Notre Dame QB Everett Golson finds harmony in his past
SOUTH BEND, Ind.
Without warning, without intention, without pragmatic thought,
Everett Golson is suddenly hearing trumpets in his head.
This is how inspiration comes to the Notre Dame senior quarterback, whose larger mission is redefining himself every day after a seven-month exile from school, from his team, from his dignity, threatened to do that for him.
He doesn't pick when the notes arrive, or how they file into his consciousness. It's a flow, almost magical in its expression, paralleling Golson's free-lancing outside the pocket when playing football.
And when football ends -- and Golson has prepared himself that it might just do so right after college -- music will be who he is in some form or fashion, most likely as a music producer.
"At Notre Dame, they teach you that if the [NFL] happens, fine. But plan for if it doesn't," said the 6-foot, now thicker 200-pound Golson, leaning back in a chair in an office right down the hall from UND head coach Brian Kelly's in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.
"So they prepare you for that as much as they can. So whether I'm finishing up in two years and going straight into the work force, or I go into the [NFL] and play 10 or 15 years, I'll be prepared. And my worst fear is not being prepared.
"I'm not going to say I'm oblivious to the NFL. You kind of watch the League and how it's transforming and what kind of guys they're looking for. There are guys, Russell Wilson and Johnny Manziel, opening up the gates for [shorter] quarterbacks like me. So I'm aware of that, but it's not my focus. My focus is really so much on now."
The reality of Golson "now" is that a semester full of redemption didn't alter Kelly's public narrative last spring that audacious sophomore Malik Zaire hadn't yet excused himself from the conversation about who the starting quarterback would be in 2014.
Perhaps privately, and as the Aug. 30 season opener with Rice approaches, there's a different spin.
"Everett is not a finished product in terms of understanding all the things that are within our offense," Kelly offered earlier this summer. "And we're not going to get it all done this year.
"I just want him to continue to learn every day. As long as he's coachable -- and he has been -- and understands that he hasn't got it all figured out, that's really all I'm looking for."
A native of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Golson, a year removed from his own self-inflicted nightmare brought on by academic misconduct, spent two weeks in the Chicago area reconnecting with deposed wide receiver DaVaris Daniels. The latter was readmitted to UND for summer school after academic shortcomings wiped out his spring semester.
Daniels is Notre Dame's leading returning receiver, and the only player on the Irish roster who's caught more than a single pass in game action from Golson in their respective careers. His high ceiling is as tantalizing as the befuddling reasons he only pokes at it intermittently.
"He knows now it's all about consistency," Golson said of the 6-foot-2, 203-pound senior from Vernon Hills, Illinois. "He has the knowledge and the experience, and he knows this year is a big opportunity.
"To be honest, there was a lot of rust between us at first. But by the end of the second day, we started getting back into it. And by the end of the two weeks, well the sky's the limit."
Golson continued to explore his own limits. A fleeting thought came to mind about reaching out to former Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice to get advice on honing his own rudimentary read-option skills.
"He's a tremendous runner, tremendous quarterback in his own right," Golson said of Rice. "It was a different time. Obviously, the game is always evolving."
Rice, who led the Irish to their most recent national title, 26 years ago, had helped Golson before the 2012 season as the latter was ascending toward being the starting QB for UND's run to the national title game.
Their first conversation wasn't so much about football as it was handling the pressures, the attention, the expectations and the disappointments of being a Notre Dame quarterback.
Both seemed to have a handle on it in high school. Rice, like Golson, was a two-sport star in South Carolina. Both led their football teams to a pair of state titles. Both carried their hoops ambitions to UND.
Rice, from across the state in Woodruff, teamed with former Irish coach Lou Holtz, fellow QB Kent Graham and ex-Irish basketball player Jeff Peters to reach the semifinals of the renowned intracampus Bookstore Basketball Tournament the spring before Rice took the Irish football team to the 1988 national title.
Kelly doesn't let the football players participate in Bookstore anymore, but he did tell Golson when he was recruiting him that the door was open to explore playing point guard for coach Mike Brey's Irish men's team.
"Basketball was my first love and still is," said Golson, who led Myrtle Beach High to a state championship in that sport as well.
Golson's initial ascendance to the starting QB position as a redshirt freshman was the overriding one of many factors why that UND hoops aspiration became a dream deferred.
The latest conversation with Rice got deferred, too, because Golson made plans to revisit quarterback engineer George Whitfield Jr., in San Diego in the seven days that preceded summer school.
It was Whitfield who helped Golson continue to pick up the pieces last fall during a two-month span, as well as help transform the QB's game while actually not playing in any.
"The decision to go back in May to see George really came from me being suspended," Golson said. "That's still what pushes me. I had all this free time in May, but I had to continue to burn.
"Nothing is given to you. I just really had to grind, and I thought that George, what he does, what he did for the two months that I had been there, I just saw fit that I had to go back out there and get all that I can get."
Back on campus for summer school the following week, Golson had a short internship with Notre Dame assistant band director Matt Merten.
During that time Golson composed a song, or at least enough elements of one that had Merten so blown away, he immediately tried to think of ways to bring it to a bigger stage.
"The song is not done yet," Golson said. "It's still a work-in-progress or what-not, but just him thinking that much of my beat meant a lot. The inspiration? It was just me thinking about coming back here."
And Golson thinks about it every day. He wants to think about it every day.
For him, the past has always been an ally, a catalyst in who he is becoming. So going backwards and looking over every page -- even the painful ones -- is part of shaping the future.
"I don't think it defines me," Golson said of the lapse of judgment that brought months of ugly headlines and suppositions about who he is at his core. "For someone to say they've never made mistakes in their life, I would say they'd be lying. I mean, everybody makes mistakes. That was a mistake for me. It doesn't define my character at all.
"I'm sure there are people out there who still doubt me and have negative things to say about me. But at the end of the day, I know who I am, and the guys around me really know who I am, so it's not really an issue.
"I don't mind the questions that have come and are going to keep coming," Golson said. "I know it's going to happen -- kind of the same questions over and over. It's all right. Eventually that part of it, you want it to calm down a little bit."
But not the fire, not the positives Golson said he has extracted from the process, not the deeper appreciation he has for the opportunities he has regained on the field and in the classroom.
And suddenly, he hears trumpets in his head again.
"Music is like a language, especially for me," said Golson, who is proficient at a half dozen instruments and keeps a keyboard in his room. "If somebody wants to say, 'I'm angry,' a sound comes to my head that portrays that."
The trumpets get louder, and cymbals crash and in his mind's eye, Golson is hopskotching back though his past.
Kerry Neal is standing over Golson as he hurls the contents of his stomach all over the floor at the Elias Fitness Training center in Highland Park, Illinois, and is almost immediately handed a T-shirt to commemorate the event.
Golson tried to mitigate the incident by offering that his most recent meal before the vomiting was at McDonald's, "and it just didn't sit right in my stomach."
It's early June 2013, with not even a week having passed since Notre Dame confirmed Golson was no longer enrolled in school and faced a suspension with an end point of possibly the following January.
"In that moment," recalled Ivan Simmons, Golson's 34-year-old cousin and confidant, "Kerry told him, 'If you want to go back to Notre Dame, bigger, faster, stronger, and you want to be the best player you can be, this is how you get there.' "
Neal is a former Notre Dame outside linebacker, whose humble beginnings in North Carolina have some parallels with Golson's, but realistically he never shared the same potential upside.
Instead, he now works at EFT, training others to push to achieve theirs.
Neal, and more directly Elias Karras -- EFT's owner -- have presided over a number of Notre Dame comeback stories at their launching point.
It was at EFT where former Irish defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, by his own admission, made the most significant steps in his comeback from a torn medial collateral knee ligament that truncated his 2011 season and that he eventually transcended in grand fashion in UND's title chase in 2012.
Notre Dame's all-time leading receiver, Michael Floyd, landed there too in the weeks that followed a March 2011 drunk driving arrest, after Kelly had suspended him indefinitely heading into his senior season with no guarantee of reinstatement.
DaVaris Daniels was the latest.
Their common thread is the puking, the T-shirts that actually come with a "victim number" on them -- that Karras' staff tracks -- and the Hill.
"I ran the Hill lots of times," Golson said. "It was all bad. They told me the next day, 'You're not going to be able to move. You're going to be hurting bad.' I'm like, 'Whatever, I'm about to kill this.'
"So the next day, I really could not move -- my hamstrings, my calves. Everything was hurting."
Not the least of which was his psyche. And that's where Simmons came into the picture.
Simmons is more like a big brother, and conscience, and tough-love distributor, than a cousin. He, too, like Golson, grew up in Myrtle Beach. Having relocated to Chicago, where he lives with wife Stephanie, Simmons' home is where Golson spends most of his free weekends.
In the summer of discontent that followed the announcement of Golson's suspension, the quarterback moved in with them.
"I'm really, really tough on him," Simmons said "Sometimes my wife tells me I'm too tough on him, but I just want to see the best for him. And during the situation, I saw a real remorseful kid, ready to right his wrongs. We had a lot of deep conversations, a lot of long nights, talking about the situation that happened at school, and just how he could redeem himself.
"One of the things I noticed about him was that he never shied away. He never said, 'I want to transfer or I want to do this.' And there were opportunities. His whole thing was: 'I want to right my wrong.'
"Notre Dame had given him a shot to compete on a high level and he wanted to redeem himself, not only for his family, but for the university itself."
Simmons and Golson agreed that the best way to do that, beyond the EFT piece, was to stay in contact with his teammates. And Irish defensive tackle Sheldon Day was the on-campus conduit for that.
"Sheldon's kind of like family," Simmons said.
Eventually Simmons came to view Whitfield like that too.
"Through our talks, it was easy to see it was the right thing to do," Simmons said of the Whitfield investment.
Having the means to shell out reportedly roughly $8,000 for the two months of tutelage, room and board, Golson admits, put a strain on his working-class family. The QB also had to run the whole idea and all its mechanics through the university's compliance department.
Golson was required to show how much Whitfield Athletix charged his family and provide documentation it was the same fee Whitfield would charge your average Joe. Golson also needed to provide records that his family actually made those payments.
Had he not, Kelly and the university would have sacked the whole venture.
"He really needed to be in some type of football structure," Simmons said, "because that was a lot of time away from football. But while he waited, EFT was so good for him. One of the really cool things was him running into former Notre Dame players there, and they encouraged Everett and just let him know that they and the school wanted him back.
"When I see Everett now, he's a totally different kid. He's got his iPad out and he's constantly looking over film, over and over again, just trying to see what he did when he was playing and more so trying to get the offense together and be a leader. And he is a leader now. He's more business than anything.
"But he still finds a way to work his music into everything, too. It was funny last summer one day, he didn't know we had come home, and he was just singing away in the shower. And my wife and I were standing outside the door smiling, smiling because he was singing so loud and didn't know we were there, and smiling because he was on his way back."
It's September in San Diego, and the heartache hasn't faded, but neither have Golson's football skills. In fact, they're spiraling in the opposite direction, on some days dramatically so.
On this day, Golson has retreated to his music. He isn't singing, in the shower or otherwise, but he's playing the piano -- without a net essentially. And Whitfield is simply stunned at what he's seeing and hearing.
Whitfield, 35, gets those reactions sometimes to his own work. He is the standard and closest thing to a rock star in the private, quarterback-tutoring cottage industry. Whitfield has become as celebrated as he is unorthodox.
His clientele ranges from aspiring middle school QBs to recent former Heisman Trophy winners Johnny Manziel and Cam Newton to NFL standouts Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger.
A former Division II star at Tiffin (Ohio), with a linebacker build, Whitfield has drawn praise for his aggregate approach to quarterback coaching, which includes using sports psychologists and having his clients watching film of themselves lifting as part of the big picture.
This time he's the one heaping praise, and he's doing so on Golson.
"It's effortless," he said of Golson's piano-playing. "Like, he might be better on the piano than he is at throwing the football. And I don't mean that for all the band teachers at Notre Dame to come recruiting him to come get him.
"Some of our interns and assistant coaches would play a song on their iPod or whatever and Ever-ett was playing right along with it. No sheet music. He wasn't there when it was composed. But to be able to hear it and make sense of it in your mind and then translate that through your fingertips, I think, is true genius."
A big part of the genius in the Golson-Whitfield connection isn't just how much they get each other. It's how seamlessly it's married into Kelly's philosophies and those of new Irish quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur, named to his post 10 days after Golson returned to campus and started his spring-semester classes.
"I think coach Kelly is a savant," Whitfield said, "and they just brought in coach LaFleur from the Redskins, who I've known for quite a while. There aren't too many rooms in all of college football that have that type of brain trust in there.
"But there are a lot of things coach LaFleur and coach Kelly don't get a chance to [because of] the [NCAA's] 20-hour rule. They know what to do. They know how to work a quarterback. They've produced more quarterbacks and seen more guys come through at the different levels than I have.
"We are just blessed to have the time. It's hard to regulate somebody's free time. So then you go into the curriculum and you want to make sure the soul of the position is being met."
With Golson that curriculum took Whitfield places that he had never gone with a client before, like four days after Golson landed in San Diego and they sat down together to watch Notre Dame's matchup at Michigan, game two of the season on Sept. 7.
"We watched it together, at my place," Whitfield recalled. "He didn't say a word in the entire first half. And he got emotional as Notre Dame took the field. And I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to say.
"I even thought about, 'Maybe do I change the channel? Should I ask him if he wants water?' He did not say a word even through commercial breaks. Those were probably the toughest moments. That was week one with us.
"I remember him listening to Brent Musburger announce how this is not your normal Notre Dame team and Everett Golson is in San Diego. And it's surreal when you're sitting next to the young man they're talking about and they're portraying his situation -- and he's 10 feet away from me on the opposite couch."
Eventually, Michigan outscored the Irish 41-30 -- a game that exposed the 2013 team's flaws that they could never fully shake -- and the two finally broke the awkward silence.
"I said, 'Everett, this is where you are,' " Whitfield recalled. "And my only promise to him was, 'You're going to get my best effort and everybody's best effort here to work with you and make sure this time is well-used. 'Cause when those gates open back up, and they will, the expectation is you've got to be ready to go.' "
There are no trumpets now, but organ music and soulful voices instead. It's his voice, Golson notes, and that of his brother, Edwin, five years his senior.
Everett Golson is 4 years old in this barely pixilated mental picture, back in Myrtle Beach putting on a gospel concert at church.
"One of the first things I do when I go home is I play music with Edwin," Everett said of his brother, who still is putting on gospel shows to this day. "But it was a real brother relationship growing up. Everything wasn't always peaches and cream and what-not. We used to have battles. I was the youngest, so he always used to feel I got what I wanted. There were certain times I felt like he was being too hard.
"So we clashed, like any typical family would. But at the end of the day, that's my brother, and the thing with him was music. And that was really our connection from the get."
Golson's connection with his oldest brother, Tori Watts, who's more than a decade older, was toughness. He just didn't know it at the time.
"I remember times where he used to just take me down to the gym to play basketball and just bully me," Golson said. "It was literally like jail ball or something like that. It was like flying elbows, the whole nine and stuff like that. I was maybe 8 years old.
"And I didn't cry.
"I remembered that when I was going through everything last year, and I thanked Tori for that. He taught me everything's not always going to be good. I could have, back then, said, 'You know what? I don't want to do basketball anymore.' But that would have been kind of giving up. I fought through it then, and I fought through it now. It's kind of programmed into who I am."
There were other challenges that could have derailed Golson growing up.
"A lot of people up here all the time say Myrtle Beach is a tourist spot," Golson said. "Everybody thinks everybody down there has money, but it's not that way for the people that actually live there."
Eventually a lot of the friends who grew up playing basketball with Golson grew into other things. They morphed into statistics, and not the sports variety.
"In every place you live, there's definitely places where you can get in trouble, and Myrtle Beach is no different," said Mickey Wilson, Golson's high school football coach. "I think the biggest thing with Everett is he just came from a very, very solid family. His mom [Cynthia] and dad [Wayne] are in church every Sunday. Everett was in church every Sunday. Playing music in church.
EVERETT GOLSON CAREER STATISTICS
"I think he's a kid who realized he has a future beyond high school in sports, and I think that really is something that's special about him. He realized, 'Hey man, I can go on and do bigger things and do better things.' I think that kind of kept him out of trouble as well."
By the time Wilson first saw Golson playing football, in the seventh grade, the little guy with the big arm had already been honing his quarterback skills for five or six years.
"We're very fortunate, because our city recreation field sits right beside our high school practice field," Wilson said. "So we get to kind of eyeball those kids at a young age. And the first time I saw Everett, he was throwing the ball great. But he was overthrowing his receivers, just because he was so much more advanced than the kids he was playing with. I just remember thinking, 'Wow, he's got an arm.' "
The next season, Wilson had Golson playing for the high school junior varsity -- as an eighth-grader. He started for the varsity the next year, then led his team to its fifth state football title in school history as a sophomore.
By the time he finished at Myrtle Beach High, he had thrown for 11,717 yards with 151 TDs -- sixth most in U.S. high school history -- and 26 interceptions. In Golson's final two prep seasons, his TD-to-interception ratio was a combined 72-to-5.
One of those came in his final high school game, in the Class AAA state title matchup with South Pointe High. Future South Carolina defensive end Gerald Dixon and future Gamecock star and NFL No. 1 draft choice Jadeveon Clowney had amassed 46 sacks between them coming into the game.
On the first play from scrimmage, Golson was sacked by Clowney for a safety, and at halftime Myrtle Beach trailed 16-7. The Seahawks' running game was almost non-existent and managed just seven yards by game's end, but Golson rallied them with his arm and ability to extend plays with his feet -- 180 passing yards on 21-of-38 accuracy in a 27-23 thriller. He was 9-of-12 for 81 yards in the fourth quarter.
"Not every kid carries what he did in high school into his college career," UND coach Brian Kelly observed. "But I think Everett found a way to do that. When you look back at his [redshirt] freshman year, his best two games before he gets dismissed were his last two -- USC and Alabama. He tapped into that past, and it was impressive."
Maybe the most impressive thing Golson did with a Myrtle Beach uniform on came Thanksgiving week of 2013. After his time with Whitlock had ended, Golson made a trip home.
The Seahawks were chasing state title No. 7 and the first one post-Golson, but the Myrtle Beach alum found a way to have a small part in this one too.
"We were playing Marlboro County, a big rival for us," Wilson said of a state semifinal matchup. "They had a quarterback who was kind of a scrambler and a thrower, and Everett came and played scout team quarterback for us and gave us a great look the whole week."
Myrtle Beach thwarted Marlboro County 20-6 that weekend, then eked past Daniel 24-21 the following week for the state championship.
"I think that was important for our kids to see him on the field and see him out there, knowing that he had just gotten back from working with George Whitfield," Wilson said. "He could have just as easily just hung out at the house and taken some time off, but he was out there. And when he wasn't playing scout team quarterback for us, he was actually working on his craft, throwing, working on his feet.
"And when he came home the last time, it was the same kind of reception as it was at Thanksgiving. He went to the mall, and he just got bombarded, which is kind of funny because he's a kid who's comfortable in the spotlight but never sought it out.
"People love Everett. They know he's made a mistake. They still love him, still embrace him and enjoy him."
It's little wonder Golson's beat, as he likes to call it, is an unfinished melody. If it truly reflects his journey, there are so many loose ends, so many lessons learned, so much of the stuff brother Tori Watts stuffed into him that hasn't yet congealed into a singular defining moment.
But there are so many signs that it's coming.
Like the way Golson has reframed the second half of his freshman year on the Notre Dame scout team, a time he once said he resented and tested how much he really wanted to be at UND. He now views it as "fun," except the part where now ex-UND outside linebacker Prince Shembo kept crashing into him.
"A lot of people don't know this, but I wasn't always a quarterback on the scout team," Golson said. "When we were getting ready for USC that year , I was [USC wide receiver] Robert Woods, and Luke Massa was throwing me the ball.
"One week I was a running back. Before I was on the scout team, they tried me at punt returner. I was catching punts, but they left it up to me. And I decided that wasn't for me. And when I played quarterback, it didn't matter if I had a red jersey on.
"Prince was either going to wrap you up really hard or attack you. It was like, 'Oh, my bad, coach. I didn't mean it,' something like that. For the most part the experience was pretty cool."
There's Golson's decision to go to New York last December, but not actually show up at Yankee Stadium on the 28th to witness his teammates' 29-16 Pinstripe Bowl victory against Rutgers.
"The reason I didn't go is because I didn't want to be there for the wrong reasons," he said. "I didn't want to be there for the camera time. I didn't want to be there for that type of thing. That's not the type of guy that I am.
"I felt those guys knew where my heart was. I talked to those guys before the game. If the spotlight comes back to me, it's got to be for the right reasons. It's got to be because I worked hard and was focused, not because I was a distraction."
Perhaps the piece that best defines where this all may end up is what Golson extracted from his second visit to see Whitfield, the one-week foray in May that he shared with Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, Baylor's Bryce Petty and Virginia's David Watford.
"Fine-tuning and mechanics were big on that visit," Golson said. "But I think the biggest thing I got out of it was the leadership talks that we had, what it really takes to be a quarterback and what it really takes to be a leader on and off the field.
"I know a lot of people talk about it generally -- 'You've got to be this.' George actually had different scenarios that you applied it to. I know so much more about how to lead this team."
Whitfield, the second time around, immediately noticed more fluidity in Golson's footwork. His staff noticed a more powerful throwing arm.
"There were times Everett would throw, and every time the ball went more than 40 yards, everybody kind of stopped and started watching it, myself included. He's got one of the biggest arms that I've seen. I'd say, pound for pound, he's got the strongest arm in college football.
"Finally I had to say, 'We're filming it. Everybody get to work. We'll watch this stuff later. We can't keep doing that.' The interns, all of those guys, wanted to kind of be where Everett was, so they could be able to tell the story."
But the story starts and is driven by what's inside.
"There's an appreciation for having the keys taken out of your hand, and now he's got a chance to get them back and a chance to get Notre Dame back," Whitfield said. "I think it's the coolest, biggest story in college football, to tell you the truth.
"The one thing that has always been impressed upon me as a player and even as a young coach is touchdown passes alone don't change circumstances. They don't improve culture. Statistics, for the better part, are pretty hollow. They just track what happened. But what we just really try to impress upon the position we get to be involved with -- is impacting.
"So we talk about other leaders in sports. We had these conversations over dinner, where I'd say the Green Bay Packers, whenever their team bus arrives to whatever NFL city it arrives in, everybody on that bus feels great about their chances that day, because of whom?
"And Everett would smile and say 'Rodgers.'
"Now, when you ask that question from everyone on the team at Notre Dame this fall all the way down to the secretary, their answer to that question ought to be, 'We've got [No.] 5.'"
Golson smiles as he pulls out of the past and takes a glimpse into the future. And again the trumpets fill his heart and his mind. But now there's full percussion. Now the last stanzas are filling in.
"What professor Merten told me during my internship is that if I finished my beat, he was going to run it by the head of the band or what-not," Golson said. "And that it potentially could be played at one of the games this fall.
"It's time to finish it. It's time to finish everything. I think it could be pretty good."