SAN FRANCISCO — Jeff Samardzija was a two-sport star in high school and at Notre Dame. He has played for four different big league organizations over 10 seasons, and spent parts of five seasons in the minor leagues.
Samardzija had many options when asked to choose someone he wanted to honor at the annual Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards, and given the way his career has played out, he made a somewhat surprising decision. During the event that airs on NBC Sports Bay Area on Tuesday night at 9 p.m., Samardzija will honor former Notre Dame football coach Tyrone Willingham, who finished the recruitment of Samardzija to Notre Dame but was let go before the wide receiver became a national star.
Samardzija said Willingham’s lessons during their two years together “have always stuck with me,” and like many of the athletes who have presented at the Game Changer Awards in recent years, he made his choice because of the things that were taught when the spotlight was off.
“I think he was always, in a sense, coaching,” Samardzija said. “He was such a big attitude coach. He was always big about the way you approach things and handle things and look forward and just the way you carry yourself. There are great times in sports and then there are down times in your career, and how you handle both of those situations is always so important.
“Also what stuck with me was just the way he never stopped teaching. He always found moments. If he saw you slacking in that given moment, he wasn’t afraid to jump all over you. He just was always about doing things the right way and pressing the fact that if you stay in that process over time, things are going to go in your favor.”
More than a decade after his football career ended, Samardzija is still taking that approach. He is the same after games whether the Giants won or lost, always pushing the need to move on from that day’s game and focus on the next one. Even in a 98-loss season, Samardzija was relentlessly positive, and on the mound he found improvements to his command that took parts of his game to a new level.
Without Willingham, though, it’s possible that Samardzija never would have turned into a veteran starter known for cranking out one 200-inning season after the next. Samardzija went to Notre Dame on a football scholarship and Willingham didn’t have to let him play baseball in the spring. But Willingham had been a two-sport athlete himself at Michigan State, and he made it a priority to keep Samardzija well-rounded.
“To have that power and to not abuse it, I’m forever grateful for it,” Samardzija said. “It takes a good man to be able to look forward and see what could be and to not prevent a kid his opportunities and limit his opportunities.”
For more from Samardzija on Willingham, his Notre Dame career, and the moves the Giants have made this offseason, check out his interview on the Giants Insider Podcast.