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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, Ill., 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 resume for a player who wasn't that highly recruited and didn't have all the skills needed to thrive in Brian Kelly's spread offense. But he won't go down as one of the greats at a university that has produced Joe Montana, Joe Theismann and John Lujack. He also knows he 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 matter to me is how my teammates feel. I know they've had my back. I know they have positive things to say. The most important thing for me from day one is the people in this building how they feel about the kind of leader I was, the kind of guy I was. Just a guy that came to work every day, made people around him better and was positive."
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 four 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).
Rees could have faded away after losing the starting job after his sophomore season.
Before the start of his junior year, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor resisting law enforcement and illegal consumption of alcohol by a minor for an incident at an off-campus party in the spring. He could have been a divisive figure in the locker room after Everett Golson was named the starter. Instead, he worked to help Golson learn the offense. He then bailed out the Irish against Purdue, Michigan and Stanford as Notre Dame went undefeated in the regular season last year.
Rees was expected to have a smaller role this season with Golson maturing and ready to take on more of the burden. Rees could have transferred, as some of his predecessors had, but decided he wanted to finish what he started. The Irish were fortunate he made the decision because Golson in May was suspended for the semester by the school for what he called poor judgment on a test. That thrust Rees back into the starter's job again.
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.
Still, Kelly said Rees "just keeps coming."
"He just shows up every day and keeps working and sometimes it doesn't look the greatest," he said. " But he keeps playing, and keeps persevering, and when it's all said and done, he represents all the things that we like. He's a great teammate. You really like your relationship with him. You love his competitiveness."
Rees takes the most pride in is how he's competed every time he's been called on whether as a starter or coming in when the starter is injured or hurt.
"For me it's been a fun ride. A fun experience," Rees said.
"There are people that would give a lot to feel that bad after a game to even play the game," he added. "It's always been about making the most of every opportunity I get."