SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer is stuck in a moment of self-reflection, having scrambled around the jarring juxtaposition that separates his present from his not-so-distant past.
Kizer has started nine games for the Irish this season. Notre Dame has won eight of them, keeping it positioned for a berth in the season-ending College Football Playoff heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale at Stanford. These are developments that would have been predicted by no one, least of all Kizer, earlier this year, when, on the Irish depth chart, he was a distant third behind two other quarterbacks, Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, and when football was sometimes the last thing on his mind.
But in times when his performance has been flawed this season, as it was in Saturday’s 19-16 victory over Boston College, when Kizer threw three interceptions and was, in the words of Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly, “humbled a little bit,” the perspective he has gained over the past eight months rushes to the surface.
“When you get thrown into a situation like this, you have to grow and mature as fast as you possibly can,” said Kizer, a 19-year-old redshirt freshman. “If you can’t mature, you can’t take yourself to the goals and give yourself the opportunity to achieve the mission you set out on.”
Kizer and his girlfriend, Elli Thatcher, in a photo provided by her, at Notre Dame not too long before her surgery.
In less than a year, Kizer has gone from a rarely considered reserve wallowing in self-doubt to one of the faces of Notre Dame’s season. Given that role reversal, compartmentalizing his growth spurt to football would be understandable. But the added reality of watching his 19-year-old girlfriend endure the discovery and treatment of a tumor in her neck has provided Kizer with a more meaningful definition of adversity.
That journey, now in its eighth month, has thrown Kizer and his girlfriend, Elli Thatcher, on a topsy-turvy ride they could not have imagined when they began dating in 2014, 10 months before the diagnosis.
Like Kizer, Thatcher, a pre-med student at Ohio State, is in her second year of college and calls Toledo, Ohio, home. Although they went to different high schools, the quarterback and Thatcher began dating before heading to college, Kizer in South Bend and Thatcher in Columbus.
For years, Thatcher said, she had dealt with daily lightheadedness and dizziness she could not explain. When a lump on the right side of her neck began to develop, she realized she could no longer ignore it or the symptoms. A CT scan in March detected the tumor.
In the spring, Kizer, center, was the third quarterback on the Notre Dame depth chart, behind Everett Golson and Malik Zaire.
Ten minutes after she was told of the tumor’s presence, Thatcher called Kizer. “It was a phone call that was going to change his life and mine,” she said. “It’s something you don’t want to have to tell anyone. But it had to be done.”
The timing, she knew, was not ideal. He had been struggling to accept his understudy role at Notre Dame, and with a lack of confidence that he had not experienced in his award-winning high school career. Buried behind Golson and Zaire, Kizer said, he began to get into his own head when he struggled to execute even the most basic throws in practice.