On the night of Sept. 7, the cameras zoomed in on winged helmets and golden domes as Brent Musburger informed viewers that they were looking live at a packed Michigan Stadium. Everett Golson, the quarterback who had led the Fighting Irish to a 12--1 record in 2012, sat 2,300 miles away on the couch of a virtual stranger. When the screen flashed an image of Golson's former Notre Dame teammates ready to take the field, Golson slipped off the couch and took a seat on the floor.
Golson had seen snippets of his first game as Notre Dame's quarterback-in-exile from Chicago. Now, four days after arriving in San Diego to work with private quarterback coach George Whitfield, Golson would watch the team he once led stumble to its first loss. It didn't take long before Musburger and analyst Kirk Herbstreit mentioned Golson's absence, which made him sink even lower. "He went from sitting to kind of [leaning] over on his side," Whitfield says. "He's on the floor, still watching the game. He didn't say two words for the first half of the game. It was heavy."
When he talks about why he isn't playing for Notre Dame this season, Golson refers to "the incident." He uses the phrase "poor judgment" repeatedly. He does not reveal specifics until pressed, and even then he gives up almost none. This past spring he was caught cheating on a test in a business class. "The situation kind of speaks for itself," Golson says, adding at another point, "It's very humbling."
The ironic part? Golson chose Notre Dame because of its academic reputation. He wanted challenging coursework. That's why his two finalists were North Carolina and Notre Dame. When he arrived in South Bend from Myrtle Beach, S.C., in 2011, Golson and the rest of Notre Dame's freshmen were introduced to the school's Undergraduate Academic Code of Honor. The code includes a pledge that minces no words: "As a member of the Notre Dame community, I will not participate in or tolerate academic dishonesty."
Notre Dame's honor- code handbook outlines three types of offenses. Minor offenses carry a penalty of zero credit for the work in question. Major offenses carry a penalty of a failing grade in the course. Flagrant offenses, violations of "an unusually grave nature," carry the penalty of either permanent dismissal or dismissal with the option to reapply after one or more semesters.
While in New York City visiting a friend in May, Golson received an email informing him that he had been accused of an honor-code violation. Before the end of the month, Notre Dame's Honesty Committee considered his violation and deemed it so serious that Golson was dismissed from the university and told he could reapply for the 2014 spring semester. (Notre Dame does not comment on academic-discipline matters.) Less than five months after he had led the Fighting Irish to the BCS title game against Alabama, Golson was out, his 2013 season erased before it had even begun.
"I was more concerned about how my family would take it and me disappointing them," Golson says. "It hurt me tremendously." He went home to his parents, Wayne and Cynthia, in Myrtle Beach. "We were sick," Wayne says. Days later, when news of Everett's dismissal broke and his name was splashed across ESPN and every major sports website, his parents shifted to a more protective posture. Everett had screwed up, but they knew he could overcome his mistake.
The Golsons have seen their son determined before. Wayne sees it almost every time Everett sits in front of a piano, which he can play by ear. Everett, who also plays the upright bass, is as comfortable at the keyboard as he is on the field. Play him a song, and he'll tinker with the keys until he can reproduce it note for note. "He won't quit on it," says Wayne. "He will not quit until he gets it correct."
Golson won't quit on Notre Dame, either. He has certainly had his chances. Ivan Simmons, a cousin who housed Golson in Chicago for two months this summer, says five schools called asking Golson to transfer, so he could play for them in 2014. Others suggested Golson play this season at a junior college and then reevaluate his options. Cam Newton did this, spending the '09 season at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, before moving on to Auburn, where he won a national championship and the Heisman Trophy the following year. Golson refused. He does not want to bail on his Fighting Irish teammates, and he wants to return to the scene of his mistake. "My heart is set on going back to Notre Dame," Golson says, "not necessarily to prove anything to anybody—just doing it for me. I feel like that's something that I started. I don't want to run away from it and go to a juco or go to another school. I am going to face it."
Golson began his time in exile working out at a facility in Chicago. "In the immediate aftermath he was pretty much down about the whole situation," Simmons says. "He just wanted to redeem himself." The Chicago workouts were productive, but he wanted to do more. So when Whitfield reached out to the family and offered one-on-one training, Golson asked his parents if he could go to San Diego. Golson had already caused his parents grief by getting himself suspended from Notre Dame. Now he was asking them to fork over thousands of dollars to send him across the country to hone his skills. "They put out an awful lot," Whitfield says of Wayne and Cynthia. "He feels bad for his team, No. 1, because he isn't there. He feels bad for his parents, No. 2, because you go from being on a full scholarship and doing what you're supposed to do to help the family, and now you basically cost them almost a semester's worth."
Golson arrived in San Diego on Sept. 3, and he plans to return to Myrtle Beach next week. He has already reapplied to Notre Dame, and he believes he'll be allowed to return for the spring semester with two seasons of eligibility remaining. Despite his team's success, Golson was something of a work-in-progress in 2012, but when he does get back to South Bend, coaches and teammates will see a different quarterback. "I've learned a lot through this," he says. "I've matured a lot through it."
He'll also look different on the field. He's changed one of the most fundamental aspects of his passing. For his entire career Golson had thrown the ball with his hand on the leather, not the laces. That 50-yard rope to Chris Brown during the fourth quarter of the tied game in Norman? No laces. When Golson landed in San Diego, Whitfield picked up the 6-foot, 195-pound quarterback at the airport. As they drove, Golson turned to Whitfield. "You're going to make me throw with the strings, aren't you?" Whitfield recalls Golson asking.
Last week, with his fingers positioned on the laces, Golson uncorked 50- and 60-yard bombs that traveled on a nearly horizontal trajectory. Golson has also improved his footwork, and film study has helped him better understand coverage schemes. While watching video of Peyton Manning during his Colts tenure, Golson noticed the Houston Texans using a nickel defender the same way Alabama did in last season's BCS title game. He realizes now that he was too predictable last year—throwing to the same routes out of the same formations.
Golson hopes his new skills will help him take the Irish further than he did last year, but he knows the team isn't sitting around waiting for him. "It's not like Notre Dame's going to stop playing because I'm not there," Golson says. They have not. Last Saturday's 45--10 win at Air Force improved Notre Dame's record to 6--2. Would it be 8--0 if Golson were playing?
Golson has remained in touch with Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin to stay abreast of team issues and schematic changes in the offense. Kelly says that once Golson took responsibility for his mistake, the door to return to the team was open. Kelly is proud Golson turned down chances to go elsewhere. "It's not how he wants to be defined," Kelly says. "He wants to be defined as somebody that made a mistake, atoned for it and is better as a person for it. That's pretty heady stuff for a young man."
While Golson has enjoyed his time working out in San Diego, he wants to study again in South Bend. The dismissal has gnawed at him, and he wants to prove that he has learned to never take another shortcut in the classroom. "I know a lot of people are more focused on me getting back on the field," Golson says. "I'm more focused on getting back in the classroom. Because that's where it happened." This attitude doesn't surprise Golson's parents, who likened his desire to make amends at Notre Dame to his desire to play every song perfectly on the piano. "He's not going to quit," Wayne says. "He's going to keep on until he gets it right."
Less than five months after he led the Fighting Irish to the BCS title game against Alabama, Golson was out, his 2013 season erased before it had even begun.
Ivan Simmons, a cousin who housed Golson in Chicago this summer, says five schools called asking Golson to transfer so he could play for them in 2014.
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To see the video of Andy Staples's exclusive one-on-one interview with Everett Golson, as well as clips of Golson's innovative workouts with quarterback coach George Whitfield, go to SI.com/mag
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
HALF BACK Golson threw for 2,405 yards and 12 TDs in leading the Irish to a 12--1 mark last season. The team is 6--2 without him in 2013.
JOHN BIEVER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
[See caption above]
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GOLSON, 2)
MASKED BALL QB guru Whitfield (above) has been drilling Golson so he'll be ready to reunite with Kelly and his teammates if and when he is readmitted to Notre Dame.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WITH KELLY)
[See caption above]
MATT WRIGHT/WORCESTER STATE UNIVERSITY/AP (MCKOY)
TREVOR RUSZKOWKSI/USA TODAY SPORTS (O'BRIEN)
NAUTILUS KROKODILIUS/FOTOLIA.COM (FLAG)
MAKSYM YEMELYANOV/FOTOLIA.COM (CAP)
MARK THOMPSON/GETTY IMAGES (CAR)