It was a cold December night, and Tommy Rees’ mind was racing.
Months of contemplation had come to a climax for Rees, then a high school senior. The weight of his decision was a significant one — leaving Lake Forest High School six months early so he could enroll in college that January.
Of course, it wasn’t just any school he was leaving home for. This was Notre Dame. And Rees came to this conclusion: when you decide what you want to do with the rest of your life, it’s best to act as soon as possible.
“I’d had a lot of conversations with my parents about it,” said Rees, referring to his father, Bill, and mother, Susan. “I sat down with them. They saw it coming; they knew. And they were very supportive.”
Notre Dame had first planted the seed with Bill in October, asking him if Tommy would consider the idea. As long as he met academic eligibility requirements such as GPA and test scores — he had — he could begin taking classes and working out with his new teammates in January 2010.
With so much uncertainty at quarterback — incumbent Jimmy Clausen was likely turning pro and there were no experienced backups — the chance to play right away for the Irish was an appealing scenario.
“I waited until his high school season ended to tell him,” said Bill Rees. “It’s a tough decision (to enroll early). You have to study at a faster pace, you have to grow up faster.”
His son Tommy had just finished breaking almost every passing record at Lake Forest. He had completed his required classes. Sure, he would miss his friends. But this was Notre Dame. He was ready for the next challenge. When he told his mom and dad he was leaving, no one was surprised.
The quarterback of a football team is arguably the most important position in all of sports. He must execute the mechanics of the plays on the field for the offense, but also account for what the defense is doing at any given time. It takes a certain amount of mental fortitude to play it, and play it well.
“It’s the most recognized position. You have to control things,” said Tommy Rees. “What attracted me the most was having guys count on you. They look at you to make plays. It’s unlike anything in sports.”
Tommy Rees remembers the moment he knew he loved how it felt to play quarterback.
It was a game his sophomore season against rival Libertyville in 2007. He had just been called up to the varsity. The Scouts had qualified for the postseason; the Wildcats had not. Rees threw a touchdown pass in overtime to win the game, knocking Libertyville out of the playoffs. If he wasn’t sure about his abilities before that game, all doubts were erased.
“It grasped me that I can play at that level and I can do this,” recalled Rees. “That was a defining moment for me.”
It was also a moment where his life would change forever. Now that he had ample proof he could play quarterback in college, had convinced himself he could compete with the best players in the country, all that was left was the work necessary to make it happen.
He began to put himself out there, making a highlight tape with the help of his high school coach, Chuck Spagnoli. By the end of his junior year, a season where he threw for 2,031 yards and 21 touchdowns, Rees was a popular topic at Lake Forest High School.
“Every day we had 2 or 3 schools coming in,” said Spagnoli. “It was very intense through the spring (of 2009).”
Offers began to roll in from schools like Miami of Ohio and Bowling Green. But Rees had loftier goals. He went to a few camps early in the summer before his senior season. Then they started calling, the goliaths of college football: Tennessee. Stanford. Notre Dame.
They all offered scholarships, the ultimate prize for a high school athlete. He knew he wanted to get the decision behind him so he could enjoy his senior season. After all the time invested, the thousands of throws, the 6 a.m. winter workouts with teammates, he was like a child the night after Halloween, picking the sweetest candy from a bottomless bag.
He chose Notre Dame.
“The balance between the football program and academics was too good,” said Rees. “With the tradition, playing in Notre Dame Stadium. And getting a degree will set you up for life.”
Before Rees even arrived in South Bend, he was forced to acclimate himself with a new coaching staff. The coach who recruited him, Charlie Weis, had been fired the previous December. Brian Kelly had been hired from Cincinnati to replace him. Kelly and Rees hit it off immediately in a home visit right before Christmas. Kelly, a brash player’s coach from Boston, sold the low key Midwesterner on his up tempo offense, which was similar to what Rees had run at Lake Forest.
“Coach Kelly was a guy I knew I wanted to play for,” said Rees. ”He was a proven winner whose main focus was on restoring the football program to where it once was.”
As he drove to South Bend a few weeks later to get a jump start on his college career, Rees was both excited and nervous.
After all, he was leaving behind everything he had ever known. While his friends were playing basketball (he was a varsity starter) or snowboarding, he would be watching film and learning the Irish fight song.
“It was the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make, to leave the basketball team and family and friends,” said Rees. “But I only have one chance to play college football and one chance to go to Notre Dame, and help me with my development as a quarterback.”
Like Rees, there were five other football players enrolling early in January 2010. All underclassman athletes at Notre Dame live in the dorm with the rest of the student body. As a quarterback, Rees was used to making accurate throws when his pocket collapsed around him. Now he would have to adjust to college life on the fly.
“Give credit to the coaching staff, they laid out the positive and the negative,” said Bill Rees. “What they said was true, there would be periods of being home sick and away from your friends. It would be tough.”
Added Tommy, “It was a bit overwhelming. There was a lot going on at once in a new place with kids I didn’t even know. We helped each other go through it. Once workouts came, we were all OK.”
The spring was when Rees first began assimilating himself with the Irish football program. One of his new teammates was Tyler Eifert, a 6-foot-6, 242-pound tight end from Fort Wayne, Ind. Both were backups — Rees to starter Dayne Crist, Eifert to Kyle Rudolph. They shared reps in practice and once the summer started, a pass catching chemistry between the two was hatched.
“In 7 on 7’s we were always running together and throwing,” said Eifert. “We got to know each other as players, which helped our timing. He was someone I could trust.”
That trust would be called upon during the season. Injuries to Crist and Rudolph thrust them both into the starting lineup. Nov. 13, Rees made his first start against Utah. It took one play for Eifert to know the baby-faced 18-year-old was not like most freshman.
“He saw the blitz coming and I had to take the spot of linebackers and he hit me for a first down. That showed me how well he knows the offense,” said Eifert.
Rees would go on to win every game he started — four in all, including Army, USC and Miami in the Sun Bowl. While his final stats were modest — 1,106 yards, 12 touchdowns — it does not paint a complete representation of what he truly accomplished.
Beating your opponent sometimes is the easiest part of being a quarterback. Winning over your teammates can often times be more challenging, let alone for a true freshman at a school with the built-in pressures of Notre Dame.
“All the credit goes to Tommy, he did all the work, he persevered, he sacrificed,” said Bill Rees. “He’s the one who set out goals and worked his tail off to achieve those goals. When the opportunity came, he took advantage of it.”
Added Tommy, “I had to grasp and learn everything and get used to college football. When he (Crist) went down it was a terrible thing to happen. All the hard work put me in that position (to play). To send the seniors out with a win (against Miami) was an awesome feeling.”
Speaking of senior year, Rees did make it back for his senior prom last spring at LFHS. That was one thing about high school he wasn’t going to miss.