- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Before he could lead a group of older teammates into Yankee Stadium, and before he could quarterback the first Notre Dame team to win at USC in a decade, Tommy Rees had to go 78 yards in 3 minutes, 26 seconds at Libertyville High School.
Only a high school sophomore at the time, Rees took his Lake Forest teammates 77 yards, enough to set up a game-tying field goal before his game-winning touchdown pass clinched a 23-20 overtime victory, knocking the hosts out of the playoffs.
"He put the team on his back," Lake Forest coach Chuck Spagnoli recalled. "That's probably my biggest memory of him."
The stage has gotten slightly bigger in the four years since, as Rees finds himself directing Notre Dame into a Michigan Stadium that is expected to host the biggest crowd in college football history Saturday night.
For a kid who grew up in a football family, the situation is hardly daunting.
Rees' father, Bill, spent 17 years as an assistant with Northwestern and UCLA before working for four NFL teams. His older brother Danny played at UCLA.
"This kid was at Rose Bowl games when he was young," Spagnoli said. "He's been around high levels of football as a youngster, so I don't know that stadiums really intimidate him. He was on the sidelines when he was 10 years old at NFL games, so he's probably got an advantage growing up in that environment."
That shows during preparation in the film room, where tight end Tyler Eifert says a lot of players don't initially know what exactly they're looking for.
That wasn't the case with Rees.
"I think a lot of the quarterbacks see film differently than other people," Eifert said. "He just sees the whole defense as a whole instead of just looking at one guy or end up watching the offense, actually, instead of watching the defense."
Offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said Rees broke down every play from the first half of the Fighting Irish's loss to South Florida flawlessly -- all the more striking since Rees didn't take a snap until the third quarter.
"I think he's got a real innate sense about the game of football," Molnar said. "He has some real football intelligence that other players just don't have, and that's just a product I think of him growing up in a football family, No. 1.
"No. 2 is he's a gym rat, as we say. He spends the time watching film, watching himself and really, really trying to be the best football player that he can be. He loves football, and that's obvious by the way he practices and the way he plays."
But it's less obvious by his stature. Spagnoli remembers the first time he met Rees, then an 11-year-old whose dad brought him to practice to watch Danny in his sophomore year under Spagnoli.
"Just a little guy with freckles," Spagnoli recalled. "I wasn't going, 'Oh my god, this is the future.' He was just a little kid at the time."
At a less-than-imposing 6-foot-2 and 193 pounds when he enrolled at Notre Dame in the spring of 2010, Rees hardly made a first impression on unsuspecting teammates.
Said Eifert: "He was the dork. I was the lanky, tall kid."
But the dork soon showed his heart, Michael Floyd said, taking hits in the pocket and instilling confidence in the offense with his unflappability.
"It's kind of weird," Floyd said. "Kind of different just knowing coming from high school and to playing elite college football. Kind of surprising that a freshman quarterback can do that."
Added Brian Kelly: "His FBI, his football intelligence, was really good early on. He had to physically develop. As I've said before, he looked like a high school student -- I guess he was, he was a high school student. He physically needed to develop, but mentally I thought he was well beyond his years."
Still, Rees' teammates never miss a chance to rag on his demeanor when the opportunity arises.
Take Tuesday, when Cierre Wood told reporters that Rees dresses like a bum, a line that made its way to teammates.
"They hit that dead-on," Braxston Cave said. "You always see him in like a raggedy sweatshirt and some shorts and just hanging out. That's just Tommy."
Rees was met with ridicule upon entering the locker room the next day.
"We were in the cold tub and someone was like, 'Man, you do look like a bum,'" Cave said. "So we were kind of giving him crap for that."
Cave said Rees off the field is one of the least serious people he's ever met. That thick skin will serve him well under the lights at the Big House as he gets another shot at the team that ruined his debut last season.
Replacing a woozy Dayne Crist in the first quarter of that contest, Rees had his first career pass intercepted in an eventual loss.
"A 'Welcome to College Football' moment," he said, adding: "Since that moment I haven't really looked back, so that probably has helped me in the long run."
A year, an initiation and a full-time job later, Rees is tasked with turning roughly 114,000 opposing fans and a prime-time audience into believers.
Even if he catches most of them off guard.
"He's unassuming, but at the same time you better be careful of what you can't see," Spagnoli said. "This guy -- I won't say he's a shark or anything like that -- he's pretty much what you see except one thing: He cares.
"He really has been around it a long enough time that he understands the implications of when he doesn't succeed as a quarterback."