SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Tommy Rees’ first pass at Notre Dame was intercepted. Several weeks later, taking over again for injured Dayne Crist, he threw another interception in the closing seconds against Tulsa that cost the Irish a shot at a game-winning field goal.
By the end of that freshman year, Rees led the Irish to four straight wins.
That first season was a foreshadowing of the ups and downs Rees would go through at Notre Dame. The senior from Lake Forest has been pulled from games for playing poorly. He’s been booed loudly at Notre Dame Stadium, and he’s been arrested.
He’s also a favorite among teammates, played a significant role in helping the Irish get to the national championship game a year ago, and heads into his final two regular-season games near the top of some school passing lists.
Not a bad resumé for a player who wasn’t highly recruited and didn’t have the skills to thrive in Brian Kelly’s spread offense. But he won’t go down as one of the greats at a university that produced Joe Montana, Joe Theismann and John Lujack. He also won’t go down as a fan favorite, because of his interceptions.
“People are entitled to their opinions. Whatever they want to feel, they can,” Rees said. “But the only thing that matters to me is how my teammates feel. I know they’ve had my back.”
Irish players have seen the scrutiny Rees has been through and are solidly behind him.
“He does a great job of not letting it get to him,” tackle Zack Martin. “I really haven’t been around someone who has gone through as much as he has in 4 years, football-wise. Just the resiliency that he’s shown. To do what he’s done and bounce back this season is awesome.”
Nose guard Louis Nix III doesn’t care what fans think of Rees.
“He’s my quarterback. That’s my brother. We lose together, we win together. Tommy was booed last year at the Purdue game where he was the hero after the game. So people can talk and say whatever. He’s my quarterback,” Nix said.
Rees concedes the criticism can be caustic.
“It’s what you sign up for. But at times, it’s not what you signed up for,” Rees said. “It’s a blessing at times and it can be a curse at times. But you have to have resilience and find a way to move forward and lean on your teammates.”
The criticism is part of being quarterback at Notre Dame, Kelly said.
“When you don’t perform well you’re going to be open to the kind of criticism that comes with not performing at the level you need to perform at,” Kelly said. “We’re all accountable. Nobody here is looking for excuses. But the facts are the facts.”
The fact is that when Rees throws interceptions, Notre Dame often loses. He’s thrown two or more interceptions in four games this season. The Irish have lost three of them and barely held on to beat Navy.
Rees’ record as a starter is 21-7. He needs two more victories to move past Terry Hanratty into seventh place on Notre Dame’s all-time list. He needs three more touchdown throws to pass Jimmy Clausen’s 60 career TD passes and move into second place on the school career list behind Brady Quinn’s 95. He’s averaging 250 yards a game passing and needs to average 228 yards to move past Ron Powlus (7,602 yards) and into third place behind Clausen (8,148) and Quinn (11,762).
He’s also thrown 34 career interceptions, fourth most in school history behind Theismann (35), Quinn (39) and Steve Beuerlein (44).
It’s been a solid, unspectacular year. Rees is completing a career-low 54.4 percent of his passes, but has a career-best efficiency rating of 142.8. Rees isn’t the ideal quarterback to run Kelly’s spread offense because he’s not a threat to run. Rees initially was recruited by Charlie Weis and Kelly said he’s not sure he ever saw film of Rees playing in high school.