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Notre Dame star wideout has become cult sensation

Posted: Friday November 11, 2005 7:08PM; Updated: Friday November 11, 2005 8:25PM
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Clockwise, from top left: Jeff Samardzija, Howard Stern, Heather Matarazzo, Ana Gasteyer, Mark Fidrych, Geddy Lee,  Bono,  Andie MacDowell.
Clockwise, from top left: Jeff Samardzija, Howard Stern, Heather Matarazzo, Ana Gasteyer, Mark Fidrych, Geddy Lee, Bono, Andie MacDowell.
Notre Dame Athletic Dept.; AP; Evan Agostini/Getty Images; Frazer Harrison/Getty Images; Lane Stewart/SI; Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images; Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images; AP.

This week Sports Illustrated featured a football player with long, flowing brown locks on its cover and the magazine ran a story within on a breakout star from Notre Dame. Neither player was Jeff Samardzija, which just astounds me.

No offense to Pittsburgh Steeler bone-crusher Troy Polamalu (the Samson-ite on SI's cover) or Fighting Irish quarterback Brady Quinn (who appeared in the inset), but Samardzija (suh-MARR-zhuh) is the breakout gridiron cult figure of the season.

Have you noticed? The lanky 6-foot-5 junior wideout, after not starting a regular season game or catching a touchdown pass during his first two seasons in South Bend, now leads the Frightening Irish in receptions (51) and has caught a TD pass in every game this autumn. His 12 touchdowns trail only USC wideout Dwayne Jarrett (14) for most in the nation by a wide receiver in 2005.

But Samardzija's numbers only begin to tell the story. Bloggers and print columnists alike gape at Samardzija's "Hey, man, is that Freedom Rock?!?" hairdo and his Jabberjaw profile and are intrigued. Many, myself included, have devoted far too many moments wondering exactly who he resembles. Here are just a few of the ones I've either seen suggested or come up with myself. You tell me who wins the "Summoning Samardzija" sweepstakes: Howard Stern as his younger self in Private Parts; Ana Gasteyer; Geddy Lee; Ace Frehley; Andie MacDowell or Heather Matarazzo.

It's not just that Samardzija catches every pass that comes his way -- and even a few that do not -- to be sure, he has the surest hands of any Notre Dame wideout since Derrick Mayes. No, there seems to be a budding Samardzijaphoria, a burgeoning cult movement akin to, in tone if not yet scope, the one that enveloped Detroit Tiger pitcher Mark Fidrych during his 1975 rookie season. In fact, I see a lot of similarities between "The Bird," as Fidrych was known, and "Shark," as Samardzija's teammates refer to him. Sure, there's the fact that both are long-haired, free-spirited pitchers (Samardzija was 8-1 on the diamond for ND last spring, but you already knew that), but it's something more, something that emanates from within.

Did you see Samardzija's post-game interview with NBC sideline reporter Lewis Johnson following last Saturday's win over Tennessee? Johnson presented Samardzija with a football and a baseball -- prompting my buddy Billy to say, "You have to love a sideline reporter who supplies his own props" -- and asked him where his heart lay in regards to both sports.

Here was Samardzija's reply: "I love just competing, period, whether it's out in this great atmosphere, there's nothing that beats Notre Dame Stadium on a Saturday, or it's out on the mound pitching. As long as I'm out there competing, doing it for this great University and the guys that are on my team in both sports. That's what it's all about; the guys you play with and the guys you go out and bleed with, and when you get victories like this, you know it all pays off. So, it feels good."

Samardzija's answer was so unaffected, so unabashedly sincere and enthusiastic, that it instantly reminded me of another yet unspoiled character, from film, whose words embodied the concept of youthful enthusiasm. Below I've taken that speech, and every place where the word "movie" or "film" appeared, I've substituted "catch" or a synonym. Tell me this monologue does not remind you of Samardzija's:

Wow. I dunno what to say ... I guess. Wow. I guess the only thing I can say, is that I promise to keep rocking and rolling and to keep making better catches. It seems we make these grabs ... and sometimes ... they're considered filthy or something by some people ... but I don't think that's true. These receptions we make can be better ... they can help ... they really can, I mean it. We can always do better -- and I'll keep trying if you keep trying so let's keep ROCKING AND ROLLING!

Yes, that's Dirk Diggler after receiving his third trophy at the "Second Annual Adult Film Awards" in Boogie Nights. Now, I don't mean to draw any comparisons between Samardzija and Diggler ethically, professionally or even anatomically, but definitely there's a mutual trait they share. That trait? Joy. Joy, what an underrated commodity, especially in sports. I've covered many a football player who, before embarking on a road game, has said, "We got to treat it like a business trip. We're just taking care of business." Well, go ahead and be Bachman-Turner Overdrive about it if you must, but I disagree. It's a game. Have fun. Sure, you want to compete and you want to make plays and you want to win, but what's so wrong with enjoying yourself? And that doesn't mean you have to make the other guy look bad, either (although, seriously, how cool would it be if Samardzija celebrated every touchdown grab with a Brock Landers-style karate move? Would that be excessive celebration?).