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October 16, 2005

Samardzija more than quips and quirks


Irish Sports Report
Notre Dame junior wide receiver Jeff Samardzija has flourished under first-year coach Charlie Weis.


Jeff Samardzija is tapping into his inner surfer dude, getting the media to giggle and making Notre Dame head football coach Charlie Weis sound almost a bit understated when he referred to his burgeoning receiving star as a free spirit.

The junior from Valparaiso, Ind., is attempting to explain to the gaggle of reporters how he got the nickname "Shark," the moniker itself somewhat of an obscure reference until the ABC crew outed him on national TV during the Sept. 24 game at Washington.

It's an unflattering story, really, with its origin rooted in the Irish baseball team, and the two-sport standout seems to take extra delight in the goofy details.

"Well, it started out as Shark Face," he admitted. "I was just trying to break the water with a lot of guys by just joking around with them."

Break the water?

"They kind of got me back by saying I looked like a shark from (the movie) 'Shark Tale'," he said. "I don't know, do I look like a shark? I don't think so. Whatever."

He plays like one, though.

Through five games, Samardzija led the Irish with 28 receptions for 499 yards and eight touchdowns. The previous two years combined, Samardzija caught 24 passes for 327 yards and no touchdowns.

"Nah, it shouldn't be," Samardzija responded when asked if it was hard for him to wait his turn to move into the spotlight. "If that's a problem, then I think you have a problem, because I think you should have a little bit different view on the whole football team-type mentality.

"And I think if someone doesn't have that mentality, especially on this team, then I think they're not going to make it. Coach (Weis) is looking for guys who play hard and when they get their chance, they're going to step up and make plays. I just think that's the way it should be."

The smile never leaves his face, but the tone in his voice shows that there's much more to Jeff Samardzija than quips and quirks.

"He really is a grounded kid," said Samardzija's dad, Sam. "A lot of that probably had to do with the fact he had to grow up faster than most kids after his mother passed away. He had to."

Deborah Samardzija died of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome in June of 2001, shortly after Jeff had completed his sophomore year in high school.

"It all happened so fast," said Mark Hoffman, Jeff's football coach at Valparaiso High. "I remember, because Deb was at the hospital when my wife went in to have a tumor removed. I remember running into Jeff and his aunt in the waiting room. The illness only lasted a month. It just broke your heart. Debbie was just such a special person."

"My oldest son (Sam Jr.) was off at college, so it was really just Jeff and I," Sam said. "Neither of us could cook, so we were mooching off our friends and grandmas, and every Tuesday night we would go out to eat -- just us. That was our night. It was on those nights I got a glimpse of how strong Jeff really was. I don't want to say I neglected my sons, but I don't think I realized how hurt they were, because I was hurting so much.

"So the good-spirited side of Jeff never left him, but he also now had this serious side. He knew he had to buckle down. This had hit him right between the eyes."

And somehow Jeff turned it into tremendous strength, helped it push him from a lithe talented kid with a dream to an indomitable force with a dreamlike reality.

"We had sat down and talked before his junior season," Hoffman said. "As a sophomore, like a lot of talented young athletes, he didn't always go full speed. But I told him, if he wanted to play Division I, if he wanted the early offers, he needed to block and run on every play with tenacity, that he had to realize that scouts were watching him.

"But he took it a step further. He dedicated the season to his mom. And when you watched him on film, he literally jumped off of it at you."

Jeff Samardzija had always been a sports prodigy of sorts.

"Baseball, basketball, football, even wrestling," said Sam, who was Jeff's coach in just about everything until at least age 12.

"But he stinks at hockey. He can't skate for nothing. Neither of my boys can. I don't know why. He is a good roller-blader."

Sam Sr. was a standout hockey player. For the record.

Hoffman knew of Jeff going back to his Pop Warner days and had previously coached Sam Jr., a defensive back for the Vikings who still holds the Valparaiso school record for interceptions. But what really opened Hoffman's eyes was when he was named head coach for the North in the Indiana All-Star game.

Hoffman needed a couple of managers and decided to take a pair of eighth-grade football players for that purpose. And since they were somewhat advanced, Hoffman had them take along their shoulder pads and helmets.

"I figured I'd put them on the scout team -- Jeff as the tailback and Jason Renn as the quarterback -- to run plays against the defense," Hoffman said. "On the first play, we ran a toss sweep. Jeff got the ball, and there was this outside linebacker who was signed to play at Wisconsin. Jeff juked him. I mean, he really juked him. And while that impressed the heck out of me, when Jeff got back to the huddle, I said, 'Look, maybe you shouldn't embarrass these guys or they'll coldcock you.'"

Jeff's continued progress turned him into the most highly recruited player Hoffman ever had at the perennial state power. And with that came an allure to leave the state -- for either baseball or football.

But family came first, including the new members of the family. Sam has since remarried and new wife Stephanie has a 7-year-old son, Jakob. And the couple have a 10-month-old son together, Nikolas.

"Jeff just loves Nikolas," Sam said. "He runs to him before he comes to any of us."

And Jeff appreciates the fact that Stephanie is learning to make palachinke -- Serbian pancakes, Jeff's favorite -- and that she embraces Serbian traditions like Krsna Slava, a Serbian holiday that honors the family.

"Stephanie doesn't pretend that Deb never existed," Sam said. "I think that's why things have worked out so fantastically. We all can embrace how special she was."

And Jeff won't embrace it by wearing something in particular during the games or with any kind of little ritual.

"I don't really need to do anything special, because I think it doesn't make any sense to me to do it just for games," he said "I'm the kind of person who's doing it all the time, so I don't think I need to do anything special for games.

"I'm always thinking about her and understand that she's always watching me, so I try not to disappoint her."

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