MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – The first Everett Golson story is about football. The second one is about music. But in a way, they’re the same story.
Mickey Wilson, the football coach at Myrtle Beach High, remembers Golson’s senior year as quarterback. He had already won one state title in football and another in basketball. All the major colleges were calling. He didn’t have much left to prove. But after practice one day, Wilson noticed something. Golson stayed after everyone else had left and ran wind sprints.
The players noticed, too. A few days later, two others had joined him. A couple days after that, there were five or six. Before long, almost the whole team was out there running together.
His dad, Wayne, tells another story. Everett has a gift for music -- he plays piano and drums, and he’s so good on the upright bass that when he dropped orchestra to take a weightlifting class, his teacher cried.
Most of the time, Wayne says, Everett can pick up a song by ear. But if he can’t, he’ll go to his room and he won’t come out until he knows it.
“He don’t like nothing to defeat him,” his father says.
Wayne gets up from his recliner to rummage through a storage room. He comes out with a Sports Illustrated photo from the Notre Dame-Pitt game on Nov. 3. Golson had been so bad to start the game he had been pulled in the second quarter, but he came back in with Notre Dame down 17-6. In the photo, Golson dives past a linebacker for the two-point conversion that tied the game at 20. Notre Dame won in the third overtime on Golson’s one-yard run.
His dad has made several copies of the photo. I ask him what he sees.
“Will to win,” Wayne Golson says. “Will to win.”
He leafs through the copies, and his son dives for the goal again and again.
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The Notre Dame football players walk into the room for BCS media day in South Bend, Ind. Manti Te’o, the All-America linebacker, looks like coaches assembled him in a lab. His shirt barely contains his shoulders. You can almost see air fleeing from his path.
Everett Golson looks like the intern who came along to fetch Gatorade.
He’s six feet even, 185 pounds … you know a lot of guys who go six-feet, 185. He’s not chunky with muscle. No sprinter’s bounce. Not even the faintest whiff of swagger. Early in the season, he spoke so softly that his teammates couldn’t hear him.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has replaced Golson with backup Tommy Rees three times this season for turnovers or missed reads. Golson’s worn No. 5 since JV football, in tribute to Donovan McNabb -- but Te’o, who finished second in the Heisman voting, wears no. 5 on the defensive side. So Golson’s not even the best player wearing his own number on the Notre Dame team.
But here he is, a redshirt freshman*, quarterback of Notre Dame’s undefeated season, one win over Alabama from the Irish’s first national title in a quarter-century.
*Officially, Notre Dame doesn’t “redshirt.” Unofficially, a lot of players don’t play as freshmen and stick around for a fifth year. Call it how you see it.
Johnny Manziel, the Heisman winner, is also a redshirt freshman. Manziel turned 20 on Dec. 6. Golson doesn’t turn 20 until Jan. 2.
Johnny Manziel is also the only quarterback to beat Alabama this year. And what you notice about Everett Golson is that he plays a lot like Johnny Manziel. Both can run or throw for a TD from anywhere on the field.
Manziel’s scrambles are a little wilder, his throws a little more daring. Golson’s game is rounder at the edges. But to win, Texas A&M needed Manziel to mash the gas the whole game. Notre Dame needs Golson to lighten up in the tricky spots. It’s a hard thing to learn, and to teach.
“We’ve been preaching to him since day one that you’re going to make enough big plays to win the game,” says offensive coordinator Chuck Martin. “It’s the other plays you’ve got to worry about.”
Everybody around the Notre Dame team talks about the Oklahoma game on Oct. 27 as the moment Golson took hold of the team. His stats weren’t huge -- 177 yards passing, 64 yards rushing. Notre Dame led the whole game until midway in the fourth, when Oklahoma tied it at 13. The crowd in Norman was deafening when Notre Dame got the ball. But on the second play, Golson threw a 50-yard bomb down the middle to Chris Brown. Golson scored on a one-yard run five plays later, and Notre Dame won 30-13.
But Golson talks more about the Pitt game, the one where he got pulled for Rees in the second quarter. In that game, the Irish were down two touchdowns. In that game, nothing was flowing. Pitt’s kicker missed a field goal in overtime for the win, and so lots of fans think Notre Dame got lucky. But Golson doesn’t think about the miss. He thinks about how much it took for Notre Dame to get to overtime in the first place.
His parents and high-school coaches will say good things about Golson all day, naturally. The one flaw they agree on is that, as his father puts it, he’s “a last-minute guy.” He waits until the very end to do a project, finish a chore, show up for a meeting.
Golson laughs when I ask him about it -- “Oh yeah, it’s true.” He says the academics at Notre Dame have taught him to start his classwork earlier. But he says it’s not about being lazy. Sometimes it’s about being busy. But there’s something else, too.
“We talk about all this pressure in a game like this,” he says. “I don’t really think about that while I’m still in it. But I think that’s how I prepared myself for the pressure. I give myself a challenge. I want the challenge.”
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Here’s the challenge.
Alabama has given up a touchdown or less in six of its 13 games. Four shutouts. There’s a first-team All-American at linebacker (C.J. Mosley) and another at cornerback (Dee Milliner). Chuck Martin, the Notre Dame offensive coordinator, said he asked his staff to compile a tape of big runs against the Alabama defense when the game was still in doubt. They came up with four.
And the best coach in sports, Nick Saban, has more than a month to get ready.
The subtext to the game is that a lot of people think Notre Dame doesn’t belong here. The Irish have dodged disaster twice -- that missed kick by Pitt, and the Stanford game, when refs blew the play dead before the Stanford back crossed the goal line with the tying touchdown. They’ve looked ordinary against ordinary teams like BYU and Purdue.
That’s why Alabama is the favorite, generally. The reason Alabama is a 10-point favorite, specifically, is that most people think the Tide defense is too much for Golson to handle.
Mickey Wilson, his high-school coach, has been thinking about that.
In Golson’s senior year, Myrtle Beach High made it to the state championship against South Pointe from Rock Hill. South Pointe was the clear favorite because of its defense, led by end Jadeveon Clowney, currently an All-American at South Carolina. On the first play of the title game, Clowney sacked Golson for a 12-yard loss. Golson couldn’t get away from him. South Pointe built a nine-point lead going into the fourth quarter.
But Myrtle Beach scored twice in the last nine minutes to win. The second TD was Golson’s 20-yard pass to a double-covered receiver at the left pylon. He put the ball the only place it could’ve been caught. Then again, he had plenty of time to throw. There was no pass rush at all.
“Clowney just got too tired trying to chase him,” Wilson says. “Everett wore him down.”
And that takes Wilson back to the beginning, when he watched his quarterback run wind sprints alone, training for the far end of the season, the fourth quarter of the big game, when somebody had to win it.
Everett Golson seems to wind up in that place a lot.
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Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at email@example.com or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. Wayne and Cynthia Golson missed just one of Everett’s games from rec league through high school. They didn’t mean to, but Everett wasn’t supposed to play, and … it’s a long story.