Malik Zaire was back home in Ohio when he saw the news on ESPN.
Everett Golson was out at Notre Dame. An alarm went off in Zaire’s head.
Hanging with friends, including his “brother from another mother” Greg Hart, Zaire scratched that night’s midnight movie. He wanted to get to Bishop Alter to work on route combinations.
Zaire had his opening. He was determined to bulldoze a path through it.
“He got really excited,” said Hart, now a third-year tight end at Kentucky. “He wanted to go to the field that night. And ever since then his focus has been pretty narrow and clear on what he wants.”
That was two-and-a-half years ago.
This wasn’t Golson’s transfer out of Notre Dame. This was Golson’s suspension for academic misconduct. Ultimately Tommy Rees reclaimed the starting job and Zaire took an awkward red-shirt. But the impatience Zaire showed wasn’t going away. The job would be his. The only question was when.
Tonight against Texas, Zaire will make his first start without looking over his shoulder pads. His father Imani will fly in from Arizona. His mother Stacy Carter will travel from Maryland, joined by her parents who still live in the Dayton area.
Those dynamics molded Zaire, an only child who earned his independence long before college.
Zaire’s parents divorced before he started a game at Bishop Alter, where he sat for two frustrating years. When the program won a state title in Zaire’s freshman year, he wouldn’t accept the championship ring because he didn’t play. When the quarterback job opened his sophomore year, Zaire got beat out by a senior. He gave up a starting job with the junior varsity to stand on the sidelines Friday nights.
“Other high schools were trying to recruit him away,” Imani said. “It was tough on him. He was disengaged like last year at Notre Dame. He thought it wasn’t fair. I told him to sit down and observe.”
At that point Imani had relocated to Phoenix. It meant Zaire’s first coach was halfway across the country, leaving him to navigate his recruitment virtually solo. Father and son talked plenty, but it was Zaire who researched Nike camps, the Elite 11 and took calls from coaches. Cincinnati offered after his sophomore year. Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Notre Dame followed.
When Zaire needed to make unofficial visits he printed itineraries for his mom. Then they’d hop in the car for Columbus, South Bend or Madison. Carter let Zaire take charge because every decision seemed to be the right one.
“I gave him quite a bit of latitude, I knew my kid,” Carter said. “I knew what was important to him. I knew the people he was around. When he wrote a plan he’d just say, ‘I got it.’ He usually did. I didn’t have to do much follow up. But it’s not like I had ever heard of Elite 11 before Malik.”
Carter knew what drove her son, who had posters of Michael Vick in his bedroom and clippings of old Parade All-American teams plastered to the wall. When Carter relocated to Maryland after Zaire left for Notre Dame, they had to peel them off.
Zaire had enough freedom that he spent a few nights most weeks at Hart’s house because it was closer to Alter. Instead of making the 45-minute drive every day from his Trotwood neighborhood, Zaire got extra time with his best friend who was also a top recruit.
Hart signed with Nebraska, partially on Zaire’s recommendation, before transferring to Kentucky last winter. Zaire helped Hart through that transition too. The two remain close, talking earlier this week after Hart’s sister got engaged. Hart’s mother even attended a Notre Dame game last September instead of flying to see Nebraska play at Fresno State.
“I give him the most credit of anybody I’ve ever met because when he committed everyone was talking about Gunner Kiel and the million quarterbacks they had there,” Hart said. “He’s just a lion. He has it.”
That’s been obvious here since Zaire first met a microphone. Unlike the quarterback he replaced, Zaire is comfortable in the spotlight. Golson made a habit of waiting out reporters after practice. Zaire plans to bat leadoff after Wednesday practices, which he did this week.
“You can only really feel like a rookie in my opinion if you aren’t prepared, if you’re not confident in what you’re doing,” Zaire said. “I feel good. We’ve done a lot to get ready for this. Now it’s time to go out there and play.”
Tonight the next chapter in this curious quarterback’s career will be written. Everything about Zaire’s upbringing led him to this moment, all the way back to when he skipped crawling in favor of walking as a baby, according to his father.
For reasons of nature and nurture, Zaire has always been in a hurry. That’s made his journey into the starting lineup rewarding, frustrating and inevitable. Notre Dame’s next quarterback has been preparing for his moment for more than a decade, including that summer night two-and-a-half years ago when he first saw a depth chart opening.
He’s not going to let this next one pass him by.