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December 30, 2013

Notre Dame's loyal son

NEW YORK - Taking off the pads under the Notre Dame uniform for the final time wasn't as difficult as Tommy Rees thought it would be.

"I thought I'd be way more emotional," said Rees following his collegiate finale, a 29-16 victory over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl.

"I talked to my brother (Danny, a former UCLA punter), and he told me after his last game that he didn't know if he'd ever put shoulder pads on again. He didn't want to take them off. I took my right off and I felt good."

The removal of those shoulder pads marks the symbolic as well as actual conclusion to one of the most inspirational yet controversial careers in Notre Dame quarterback history. With Rees under center, the Irish won 23 of his 31 starts, including a pair of bowl victories to become the first Irish signalcaller since Rick Mirer (1991-92) and one of just five in school history (including Tom Clements, Joe Montana and Tony Rice) to make such a claim.

And yet as Rees exits the Notre Dame program, he leaves with the disdain for him from fans still ringing in his ears, albeit in the back of his head now.

"I think the last couple years I've been able to handle it better," said Rees of the criticism. "Going into my junior year, I really learned how to deal with some things. At this point, I don't even think twice about it.

"There are always going to be people who have their opinion and they're entitled to that. But for me, I've never let my confidence dwindle and just relied on my teammates and the guys in the locker room."

Much of the football criticism was valid. His lack of mobility, his propensity for throwing interceptions, particularly in the red zone, and his inability to pull the rest of the team up to a BCS-level performance contributed to Notre Dame's inability to become a consistent double-digit winning program.

Without Rees, however, the Irish probably would not have gone undefeated during the 2012 regular season when he helped bail out first-year performer Everett Golson on several occasions en route to the national title tilt with Alabama. Without Rees in 2013, it would have been a struggle to qualify for a bowl game.

"I'll be a Tommy Rees fan for life," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. "He's going to keep chasing that football dream. But I told him he's got a bright future as a graduate assistant for Brian Kelly any time."

Despite his propensity for turning the football over - a shortcoming that led to the derisive nickname Tommy Turnover - Rees provided Kelly with what usually amounted to an easy decision to play him.

An injury to Dayne Crist late in the second half of the 2010 season pushed Rees into starting lineup during his rookie season. Rees "managed" the Irish to four straight victories, including the first over No. 15 Utah and the fourth against Miami in the Sun Bowl.

A healthy Crist beat out Rees for the starting job in 2011, but Kelly's quick trigger - at halftime of the season-opener - revealed Kelly's trepidation with Crist and trust in Rees. Crist probably had the skills to lead the Irish to the 8-5 mark that Rees led them to in '11. But after Golson's emergence in 2012, and his subsequent one-semester dismissal, there was no decision to be made in 2013. The Irish would sink or swim with Rees.

"He's so smart," said Kelly following Rees' 27-of-47, 319-yard performance in the Pinstripe Bowl. "He just has the ability to pick up all the things we can do offensively, and today was a case in point. We were able to do some things we haven't done in a couple of years and it looked like it was pretty easy for him."

Rees finished his collegiate career 627-of-1048 (.598) for 7,670 yards, 61 touchdowns and 37 interceptions. Kelly's commitment to more of a vertical game and a stronger-armed Rees during his senior season helped account for his 3,257 yards passing and 16.5 yards per completion in '13. But Notre Dame's greater emphasis on the deep ball and Rees' throw-the-ball-away-when-in-doubt mindset also contributed to his fall to a 54.1 completion percentage in '13.

"I'll let you guys judge that," said Rees when asked to assess his Notre Dame career. "As long as I've got the respect and commitment from my teammates and coaches, that's all that's ever mattered to me. I know I can leave here with my chin held high."

Although he was tempted to leave Notre Dame when Golson won the starting job in '12, Rees never really came close to pulling the trigger.

"Looking back on it, I made the right decision to stick it through," Rees said. "That was my mindset all along. I was committed to be here."

As for Kelly's comment about Rees returning as a graduate assistant and taking the pads off for the final time, he'll get another shot coming up in the East-West Shrine game. He'll put those pads on again minus, of course, the Irish jersey.

"I love the game of football, and it's pretty special to start at quarterback for Notre Dame," Rees said. "That's something I'll hold with me for the rest of my life. I can leave here with my head held high. I'm happy with the way things have gone.

"I guess for me, it will set in once I'm not around these guys and not in the locker room. To be honest, I cared too much about my teammates to go anywhere else. I'm a Notre Dame guy."

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