Irish fans know all about players like Brady Quinn, Tom Zbikowski, John Carlson, Ryan Harris and the like. So much has been written about the 2003 class that we couldn’t possibly find a new angle, or could we?
Each Saturday Irish fans go through their rituals for the game of the week. Some gather with friends and family at home. Some head out to the many tailgates outside of Notre Dame Stadium. Some gather on message boards and in chat rooms.
A silent group can usually be found in a parking lot on Notre Dame’s campus. They’re the families of the Irish players, who routinely gather amongst the comfort of friendly faces. Strong friendships have been formed over the years…..the common thread bonding this group is their son, brother or grandson being a member of the Notre Dame team.
That’s where you’ll find Drew Martin (brother of Trevor Laws), Alex Carlson (brother of John), Ed Zbikowski Jr. (brother of Tom) and Sam Samardzija (brother of Jeff). A group of older brothers who are very proud of their younger brothers, and very proud to be part of the Notre Dame family…..even if the family can turn on them from time to time.
A group that, like their brothers, have had to deal with the ups and downs...the winning and losing, and that experience has formed a friendship amongst this group that will likely last a lifetime.
Curiosity killed the cat, and like anyone else, this group loves being part of the ND experience. They also know that being part of that experience can come at a price….a price that’s often unfair and beyond ridiculous at times. And like anyone else, they just have to read what’s being said about little brother. Unfortunately, it’s not always kind.
“I started reading the message boards Jeff’s senior year in high school, all the way up to Michigan State week of this year,” Sam Samardzija said. “I’ve tried to stay off since then. This year’s been a little crazy with the message board posters. My old man still checks those things out once in a great while. Mainly after games I think. Outside the family, I think the uncles and some cousins are on there though.”
“After Trevor committed, we were addicted to the message boards,” Drew Martin said when asked about reading about his brother. “Pretty much our whole family would read them…..see what people were saying about Trevor, other recruits, the upcoming season, etc. We were enthralled by the whole Notre Dame mystique, and loved reading anything related to ND.
“It was Irish Eyes and BGI (Blue and Gold Illustrated) mainly for the pay sites. We also read a lot of UHND and ND Nation.”
At first everything was great. Irish fans were very excited about the younger brother signing with the Irish, and the brothers were definitely excited about being part of the Notre Dame family.
“One of my best friends is a ND alum, so I was pretty excited when Jeff committed because I knew how much of a super-fan my good buddy was, along with the rest of the ND fans,” Samardzija said. “I knew that Jeff would have an opportunity to play in front of some of the greatest fans around. (I) never really thought things would be turn too negative, unless he transferred or something like that.”
Unfortunately, it can get negative, especially during and after games. And it certainly doesn’t go unnoticed by this group or many of the family members of Irish players.
“Of course there were negative views regarding Tommy, but everyone is entitled to their opinion,” Zbikowski Jr. said of the negative comments he’s seen written about his brother. “I think it’s unfortunate when people who don’t even know him or the rest of the kids in the Notre Dame program pass judgment on them. “
“I knew that ND fans are extremely passionate about the team and the university,” Alex Carlson added. “I knew that they had high expectations. Those are a couple of the things that makes it such a great place. I also knew that things could, and probably would, get negative, because that is what happens to a team when they have such high expectations.”
This group of brothers are not naïve in what they expected to read or hear when things aren’t going well. But it’s the volume of the attacks and venom that can really be shocking at times. After all, these kids still play for Notre Dame.
“As a fan of sports myself, I always have an opinion on things just like every other fan. Maybe being a die-hard fan of the Bears, the Blackhawks, and the now Cubs, you get use to all the rough times,” Samardzija said. “And with those teams, you have to be a fan no matter what, win or lose. So sometimes all the stuff on the net does surprise me, but I’ve learned you have to have some pretty thick skin when your kid brother is in the spotlight as much as these boys are.”
“I can understand negativity to a point, and especially if you're losing, but when you're winning fans still seem to get negative.” Martin said. “Plus, you have to remember, these are college kids, not NFL professionals. It seems that the only way the hardcore ND fans will be happy is if ND wins 63-0, every week. It's frustrating to pull out a good win and then come to the boards and everyone is super negative. It just gets old and tiresome. I can understand being critical of their play, but constantly pointing out everything negative and always seeing the glass as half empty gets frustrating when your brother was out there busting his butt every single play.”
"With the tradition and expectations that ND has, when things don't go the way people want, you have to expect that it's going to get negative,” Carlson added.
“For a lot of people, it is because they expect the best from ND all the time, and for some, it is because they think they know everything.”
And Irish fans certainly aren’t short of opinions.
“Everybody knows it’s a fact that Notre Dame has the best fans in the world. With that said there are often very high expectations of individuals and the team,” Zbikwoski said. “I think Tommy and the rest of the guys stepped into a program that was headed in the wrong direction and turned it around and quickly restored the toughness, swagger and winning tradition to the Irish.
“Usually it’s because they don’t fully understand. Football is a very emotional game, and sometimes we get too angry and too emotional when watching as fans. Everyone thinks they can call better plays, make the tackle or throw a better pass. The fact is they can’t. But we’re all fans and we all have an intense passion for Notre Dame football. Let’s just call the negativity ‘tough love.’”
The brothers have grown accustomed to the negativity and fully understand why it happens when it happens, but the one thing that angers them more than anything is when fans question their brother’s dedication to the program.
“When people starting questioning the kids passion and heart, it starts to rub me the wrong way,” Samardzija said. “I joke with Jeff all the time that he puts in more hours a week for football than I do with my full time 8-to-5 job. And that’s just football. Throw classes in there and he really blows me off the charts. The players put a lot of sweat, blood and tears into this game. If they didn’t have the heart or passion for it, believe me, they would have quit a long time ago. As older brothers and as family, we’re behind these kids no matter what. We could have gone 0-12 this season and been declared the worst ND team ever. Still they would have been our little brothers on “the worst ND team ever” that we would love no matter what. It’s still just a game.”
“The breaking point for me was the MSU game this year,” Martin said. “I hopped on the chat room at Irish Eyes at halftime and couldn't believe the things I was hearing. It made me want to cancel my membership and not have any association with ND fans at all. It was truly appalling.
“People were questioning the team’s heart, and how hard they were working. That is totally unacceptable in my book. If you want to question why he didn't beat his man, or why he overthrew someone, fine...but don't ever question their heart and how hard they're working. Believe me, they are working way harder than most people ever have and ever will. If you would have seen Trevor after the Michigan game, when he could barely talk because he was so upset, then you would never question how much these guys want it.
“Our mom takes it the hardest,” Martin added. “She takes everything to heart. In the end we know it's just fans that don't know the whole story and are hyper-negative, so we try to take it with a grain of salt.”
Samardzija says the brothers have almost grown to embrace the negativity and have some fun with it because they know they can’t do anything about it.
“The joke with all the brothers is how the ‘heat’ from the fans on those boards tends to go week to week,” he said. “So when the heats NOT on Jeff, I’ll tend to check out all the boards to get some dirt on Trev, Tommy, or Sully, so I can have some firepower for the pre-game tailgate. Johnny Carlson never has any heat because he’s too nice of a kid. So I never really can give any crap to Alex. But when it’s Jeff’s turn on those boards, I tend to stay far, far away.”
The brothers also want to make it very clear that they could easily give me even more quotes that would explain what a very positive and rewarding experience it’s been to be part of the Notre Dame family. They wanted to make it very clear that they were simply answering my questions, which were designed for this story, and were not complaining about Irish fans.
"Most fans are awesome,” Samardzija said. “Too be honest, a lot of fans are amazing in their praise for Jeff and the family. You can’t really get that anywhere else other than Notre Dame.”
“It’s been great,” Zbikowski agreed. “The fans and Notre Dame family are amazing, and I feel honored and privileged to be a part of it.”
"Truly unbelievable,” Carlson said of his ND experience. “ND is a place that overwhelms our family and our friends with emotion, game weekend or not. The tradition, the people that have made it what it is today, the people that are there now, and what it stands for, is something that I am extremely proud to say my brother is a part of!”
“Overall, the ND experience has been a very fun one,” Martin added. “We have come to love Notre Dame for all that it is and all that it represents. Every time I'm on campus I fall in love again. I wear my ND gear with pride and know that the boys are out there giving it everything they have. I'm glad Trevor chose Notre Dame, and it has been one enjoyable ride. There's really nothing like Notre Dame, it is special and we'll remember these years forever.”
That special place has brought four brothers together with a common bond and they’re very happy it has.
“It is a family at ND,” Samardzija said. “I consider all these boys an extension of my own family now, it’s almost like I consider all of them my little kid brothers. I look at all the families we’ve met through the four years here and I consider them all new great friends that we’ll have for a lifetime. Drew, EJ, Rick, and Alex I consider my right hand guys, who’ve gone through this wild process just the same as I. I really think of them as great friends that I’ll stay in touch with for ever.”
Irish fans can be ruthless at times in their criticism of Irish players, myself included. I think it’s important for Irish fans to understand that there are many, many more family members of Irish players who read these boards daily. My hope is Irish fans will stop and think before they post in the future. There are a lot of good people out there that you might offend with your comments.
If you have any comments, please feel free to e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org