‘He’s born to be a leader’

Inside the off-season training of Malik Zaire, whose summer workout programs have helped develop a leadership that Notre Dame will need to make a College Football Playoff run.

Malik Zaire walked the halls of the Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton last month, making his way to the facility’s sports performance department, where he’s spent off-seasons since the seventh grade.

When he passed Brett Hoffman’s window to start another three weeks inside the Samaritan North Athletic Performance Program (SNAPP), the trainer thought he might have a new client. The same sophomore year that took Zaire from scout team to starter had also made him unrecognizable at first glance to one of the men who’d been training him.

“He’s a different man than he was two years ago,” Hoffman said.

Around SNAPP, that change has been both arresting and predictable. For Hoffman and colleague Justin Kirchmer, who’s been more hands-on with Zaire the past two summers, the surprise would have been if the quarterback didn’t take over the starting job at Notre Dame, even if Everett Golson’s departure sealed it.

In his most recent tour with SNAPP, Zaire got about a month of training focused on keeping him healthy as Brian Kelly plans to put him in the line of fire with his run-first skill set. So Monday to Friday, Zaire would train his core, agility and footwork. Beyond abs, he’d drill his hip area, lower back and gluts. He’d focus on his breathing as a way to find calm during chaos.

“We want to make him as injury proof as we can,” Kirchmer said.

Zaire did almost all this with a football in his left hand. During breaks, he’d work on his pass drops off to the side. The workouts lasted about 90 minutes and ended something called the Big Finish.

For Zaire, that meant pushing a weighted sled 25 yards, followed by a series of lateral jumps over a weight room bench. Then he pushed that sled back another 25 yards, then took a sledgehammer and pounded a tractor tire. Six sets of those movements and Zaire was done, off to throw at various Dayton high schools, sometimes with Michigan State commitment and Elite 11 finalist Messiah DeWeaver.

The quarterbacks have been friends for nearly 10 years, coming up through the same area Pop Warner team. While Zaire started at Alter as a senior, DeWeaver was a freshman starting at Trotwood-Madison. They compared notes on opponents. Zaire attended one of DeWeaver’s playoff games.

On a few days last month they gathered some receivers and defensive backs around Dayton to throw 1-on-1’s. As much as DeWeaver has learned from Zaire by watching, he’s learned more from listening. Even in those summer sessions, Zaire wanted to improve on every rep. He bristled when receivers didn’t.

“If somebody runs the wrong route, he gets on them,” DeWeaver said. “He’s so hands-on. He can relate to everybody. He can get on you, but he can also put his hand on your back, say good job.

“But it’s one or the other, he’s not going to just let anything go.”

Kirchmer learned that for himself three summers ago during the Big Finish within a group workout that included Cam Burrows (Ohio State), Mike McCray (Michigan) and Jarrod Clements (Illinois), three other top Dayton area athletes.

After that Big Finish, Kirchmer had one player reach into a bowl of beads. If a white bead got picked, the workout was over. If the bead came back black, the Big Finish would be repeated.

It came back black.

“The only guy who wasn’t ready to just pack up and leave was Malik,” Kirchmer said. “He said, ‘This is life. This is the fourth quarter. We gotta get it done.’ He’s born to be a leader. We knew he’d go on and do awesome.”

Zaire returned to Notre Dame last week for the football team’s bridge program, a two-week service project with OTAs mixed into the schedule. Summer school starts next week and Zaire will be tasked with leading the off-season routine while the coaches are away.

For now, the junior quarterback’s only real public resume is the Music City Bowl, where he helped engineer an upset of LSU and take MVP honors in the process. His private resume was built back in Dayton, not only leading Alter on Friday nights but also at SNAPP behind closed doors. Zaire has done enough there to convert Hoffman and Kirchmer – both Ohio State fans – into at least part-time supporters of Notre Dame.

Some members of SNAPP plan to attend Notre Dame’s road date at Pittsburgh on Nov. 7.

“He’s the most appreciative athlete that has come through here,” Hoffman said. “He takes nothing for granted.”

Zaire proved that after the Music City Bowl, when Kirchmer texted him congratulations on the biggest sporting day of the quarterback’s life. It didn’t take Zaire longer than 15 minutes to respond despite the constant buzzing of his phone.

“He’s one of the mentally strongest people I’ve ever met,” Kirchmer said. “He’s always ready for what’s next, always ready to keep going.”

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