The last stand of Tommy Rees

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Danny Rees was talking about his little brother's legacy the other day when he allowed for an idea that Notre Dame was recently faced with, and one the Irish will have to get used to when Tommy Rees is no longer an option for them at quarterback.

"I think he's a winner," Danny Rees told ESPN.com. "Obviously there's been some tough losses, but if you look at his overall record I think he's won a lot of games, and I'm not sure where Notre Dame would be without him over the last four years, and I think he would probably say the same thing. I think he wants to be remembered as a guy who came in and won some big games."

Just where Notre Dame would be without Tommy Rees is hard to fathom, especially in light of last month's win over USC, when a neck strain forced him to the sideline for most of the second half, giving way to an offense that totaled 30 yards and one first down.

Or in light of last year's perfect regular season, when Rees accepted his diminished role after an offseason arrest, relieved Everett Golson in three of the first six games and carried Notre Dame to victory without complaint.

Or in light of his freshman year of 2010, when he filled in for an injured Dayne Crist and led the Irish to four straight wins, including their first over the rival Trojans in nine years.

Yes, it is hard to imagine Notre Dame without Rees. But life after him is approaching fast, as the senior will take the Notre Dame Stadium field for the final time Saturday against BYU, a home send-off to a career that has made him part-hero, part-goat and seemingly everything in-between.

Brian Kelly had some trouble gripping with the idea of a Rees-less Notre Dame when asked Tuesday to think about impending days without the one constant of his four-year Irish coaching tenure.

"Look, we want to win football games -- you're hired and fired for winning football games here; I get that," Kelly said. "But he really loves Notre Dame and understands Notre Dame and understands the distinctions of Notre Dame."

It was just a decade ago that Lake Forest (Ill.) High coach Chuck Spagnoli met an 11-year-old Rees, then visiting a practice of older brother Danny, who went on to punt at UCLA. Rees did not immediately pass the eye test then, nor does he now at a hardly-imposing 6-foot-2, 215 pounds. But within three years, Spagnoli knew he had himself a three-year starter at quarterback who would eventually turn into one of the best captains his program has ever had.

"I don't think it's an accident that he's there and in the position he's in right now," Spagnoli told ESPN.com. "He's a fighter and he's a survivor, and he isn't going to just assume that things are going to be given to him by any stretch. He's going to work for everything he gets."

Rees remembers his father Bill, now a scout for the Buccaneers, telling him at an early age that he had three options with football: Liking it, loving it or living it.

"For me it's been about living it," said Rees, who has not ruled out a coaching career.

Added Kelly: "You'd never think of Tommy Rees being two seconds late for a meeting or not at a workout. He's always the first one in and the last one to leave. That's living it."

That means understanding what he signed up for, too.

Rees has not always gotten a fair deal from segments of the fan base, some of which booed him when he replaced Golson in the home opener last year before he led a game-winning drive against Purdue. Three losses this year have led to his name on social media getting linked with words that would not be uttered within earshot of the Basilica, though a #ThankTommy movement has been growing on Twitter this week with his home finale approaching.

He has tuned it all out, though, insisting that the sport has never become a burden.

"You've got to commit yourself fully to the game, and at times people get down on it after losses, but you think about not sharing those moments with your teammates, you think about not putting on that helmet," Rees said. "There are people that would give a lot to feel that bad after a game, to even play the game. You've got to be grateful, and you've got to look at it in perspective."

Others bolted at the first sight of adversity, or failed to understand those Notre Dame distinctions that Kelly referred to.

But through nearly 7,000 yards, 58 touchdowns, 21 wins and yes, those seven losses and 34 interceptions, too, Tommy Rees' resolve has persisted. And he still has one last stand left at Notre Dame.

"I mean, shoot, at the end of the day he's the quarterback at Notre Dame and that's a really special thing to be," Danny Rees said. "There's going to be criticism that comes along with it, but I bet you there are thousands of kids out there who would love to put up with that criticism and do what he does, so I don't think at the end of the day it's a big deal."