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Everett Golson: Playing it by ear

Andrew Gastelum | Thursday, September 6, 2012

As a quarterback, on the field with white laces at his fingertips, he has to trust his keys.

As a musician, on the stage with black and white ivory at his fingertips, he has to trust his keys.

But Notre Dame’s key performer, sophomore quarterback Everett Golson, doesn’t want the attention.

“To be honest I don’t like the spotlight, but it doesn’t get to me either,” Golson said with a twist of irony.

The new star of the Notre Dame offense prefers his free time private, his day run on his own time. But it always finds its way to end on a high note at the keys that serve a special meaning to the South Carolina native.

“There is a lot of relaxation in [playing the piano] for me,” the sophomore said. “Many times I’ll come to the dorm after a long day and just get on the keyboard and just relax.

“When I was a kid, all my family played [piano]. That part of my family is just really musical. I actually started by playing the drums and went to the keyboard and started tinkering around with the piano. I just sort of picked it up and loved it.”

The art and the science

Golson had the art under control, as seen in his well-documented appearance at the Champs Sports Bowl talent show in December. Improvisation came easy when gliding across the keys of a grand piano, as did relying on instinct.

“Yeah I think there’s an art and a science to [the piano], but I honestly think I don’t have the science to that. I play it all by ear. So I can really do most of the stuff like that and give it my all. But it’s me mostly improvising and playing what I feel,” Golson said. “I think that is what translates over to the field also. Being able to improvise allows me to be out there as a guy just trying to make a play. “

But relying on the art of playing quarterback could only get him so far, though it did help him rack up 11,634 passing yards and 151 touchdowns during his high school career in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Since day one at Notre Dame, Irish coach Brian Kelly stressed to Golson that he would have to work on the science to succeed.

“I would just stay in the film room [in the offseason]. Like Coach Kelly said in the spring game, I really had the art of it but not the science,” Golson said in an Aug. 23 press conference. “I kept going back to that. I think that was really what I devoted most of my time to, just being in the film room and getting comfortable reading defenses.”

Asked what he did in the offseason to compete for the starting job, Golson replied with one simple word critical to his time as a musician, and even more so to his future as a college quarterback.

“Repetition,” he said. “Just knowing what I had to do and continuing to do that allowed me to grow and get better along the way.”

The announcement

Golson’s Notre Dame career began as an early enrollee in the 2010 spring semester; he hoped to get an early start on college life and the Irish offense. The dual-threat quarterback sat the season out, but traveled with the team and gained valuable experience behind the scenes of the offense he hoped to someday run.

At the beginning of the 2012 quarterback battle, junior Tommy Rees had a 12-4 record as a starter on his resume, junior Andrew Hendrix had seen time as a backup quarterback in 2011 and incoming freshman Gunner Kiel was the top-rated high-school quarterback in the nation.

Then there was Golson, whose biggest accomplishment in an Irish uniform was a 120-yard, two-touchdown performance in the 2012 Blue-Gold Game.

But he still believed in himself.

“You’ve got to. If you can’t see it, it probably won’t happen,” Golson said. “I had to have that vision. It was nothing granted, but I just took it as if I see it, I have to work towards it and not stop until I get it.”

Then on Aug. 22, the O’Neill resident found a visor on his helmet in the locker room and knew immediately what that meant.

“There’s a funny story about that,” Golson said. “Coach Kelly and I had this so-called deal. When I came in I actually wanted a visor right off. And so I asked Coach Kelly: ‘I’m ready for the visor, can I get a visor?’ And what he told me was, “You won’t get the visor until you start here.” From my perspective it was a little monumental of me just to get the visor … It kind of just showed up on my helmet.

“The visor is a good story to tell but more so, it’s about what it represented and me just coming from where I was to where I am now.”

The announcement was made to the public the very next day. Golson had gone from underdog to top dog in a matter of months.

“It definitely means a lot. I know that with this comes a lot of responsibility, so I am not going to rejoice in it [too much],” Golson said at the Aug. 23 press conference. “Like I said, I am happy about it, but I also understand that it is time to go to work right now.”

Time to go to work

Last week, Golson boarded the team plane as he had done all last season. He was the same person as before, but now with a new load placed solely on the 19-year-old. He was off to Dublin at the helm of the Irish offense for the first time. But what most thought would be a burden to a young quarterback turned out to be a transatlantic blessing in disguise.

“I have to admit, [going away to Dublin] helped, since we really had no clue about what was going to happen over there playing in front of 51,000 people or whatever it was,” Golson said of his first start. “It wasn’t really nerve-wracking. For the most part I was calm, but who helped the most were the veteran teammates.”

In his first collegiate start, Golson eased into his role with nearly-symphonic finesse, throwing for an efficient 144 yards and a touchdown on 12-for-18 passing. While an ill-advised interception showed the sophomore’s inexperience, Kelly said Golson’s mentality showed the poise of a maestro in the making.

“This is a process for Everett,” Kelly said Tuesday. “This will be a continuation week-to-week of growing as a quarterback. I guess what I like the most in the big picture sense was his comfortable place out on the field. He did not seem overwhelmed at any time. He was extremely communicative when he got to the sideline. He could tell me what was going on. Those are all big picture, good things, after game one.”

Kelly’s role as head coach changed immensely this season, with a major focus on working with the quarterbacks. But Kelly had a vision for his young protégé, especially when Golson asked how he could improve.

“What I talked about was that playing the quarterback position at Notre Dame is more than just what you do on the field,” Kelly said. “And I used [former Baylor quarterback] Robert Griffin as a great example as an ambassador of college football, and I said, listen, all you have to do is take a look at his Heisman acceptance speech and how he was able to articulate his experience and how it was more than just playing the game.”

For Golson, it had become more than just playing the game. It was about finding something within himself: something that might not be attributed to an art or a science, a piano or a pigskin, but simply to grabbing hold of the will to persevere when counted out.

“[Being the Notre Dame quarterback] means a lot. It really does,” Golson said with quiet humility.

“Honestly, it goes a long way to show what hard work and dedication can do. I think it was just about me and [those around me] pushing me to be the best that I can be.”

Contact Andrew Gastelum at [email protected]