SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Before there was a football game to win last December, there was one of those strenuously contrived, bowl-game talent shows to win, too. Given Everett Golson's piano aptitude, Notre Dame teammates endeavored to deploy his nimble digits as a showstopper.
At first, Golson demurred. He had a good reason: He can't read music.
So his teammates played him a song that morning. The then-freshman quarterback subsequently located a piano at the hotel. He messed around with the memory of the melody, cobbled something together with head and hands and performed that night.
"I guess it goes with the creative side, the artistic side of me," Golson said. "When I'm playing piano, it's not like I'm reading music. I play it by ear. Everything is kind of just made up, kind of improvised."
This is all noteworthy as the Irish this week hone in on a starting quarterback for their Sept. 1 opener against Navy. If it is Golson taking the first snaps in Dublin, then Notre Dame has its international man of mystery, a combustible talent who offers no one the foggiest idea of what will happen.
Andrew Hendrix, though largely unproven, has game experience. The 6-foot, 185-pound Golson has a sparkling spring game performance, a purported overflow of physical gifts and roughly seven to eight months of taking this whole quarterback thing seriously.
"It's not recess, as I like to tell him about every five minutes: ‘Dude, that was recess. That's what you did during recess,'" offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said.
"The teacher is not going to come out and yell at you if you threw the wrong read. Recess gets us beat. He's doing a very good job, and some of the things he does, he's just naturally gifted. So he never really has had to take time to be a student of the game."
He had no choice during 2011, when preserving a year of eligibility and academic concerns dovetailed to shuttle Golson down to scout-team reps. That humbled him, leaving him to observe the offense via practice film and absorb what he could.
There is minimum diligence the position requires at the college level – being on time for meetings and being prepared for them – and Golson never had grasped it.
"I can admit: I wasn't the best at that," Golson said.
His spring game showing – 11 of 15 passing for 120 yards and two touchdowns – represented a step forward. As did throwing one interception in 126 passing opportunities through the first two weeks of camp, per Irish coach Brian Kelly.
Then there was Golson demonstrating some shrewdness, scouring film of the similarly undersized Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, monitoring their mechanics in finding passing lanes over linemen six to eight inches taller.
"One thing I wanted to develop was obviously the science part of being a quarterback," Golson said. "So I'm starting to get there a little bit, getting more comfortable with what I see, and more confident.
Said Kelly: "You build trust. You don't just give it."
Ironically, Notre Dame will give trust freely Sept. 1. Even Martin conceded as much, saying "it still will be an unknown" when either Golson or Hendrix starts against Navy. Golson, the more tantalizing and terrifying option, evidently has tried to leave little to improvisation.
"Coming into fall camp, I thought it was a dream," Golson said. "I couldn't actually fathom the idea of being the quarterback. But now it's kind of settling in: ‘OK, I gotta to prepare myself. I gotta get ready.'"