Golson's Notre Dame career mirrors NFL star arc

ByIvan Maisel ESPN logo
Friday, May 8, 2015

At first glance, the career of quarterback Everett Golson hasn't produced enough success to suggest that he will play in the NFL. Pardon the understatement -- Golson's announcement Thursday that he is leaving Notre Dame serves as testimony that he hasn't produced enough success to stay with the Fighting Irish, much less a professional career.

Golson will find a home for his final collegiate season. Fresh starts and redemption are as much a part of the American sporting canon as Rockne and waking up echoes. But no matter where Golson plays this fall and no matter whether he plays after this fall, in every way but cashing a paycheck, Golson already knows what it feels like to play in the NFL.

It's not often that a college quarterback has a career with a professional arc. Trace Golson's career at Notre Dame over four years and you will see how Golson transformed from understudy to star to disgraced star to award candidate to washed-up veteran.

He arrived at South Bend in 2011 from South Carolina, an echo of Tony Rice, who came from that state to lead Notre Dame to a national championship (1988). Golson redshirted for a year, and then, with his reins in the hands-turning-purple tight grip of coach Brian Kelly, Golson helped navigate the Irish to their improbable berth in the BCS Championship Game.

Golson made mistakes of inexperience, and Kelly pulled him for upperclassman Tommy Rees in multiple games. But Golson created plays where none existed, and he found ways to win games that sent Notre Dame up against defending BCS champion Alabama.

Then came the precipitous fall, a suspension for "poor judgment," Golson's euphemistic admission that he cheated on a test. He sat out the 2013 season and returned last fall bigger, stronger, smarter and, by all accounts, more emotionally mature. In other words, exactly what any head coach would want in a quarterback. Exactly what any Heisman voter would want in a candidate.

Don't forget -- for the first month of last season, Golson stood among the Heisman contenders.

Against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in September, Golson completed 25 consecutive passes -- a feat difficult against air, much less a live defense. But he also threw two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, and fumbled the ball away twice. At midseason, Golson took Notre Dame within six seconds of upsetting Florida State, throwing for 313 yards and three touchdowns. But that would be his peak.

Over one six-game stretch, Golson threw 11 interceptions and lost five fumbles. He began to play as if infected by a virus that he could not shake. In baseball, they call it Steve Blass disease, after the former Pirates pitcher who suddenly lost the ability to throw strikes.

Golson's mistakes appeared to settle in his head and nothing he did could shake them. He forced throws where they didn't belong. He took chances. The modern quarterback is supposed to play with efficiency above all else. At Arizona State in November, Golson threw two pick-sixes, committed two other turnovers that the Sun Devils converted into touchdowns and threw a pick in the Arizona State end zone.

After the game, Kelly sounded a note of exasperation.

"We've been working with him," the coach said. "Sooner or later, he's got to take it on himself to take care of the football. I don't know what else to do. We're at that point now where it hurt us in the game. He knows it."

By the time Notre Dame played LSU in the Music City Bowl, sophomore Malik Zaire ran the offense. Golson entered the game in the second quarter. Zaire showed enough in the Irish's 31-28 victory, and again in spring practice, to earn Kelly's confidence. More to the point, Golson has yet to recapture the confidence to play as he did three years ago. If he stayed at Notre Dame, he would have held that job that so many NFL quarterbacks hold on their last stop before a broadcast tryout -- clipboard holder, confidant, adviser, backup.

From understudy to phenom, phenom to disgraced hero, disgraced hero to award candidate, award candidate to washed-up veteran: Everett Golson may not get to the pros, but he already has endured an NFL career.

Related Video