It was well past midnight and his family – all with Dayton ties – had been waiting for more than 90 minutes to give him a postgame embrace filled with love and pride and more than a little “you finally showed ‘em” confirmation.
His grandma, Jamesetta Lewis, was the first to spot him, a shining light coming through the darkness outside Notre Dame Stadium with a crush of kids, a few older green-clad folks and even some stadium workers all following him like he was the new Pied Piper of Irish promise.
“Oh there he comes,” Jamesetta gushed. “That’s him! That’s him!”
Malik Zaire, the Alter High School product who is Notre Dame’s new quarterback, spotted her and pushed over to give her a hug. He did the same with his granddad, and with his mom, Stacy Carter, and when he saw his dad, Imani Zaire, he reached out, clasped his hand and pulled him close.
The scrum of people following him pushed in and that’s when Brianna Becich, a 7-year-old second grader from Houston, Texas, found herself directly in front of Zaire. It surprised her to be so close to her hero, and as her dad fumbled with his camera phone behind her, she looked up and blurted the first thing she could think of:
Zaire laughed and leaned down and mugged for a photo with the little girl who had just offered the perfect out-of-the-mouths-of-babes summation of the night.
In only his second career start and his first under the gaze of Touchdown Jesus, Zaire turned in one of the best quarterbacking efforts ever at Notre Dame Stadium as he led the Fighting Irish to a 38-3 rout of Texas.
The 6-foot, 220-pound junior completed 19 of 22 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns before giving way to his sophomore backup early in the fourth quarter.
“And two of those incompletions were drops” said receiver Will Fuller, who caught two TD passes. “He played a dang near perfect game.”
Zaire’s 86.4 percent completion rate against the Longhorns was the second most accurate passing performance in a game in Notre Dame history. Only Steve Beuerlein was better, going 10 for 11 against Colorado in 1984.
“He always believes when the lights come on it’s his time, his opportunity to show what he can do,” Stacy said. “And tonight couldn’t have been more exciting for any of us.”
Standing nearby, Imani nodded:
“You know how they talk about players being in a zone? He was in a zone. He was in that Michael Jordan zone. He couldn’t miss.”
While Texas isn’t very good right now – Saturday night’s lone field goal was the fewest points in a Longhorn opener in 65 years – it also can’t be denied that Zaire gave a virtuoso performance.
He came into the game as a question mark and left as an exclamation point.
Pre-kickoff debate – “Is he mostly a running quarterback? Can he throw long? As the Irish quarterback, can he stand up to the pressure of being one of the most scrutinized players in all of college football?” – turned into postgame praise.
He showed poise and confidence and played almost mistake-free football. He exhibited touch and precision and his passes had velocity. He connected on timing patterns, threw on the run, threaded the needle over the middle and heaved a 66-yard TD bomb down the sidelines.
He audibled with remarkable success, changing a play midway through the first quarter that turned into a TD pass to Fuller. In the third quarter, another change resulted in a 14-yard run by him that converted a third down situation.
After the game, though, the usually demonstrative Zaire was publicly subdued. He said he wasn’t nervous beforehand, nor surprised later by what he had done.
“A lot of that is a credit to Coach (Ed) Domsitz back at Alter,” Imani said. “That was key for him. Malik gets hyped up and Domsitz would call him over and say ‘Hey, calm down. Understand it’s not just about you, it’s about the team.’”
Zaire seemed to channel some of that afterward: “It wasn’t my first game playing football. We go into a game prepared. We practice these plays.
“I never surprise myself when I complete a lot of passes. That’s why I play quarterback and not running back or receiver. Right? ”
A special bond
In August of 2011, Lourdes Lambert had just taken over as the principal at Alter.
That’s when she said Domsitz invited her to come introduce herself to his football players during a break at one of their two-a-day sessions.
“He said the team wanted to meet me, which I found very hard to believe, but I said OK,” she recalled. “I walked in and Ed gets their attention and I go through a little of my background and why I’m excited to be at Alter and then I asked if anyone had any questions.
“Unbeknownst to me, Malik was sitting at one of the front tables and his hand shot straight up. Everybody started laughing before he said anything and I’m thinking ‘Uh oh, what’s about to happen here?’
“And he goes, ‘So … you’re not white … are you?’
“I started laughing. What an introduction. It was the funniest thing I ever heard. And I said, ‘No, I’m not white. I’m Cuban-American. A Latina and yep, we come in all shades.’”
And with that the first minority principal in Alter history – an educator who grew up in Miami, Fla., her maiden name was Otero – and the African American quarterback with the exotic name began to forge a bond at the school were most of the student body is white.
After that they began to talk regularly and Lambert soon realized Zaire wasn’t just a star on the football field. Away from the game he was a charismatic leader in the school hallways and classrooms too.
“Father Manning will tell you to this day there is no football captain who gives a talk at a pregame Mass like Malik,” she said. “Father was convinced he was going to be a preacher.”
Zaire’s best gospels, though, were delivered on football Friday nights, As a junior, he quarterbacked the Knights to a 10-0 regular season and senior year he amassed 3,100 yards of offense and accounted for 33 touchdowns.
But once he got to Notre Dame, he found himself behind two older quarterbacks and never played a down as a freshman.
Sophomore year, Everett Golson – who had led the Irish to the national title game in 2012, but sat out all of 2013 because of academic issues – returned to the team.
While Coach Brian Kelly said the quarterback competition would be open, Golson took most of the reps with the first team. Zaire was frustrated and shared some of his concerns with his family, though he mostly measured his comments in public.
Once though he did tell writers: “I didn’t come here to be a bum.”
Stacy saw him wrestle with the situation: “Even though he had done it at Alter, too, it was tough for him to sit and wait when he believed that he had something to offer. When he believes he can do the job, he feels ‘Why not me?’”
Principal Lambert brought that thought home to Kelly when he showed up at Alter to visit with Nick Coleman, who already had verbally committed to the Irish.
“I’m pretty honest and direct and when Coach Kelly was here, I asked him if he had a couple of minutes,” she recalled with a chuckle. “We went to my office and I said, ‘I just don’t know why you’re debating with Malik. He’s awesome!’
“He just thought I was hilarious. Later that night he asked Mrs. Coleman, ‘Was that the guidance counselor?’ And she said, ‘No, that was the principal. We want you to play Malik.’”
And sure enough Golson struggled coming down the stretch – he had 22 turnovers on the season – and the Irish lost their final four regular season games last year. In the finale with USC, Notre Dame was down 35-0 in the second quarter when Kelly finally benched Golson.
Zaire had no chance to warm up.
“I felt like this was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he told reporters later. “He was telling me, ‘Here’s your chance. You can take advantage of it or we’re looking for the next guy next year.’”
On his second play, Zaire completed a 49-yard pass to Fuller. On the next play, he scored on an 11-yard run.
Zaire would end the game with 188 yards of offense and two scores and that won him the start against LSU in the Music City Bowl.
Before the game, as he often does, he texted Lambert.
She said it was the first time he ever told her he was nervous.
She responded: “I’m nervous for you. But God has given you the talent. God has given you the gifts. All you have to do now is execute.”
Zaire led the Irish to a 31-28 victory, completing 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown and running for 96 yards and another score. He was voted the MVP of the game and today that award sets in his grandparents’ Madden Hills home in West Dayton.
Saturday night, Zaire said he texted Lambert again.
“She always sends blessings my way,” he smiled. “And they work.”
A confident leader
Tuesday – three days after lighting up Texas – Zaire’s star will shine again.
Showtime Sports is doing a season-long realty show – called “A Season With Notre Dame Football” – that will provide a behind-the-scenes look at the team. The first installment of weekly half-hour show airs at 10 p.m. According to those putting the series together, Zaire is emerging as one of the most dynamic characters.
That was the way Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell summed up Zaire’s performance Saturday night, as well:
“It’s great to have a guy like Malik at that (quarterback) position who exudes that much confidence. Especially at a school like Notre Dame, the quarterback position is a special position. When you see a guy running the show, exuding so much energy, it fuels you.”
Zaire admitted it was bonds like that that kept him from transferring, as Golson did when he jumped to Florida State for his last season of college football:
“These are all my friends. Guys I consider family. I didn’t want to quit on them and they didn’t quit on me.”
That’s why, after Saturday’s game, Zaire was chomping at the bit when a TV crew commandeered him at midfield for an interview.
The rest of his teammates had congregated in a corner of the end zone to sing the alma mater to the amped up student body, which was cheering them.
After three questions Zaire couldn’t stand it anymore and he turned and hustled to join his comrades. Soon he was draped arm and arm with them, swaying and singing.
On the way up the stadium tunnel, he tossed the red Notre Dame cap he was wearing to a fan hanging over a stadium railing.
People at Notre Dame are now seeing what folks back in Dayton already know:
Malik Zaire knows how to handle the spotlight.
His grandfather, Chuck, is a volunteer at Dayton Children’s Hospital and Malik sometimes makes the rounds with him. In the process he has developed a Notre Dame fan club there.
He also returns regularly to Alter, be it to cheer with students at a basketball game or to take part in the annual fund-raising auction.
He offers to play a game of flag football with someone and Lambert said: “People bid thousands to get their kid a flag football games with Malik Zaire.”
“He likes the big stage,” Stacy said. “Tonight you saw it. He did what he said he was going to do and it was fabulous to watch it unfold.”
He lived up to his promise, she said Saturday, just as he lives up to his name:
“Malik means king in Swahili. I remember in elementary school once they had a project: ‘What does your name mean?’
“He took it to heart. He said, ‘My name means king. I am a king.’”
Once again, out of the mouths of babes.