It was Nov. 20, 2010, and freshman quarterback Tommy Rees was making his second start for Notre Dame against Army in a very special setting at new Yankee Stadium.
"My eyes were pretty big coming to New York and playing on this stage," Rees said Thursday. "I remember walking on the field and being blown away, and I had Derek Jeter's locker. That blew me away as well."
There's been a lot of water under the bridge since then in Rees' up-and-down career at Notre Dame. Last year he took a back seat to freshman quarterback Everett Golson, who led the Irish to the BCS title game against Alabama. But when Golson was suspended from school last May, Rees found himself back in the saddle as Notre Dame's starting quarterback.
Now he's come full circle to wrap up his career, having led the Irish (8-4) to the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers (6-6) Saturday afternoon at the Stadium.
"At the beginning of the year, this wasn't our destination or our goal," Rees said. "But it's exciting to be here in New York."
The Irish fought through the suspension of Golson, who will rejoin the team in the fall, and injuries to key players to finish with a credible record against one of the toughest schedules in the nation, including the only victory over Michigan State and wins over nationally ranked Arizona State and USC. Rees had an outstanding season, passing for 2,938 yards and 27 touchdowns with 13 interceptions.
Reflecting on when he first heard the news of Golson's suspension, Rees said, "You never want something like that to happen to a teammate. I felt for Everett, and I wanted to talk to him before anybody else. I was in Los Angeles and was playing golf with some friends when I heard the news. By the time we finished the round, it was official. I was excited about the opportunity to play the whole season, and the team really responded."
Senior wide receiver T.J. Jones, who caught 65 passes for 1,042 yards and nine TDs, said the adjustment to Rees wasn't difficult because the Irish knew what to expect from him.
"Tommy was always a team leader even when he wasn't playing," Jones said. "He helped Everett off the field, and then he stepped right into that role. He's a seasoned veteran who isn't afraid to make a mistake and will take chances. He takes charge of the offense and he'll get in your face."
Rees and the Irish passing game will attack a young Rutgers secondary that has allowed an average of 311.4 yards passing per game and given up 31 touchdown passes.
Comparing himself to the freshman quarterback who beat Army, 27-3, more than three years ago, Rees said, "I'm a completely different person. I'm a more complete player and a better leader . . . You know guys are counting on you."