CHICAGO - The questions that Chicago Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija faces today are different from the ones he used to get. Two years ago, people wanted to know if Samardzija, a former all-American wide receiver at Notre Dame, was on his way out of baseball, if he had picked the wrong sport, whether, at 26, he was a has-been football player and a never-was baseball player.
On Saturday, after a tough loss to the defending World Series champion, San Francisco, in which a gritty Samardzija allowed two runs in six innings and went toe to toe with Madison Bumgarner, he was asked whether he was satisfied with his performance.
Samardzija's answer was no. How things have changed.
When Samardzija first spoke with Theo Epstein, the Cubs' newly hired president for baseball operations, in 2011, he said he wanted to be a starting pitcher. Samardzija promised he was so committed that he had dumped his girlfriend to focus more on baseball.
He delivered the proclamation with a track record that included parts of four unremarkable seasons bouncing between the major leagues and the minors, and only five starts for the Cubs.
Reminded of the story as he sat at his locker, his shoulder-length hair spewing out the sides of the cap he was wearing backward, Samardzija said: "I guess I could have said I sold all my investments or got rid of my car, but the point was my slate is free. I'm all in."
Eighteen months later, he is the ace of the staff, his eye-popping fastball and disappearing splitter cornerstones of Epstein's rebuilding process. The Opening Day starter, Samardzija ushered in the season by striking out nine Pittsburgh Pirates and delivering a win. His last 16 starts, dating to July 2012, are Cy Young caliber: 107 innings, 122 strikeouts and a 2.61 earned run average.
"Looking at where his career was through 2011, anyone would be surprised now," Epstein said. "But this is who he is."
If life is a series of key moments, Samardzija can attest. Before he went to Chicago, he had already stared into the abyss of loss and uncertainty. While he was in high school, a respiratory illness took the life of his mother, Debora. His brother, Sam, left a baseball scholarship at Indiana University to be with his family and look after his younger brother.
The Samardzija brothers would walk to a park across the street from their home in Valparaiso, Ind., tossing a football and running pass patterns for hours. They did not talk about their mother, but they healed.
When he was a junior wide receiver at Notre Dame, the coach who recruited him, Tyrone Willingham, was fired and replaced by Charlie Weis, who had two Super Bowl rings. Samardzija had caught 24 passes his first two seasons. Under Weis, he was among the nation's leading receivers his junior and senior years with a total of 155 catches.
"I think there's a connection to bouncing back," Samardzija said. "Part of it is knowing in your head that there's always someone else there, that you can play for something more."
He added: "When Theo came in, there were a lot of similarities with Charlie Weis at Notre Dame. It's a situation where you're not sure what to expect."
In 2006, the Cubs made Samardzija their fifth-round draft pick when most assumed he would one day choose the NFL. The Irish baseball coach, Paul Mainieri, did his best to convince big league teams that his star pitcher was a baseball guy, but only his good friend Jim Hendry, the Cubs' general manager at the time, agreed.
After a stellar senior football season, Samardzija signed a five-year, $10 million contract with the Cubs. By the summer of 2008, he was pitching out of Chicago's bullpen as the Cubs made a run to the playoffs.
In 2009, though, Samardzija did not make the team out of spring training and posted a 7.53 ERA in limited major league action. The next season was even worse. He appeared in just seven games, and his ERA was 8.38. In three September starts, he allowed 11 runs in 16 innings.
Sam Samardzija recalled a local headline in Indiana that has stayed with him: "Samardzija Family Unbowed by Jeff's Starting Flop."
"If we're being honest, my contract pushed me through the minors," Jeff Samardzija said. "After that first season, it was like I looked around, realized where I was, and it was like, whoa."
Samardzija spent the winter before the 2011 season in Arizona, righting his mechanics. He adjusted his leg kick, moved his hands down in his windup and worked out in what he called a "low-stress, low-anxiety environment."
Mainieri said Samardzija had the most unflappable confidence he had ever seen in an athlete and there was no surprise to the turnaround. Samardzija simply called it stubbornness.
"If I wasn't successful in baseball, all they'd ever say is, one, I made the wrong decision and, two, he was a heck of a football player," he said.
Sam Samardzija said there might be another explanation.
"He walks his dog around the neighborhood and he'll go grab a burger and a beer like it's no problem," he said. "Jeff had to find the balance between being a professional baseball player and being a regular guy."
Samardzija is one of three Cubs (Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Marmol are the others) remaining from the 2008 playoff team. As quickly as Samardzija has risen, the team has embraced a full-on youth movement under Epstein. Last year's team lost 101 games.
Still, Samardzija, who played on crisp autumn afternoons at Notre Dame Stadium with the nation watching, dreams of the same stage at Wrigley Field - and another key moment.
"I remember it vividly," he said of the 2008 playoffs. "The feel of the air, everything. That's what I want. I want to pitch here in October."