and to see what was around him. In seventh grade, we started playing an 11-man game. We were playing St. Mary’s of Buffalo Grove. Early in the game, the passing game wasn’t going so well, as Tommy hadn’t played against 11-man teams. Our head coach talked to Tommy and said it was necessary he do the things he was taught. Shortly after the talk, he looked around, settled down and we kept throwing. He settled into a rhythm. We won the game.
- II. “Every Time He Made One, The Crowd Got Louder And Louder."
Kathy McMullen (middle school math teacher at St. Mary’s): I had him in seventh and eighth grade. He was hardworking and very dedicated. He was determined to get good grades. He would come into school in the morning with questions, wanting to get it right and understand it. I know he was willing to listen to suggestions and prepare better.
Danny Rees: My dad would take us out. Tommy and I would go to one corner of the field and throw. I would do my warm-up, then punt and he would shag. Then I would run routes and help Tommy. My dad would drill us and would be hard on him.
Meghan Rees (older sister by two years, now a senior at Miami of Ohio): I always wanted to be like him. I call him my little big brother. He was an all-star in everything — football, basketball, baseball. I played on a basketball team with him called the Small Fries. It was mostly guys. It was just fun to play with him. He was always a leader.
Bill Rees (father, former college coach, current NFL scout): He was in third or fourth grade. We went to a Northwestern-Indiana basketball game. They had a shooting thing at halftime. They pick one person out of the crowd. You had to check your program and if it was signed by Bill Carmody (Northwestern head coach), you were a contestant. I remember buying the program. The vendor pulled it from the bottom and gave it to me. I didn’t make any connection that he saw a third-grader. It was a capacity crowd. He went down there all by himself. Every time he made one the crowd got louder and louder. He made seven of eight. He walked away with the grand prize. I felt like that’s a special kid to show he can do that and make those shots. I was kind of saying you don’t see that every day. Anybody else would have been on their knees shaking. He gave us a wave and didn’t bat an eye. He had a pair of Indiana basketball pants. You know the candy cane and white pants? He didn’t wear them that night. I told him if he had, he would have gotten booed.
Bill Donlon (basketball coach, Lake Forest High School, dean of students): I coached him as a seventh- or eighth-grader. He had a passion for sports and academics. He was a quick study. Some kids you have to show something three or four times, but not Tommy. He really looked up to his older brother Danny. As a group, his family believes education is the No. 1 thing. They encouraged their kids to make their own decisions.
McMullen: He liked math. He learned about himself through math. I tell parents it’s not all about math, it’s learning how to study and learn what’s best for you. How do you improve? That’s what he wanted. Some kids fight you on that. He was always willing to say maybe there is a better way, to listen to correction and use it. He’s a coach’s best dream.
Danny Rees: For a long time we didn’t have anything in common. When he got to eighth grade and I was a senior in high school, we could talk about more things and we grew closer. I left to go to UCLA, and it was tough on him and for each other. The competition was always height and weight. I would always say, “I’m taller than you.” Then he caught up. Then I would say, “Well, I weigh more.” Now he does. I used to be able to bench (press) more. Now it’s not even close. He kills me. He claims he has the best hands in the family. I beg to differ. I was a holder at UCLA.
Robinson: I remember going to one of his games in eighth grade. It was incredible to see the shift in him under center. I was so struck by what I saw. I knew he looked like the real deal. I turned to Susan (his mother) and said, “He will be a Division I college quarterback.”
- III. “He Wanted to Come To Open Gym In The Middle Of Football Season."
Chuck Spagnoli (Lake Forest High School head football coach): We brought him up the second game of his sophomore year (2007). We had a senior-dominated team that year. We had a kid we liked that year who was a senior. The last game he started, he threw four touchdowns. It was the hardest decision I’ve had to make in coaching, but for us to move forward as a team we had to make that move.
Connor Moutvic (high school teammate, current University of Wisconsin wide receiver): He wanted to get started so he would come in at 6 a.m. We’d always go to the gym — perfect place to run routes and warm up — two or three days a week. He was throwing those balls right on the spot. Slants, digs, posts, outs. 60 balls. We had a connection right away and it warmed us up to junior and senior year.
Meghan Rees: I remember when he moved up to varsity. He started hanging out with guys that I did as they were my age. We would hang out with the same people. He was a part of the group. He would laugh and goof off with the guys on the team. He has the personality to be friends with anyone.
Spagnoli: This was a kid who loved to compete and loved the process. A pet peeve of mine is if I ask you a question, give me an answer. He always knew what he saw and what he thought. If he was supposed to read strong safety, he didn’t say middle linebacker.
Phil LaScala (Lake Forest High School basketball coach): He played all junior year. He was another coach on the floor. We had no size that year. He guarded a lot of the post players defensively and did a really good job of that. He dragged the defense out and opened up lanes for our scorers.
Moutvic: We would play driveway basketball at Tommy’s house. A bunch of our friends. We’d play on a small driveway and small hoop. It was a physical game. No blood, no foul.
LaScala: A lot of times I was out scouting and I’d see him out watching games. That shows leadership, that it was important to him. He would want to come to open gym in the middle of football season. It would be after practice. I told him he couldn’t. You are the starting quarterback.
Donlon: Kids respected Tommy and liked him because of his personality. He would help kids out, mentor kids, be in study hall in the cafeteria and the commons area. He never put himself up on a pedestal. Outside of football, he’s very unassuming.
- IV. “I Was Crying. It Was A Mix Of Emotions. My Heart Was Fluttering."
Bill Rees: He’s had a great role model with his older brother, Danny, and sister, Meghan. They have made a huge difference in his life. He will seek their opinions. He wants to make sure they are included and part of the experience.
Meghan Rees: The first time I saw him play his freshman year, I was thinking Tommy wasn’t going to play (against Michigan in 2010). I’m at my house with my roommates. We look at the TV and Tommy has his helmet on. I stared in disbelief. I was so confused. I was crying. It was a mix of emotions. My heart was fluttering. I was so happy for him, but I was also nervous. I ran out of the house to find these boys who lived near us in Lake Bluff and were close to where I lived at school. I had to sit with someone who knew what I was going through.
Danny Rees: He’s not in eighth grade anymore. He’s in a fishbowl. We’ll talk about it. How do you handle this situation with a coach? What about the media? All of his friends went off to college, are in frats, going out and he can’t live that lifestyle. He has to take care of his body. He can’t get in trouble. There’s a different college experience for him.
Meghan Rees: He makes one mistake and people get upset. People are going to say what they are going to say, but it doesn’t define him.
Robinson: Half of the Division I quarterbacks are more gifted than Tommy. Nobody in a million years thought he’d be the starting QB at Notre Dame. What he lacks in raw physical skills he makes up for with his mechanics and work ethic. Just as important is his attention to detail in preparation and how he handles himself. He is in an upper echelon when it comes to those things. In those areas, he will always have a competitive advantage.
Stride: My son is a freshman (at Notre Dame). We went to the Boston College game earlier this season. We pulled into campus and hanging from one of the dorm windows was a sign that said “In Tommy We Trust.”
McMullen: I was talking to a mother on a playground who has a daughter at Notre Dame. I asked, “Is he still nice?” She said he is still as nice as he's always been. You don’t want to lose that. He was a good friend to a lot of people, and you would hope he would be that way as star in football.
Danny Rees: We’ll have dinner and he hasn’t changed a bit. He’s still the same kid. He never gets too high or low. One snap and clear. (If not) I’ll knock him down.
Robinson: The beauty of Tommy is he’s seen it all. He got a front row seat of the business. It may not prepare you, but it helps you to know what to expect. He hasn’t cared what anybody thought since the fifth grade. That’s why in the end he’s going to win.
- VIDEO: Reporter Jon Kerr gives his insights on reporting this story and three secrets to Tommy Rees' success.