I, like probably many of you, tend to digest information through the prism of my life. The Shark graduated from Notre Dame four years after I did; surely he couldn’t be anyone’s favorite player growing up?!
Roy Smythe, Durham’s father, assured me his son’s story checks out.
Irish fans know Durham as a solid blocking, sure-handed, 22-year-old tight end who played his final collegiate game Jan. 1.
The following includes an anecdote about the not-quite-11-and-a-half-year-old Durham, and his fascination with a lanky, touchdown-catching, Biletnikoff-runner-up-receiving kid from Valparaiso, Indiana who used to don No. 83.
There’s a greater story, though, about a child picking a seemingly arbitrary reason to like Notre Dame — and then subsequently falling in love with it because of what it can provide both on the field and in the classroom.
We thank Roy for this telling.
Durham started asking when he 10 years old or so about the best places to play college football.
As an “academic guy,” I started advocating early for a school that had a great academic program in addition to athletics. He was a very sharp little person in accelerated classes in elementary school, so that resonated with him even at a young age. I didn’t really have to push the concept very hard, because he had already decided it was important before I suggested it.
He actually searched the U.S. News and World Report U.S. university rankings one day by himself online, and came to me beaming later saying, “I want to go to Notre Dame…I took the school rankings and multiplied them by the athletic program rankings (ESPN had one at the time), and Notre Dame got the lowest score – so they’re the best!” (I told you he was a sharp little guy…)
It didn’t matter that I had played at Baylor and had been a letterman on our Southwest Conference championship team that played Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, or that he dutifully attended Baylor home games each year and hung out in the Letterman’s Lounge with me and some of the Baylor greats of old (not me) each year at the stadium in Waco. His heart was already in South Bend.
By the time he was 12, his mother and I — who are now great friends — had recently separated and were en route to a divorce. As with all children, the first few holidays dealing with a new reality like this were going to be the hardest. Even though I was practicing medicine and living in the same area as his mom, he was going to be shuttled a bit, and we were both worried about him.
As luck would have it, Notre Dame was playing LSU in the Sugar Bowl that year in New Orleans, a really short trip from our home at that time in Central Texas. It occurred to me that taking him to the game might be something for him to look forward to — and also perhaps take his mind off of less pleasant things — and his mother agreed.
While many were enamored with Brady Quinn, his favorite Irish player at the time was Jeff Samardzija. Durham was a pretty good little league baseball player at that age, participating on local travel teams as a catcher nicknamed “Bull” with precocious hand-eye coordination. In a league when about half the runs were scored due to passed balls, he let precious few by. It was no secret to him that Jeff was a great baseball player in addition to being an All-American receiver and this made him even the more appealing. On Christmas day, his favorite present was a number 83 Kelly green Notre Dame replica game jersey… at least until he opened the envelope containing the Sugar Bowl tickets.
We went down to New Orleans a couple of days early, and stayed in the French Quarter in a small hotel (one thankfully tucked a couple of blocks away from the maelstrom of Bourbon Street). As I remember it, he put that number 83 jersey on before we left to catch our flight, and took it off sometime after we got back to Texas.
When I was growing up, my family didn’t have a lot of extra money. But when I was about the same age as Durham was on this trip, my father — who I lost as a teenager — was the home town president of the Lions Club. He attended the International Lions Club conference in Miami that year, and we stopped in New Orleans along the way. While we were there, he took me to have dinner at Commander’s Palace – literally a top ten American restaurant in the 70s. I have no idea how he afforded to do so, as it must have literally cost him two months’ salary.
Some of the shine had rubbed off of the place via the passage of time and the efforts of all businesses in New Orleans to recover from the hurricane. But it gave me great pleasure to take him there as well when we were in town and to tell him the story about my trying to figure out how something that looked as gross as Oysters Rockefeller could taste so damn good. He wasn’t up for trying that, but he did enjoy the snapper soup — at least until I told him how it was made.
The day before the game, he and I were walking down the street in the French Quarter toward the hotel when an older couple walking toward us stopped somewhat suddenly as they approached. I noticed that they looked at one another and smiled before looking intently our way.
We stopped as we drew near. The gentleman nodded to me, then leaned down and asked Durham, “So, are you a Notre Dame fan?”
Durham looked at me quizzically, and then answered with an enthusiastic, “Yes, sir. Yes, I am.”
“You like that player…number 83?”
“Yes,” he replied.
I added, “Jeff Samardzija is his favorite… it’s not even close.”
The woman chuckled under her breath, and the man smiled again, looking at Durham.
“Yeah, he’s a good one isn’t he?”
“He sure is,” Durham replied.
“We know,” the woman then chimed in, “he’s our grandson.”
We spent the next several moments talking about Jeff, whereby his grandfather told Durham that “he was about your age when we knew he was going to be special. No one could tackle him in little league football. ... It didn’t even seem fair at times.”
His grandmother added, “Yes, he was faster than the other kids, and when they tried to tackle him he would spin around, jump over them...whatever it took!”
Eventually, the expression on Jeff’s grandfather’s face became a bit more serious and he addressed Durham directly again.
“Do you want to play for the Irish some day?”
“Yes, sir. I sure do,” Durham replied.
“You know you’ll have to be a good student too, right?”
“Great. ... Say, would you like for me to have Jeff send you a note…or something like that?”
Durham was too flabbergasted to answer that one, so I chimed back in, “That would be great. But, obviously, we know he’s busy, and wouldn’t expect that.”
“Give me your card, dad,” his grandfather said, “and let’s see what happens.”
The game wasn’t a shining moment in Irish history, as most Notre Dame fans remember. JaMarcus Russell had a career day, and we lost, 41-14. The stands were packed with LSU fans, and I can still hear the Tiger Bait chant (one that we luckily did not have to hear again during Durham’s career, lol).
However, I still remember it as a great day. I first thought our seats – obtained at the 23rd hour – weren’t all that great. We were in the first row in the corner of one of the end zones. However, Samardzija caught a touchdown pass right in front of us, and before the game and at halftime, the announcing crew show was right in front of us, replete with Jimmy Johnson and his hairdresser, as well as one Tim Brown, who Durham recognized before I did, and who also graciously signed Durham’s program when we passed it down to him.
Two weeks after our return, a package came in the mail addressed to Durham. Inside was one of those mini-footballs signed by Jeff Samardzija, and a note written by him to Durham telling him to stay true to the Irish.
I am not sure what happened to that ball, but Samardzija’s words were taken to heart.
If you’ve lost track of Durham since the Citrus Bowl, he did an outstanding job in the Senior Bowl — where he was named captain for his team. Durham talked to the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel recently about that experience. Vorel also talked to NFL Draft analyst Dane Brugler about Smythe’s draft stock.
Thanks again to Roy and Durham for the story!