NOTRE DAME — Try as he might, Tommy Rees was never entirely immune to the noise that followed him the past four years.
Even an offensive line filled with Zack Martins couldn’t completely protect Rees from the Tweets, articles and television commentary from slipping through the walls the quarterback had built around him.
Notre Dame’s most oft-criticized player in the past four years has also been one of its most resilient. Over the years, Rees learned to shoulder much of the criticism that flew his way.
“I think the last couple years, I’ve been able to handle it better,” he said. “Probably going into my junior year, I learned how to deal with some things. At this point, I don’t even think twice about it.
“There’s always going to be people who have an opinion. They’re entitled to that. For me, I’ve never let my confidence dwindle. I’ve relied on my teammates and the guys in the locker room.”
Those opinions have been vocalized loudly and often. When Rees first replaced Dayne Crist, he was praised as a talented, mature freshman who led Notre Dame to four straight wins to close out the 2010 campaign.
Fans continued their support for Rees into the 2011, when he competed for — and eventually won — the starting job against Crist. But the love affair turned sour when the then-sophomore threw six interceptions in the first four games and then led the Irish to their second straight 8-5 finish.
Rees’ star hit an all-time low when he was arrested for underage drinking in the spring of 2012, paving the way for Everett Golson to take the reins. When called upon to lead the Irish on a game-winning drive against Purdue, Rees was booed by his own home crowd. He’d help bail Golson out several more times that season.
Rees was re-instated as a starter this past season following Golson’s suspension, and the news grew louder. The heroic touchdowns drew cheers, the head-scratching interceptions drew jeers. Opinions on Rees changed not only weekly, but on almost a play-to-play basis.
Too slow. Too small. No big-play arm. “Turnover Tommy.”
He heard it all. And he made sure none of it stuck.
“As long as I got the respect and commitment of my teammates and coaches, that’s all that’s ever mattered to me,” Rees said. “I love the game of football. It’s pretty special to start at quarterback at Notre Dame and that’s something I’ll hold with me the rest of my life. I can leave here with my head held high and I’m happy with the way things have gone.”
Notre Dame would have never been 12-0 under Rees, but Notre Dame also wouldn’t have gone 12-0 without him. Achievements like that don’t go unnoticed, least of all by head coach Brian Kelly.
“The scrutiny and certainly at times, if you look at his career, a very passionate fan-base when it comes to evaluating his play,” Kelly said. “He’s been able to handle that week-in and week-out. It takes an incredible amount of confidence in one’s own ability to go out there week-in and week-out when you’re under such scrutiny when it comes to your play.
“He’s going to be, obviously, remembered as somebody that has persevered and overcome some highs and some lows at the same time.”
Rees capped his tenure at Notre Dame 27-of-47 for 319 passing yards, zero scores and zero turnovers in a 29-16 win over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 28.
He finishes his collegiate career with the third-most passing yards (7,670) and second-most touchdowns (61) in school history. Rees’ 3,257 passing yards in 2013 makes him just the third Irish quarterback to ever eclipse the 3,000 mark on a season.
Rees is also part of a senior class that won 37 games in four years, the most since the Class of 1994.
Rees will play in East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 18 in St. Petersburg, Fla. Beyond that, Rees doesn’t have any long-term plans for the future. He conceded he could end up coaching, and he already has a ringing endorsement from his former head coach — and possibly future employer?
“I’m a Tommy Rees fan for life,” Kelly said following the Pinstripe Bowl. “He’s gonna go keep chasing that football dream ... And he’ll keep trying to play the game as long as he can. But I told him he’s got a bright future as a graduate assistant for Brian Kelly any time.”