By STEVE KRAH
Jeff Samardzija grew up in a hard-nosed atmosphere.
Father Sam’s favorite coach was Indiana University’s Bob Knight. His favorite team was the 1985 Chicago Bears. Dad played semi-pro hockey in the Windy City.
“My upbringing was pretty intense with my dad,” said Samardzija Friday, Jan. 13, the day he was inducted into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. “Luckily I was the second son. He worked the kinks out with my older brother and I kind of loosened up a little bit on me.
“I ended up having a good run there out of Valpo.”
Sam Samardzija Jr., was an all-state football player who became an agent for Wasserman Baseball representing his brother. He is the first-born son of Sam and Debora Samardzija. She died in 2001 at 46.
Jeff Samardzija, who turns 38 on Jan. 23, played wide receiver and helped Valparaiso (Ind.) High School to an IHSAA Class 5A state runner-up finish as a junior. The 2003 graduate was runner-up as Indiana Mr. Football and Indiana Mr. Baseball as a senior. McCutcheon’s Clayton Richard won both awards.
“He is the standard,” said Samardzija of Richard, who went on to pitch in the big leagues and is now head coach at Lafayette Jeff. “Quarterbacks — they get all the love.”
Samardzija, who is of Serbian decent, went to Notre Dame on a football scholarship and was also allowed to played baseball for the Fighting Irish.
“My first two years in football at Notre Dame I wasn’t very good and didn’t put up very good numbers,” said Samardzija, who caught 24 passes for 327 yards and no touchdowns in 2003 and 2004 for the Tyrone Willingham-coached Irish. “I had a lot of success in baseball my freshman and sophomore year.”
It was as a frosh football player that Samardzija received his nickname of “Shark.”
“When you start freshman year you get hazed by the older guys,” said Samardzija. “I didn’t have beautiful, thick facial hair like I do now.”
One day an ND veteran tagged him as “Shark Face” after an animated character.
“I had a good football season and somebody on ABC — (Bob) Griese or sometime said, ‘The Shark is running through the middle of the defense,’” said Samardzija, who caught 77 passes for 1,249 yards and 15 TDs in 2005 and 78 for 1,017 and 13 in 2006 with ND coached by Charlie Weis. “From then on people started calling me Shark.”
Samardzija did not pitch that much in high school.
“When I got to Notre Dame they made me pitch because football didn’t want me to play the outfield,” said Samardzija, who went 5-3, posted a 2.95 earned run average and was named a Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball Magazine in 2004 then followed that up with 8-1 and 8-2 marks in 2005 and 2006 for head coach Paul Mainieri. “It was a great scenario. You don’t have to do off-season conditioning in football. You don’t have to do fall ball in baseball. You get to pick-and-choose where you want to go.
“Being on a full scholarship for football, the baseball coaches loved me. I was free. They didn’t ride me too hard. They just wanted me to show up on Saturdays and pitch. I threw a bullpen on Wednesdays. Everything else was football.”
After Samardzija did well as a collegiate pitcher and then excelled in football as a junior he now had to decide if his path going forward would be on the gridiron or the diamond.
“I had a dilemma on my hands,” said Samardzija. “I had given so much to football my whole life. It was never travel baseball. It was always travel football.
“Baseball was always my release. It was never work and it was never a chore to be out there on the baseball field.
“I had to fight for all my respect in baseball because I was labeled as a football guy.”
With the National Football League showing interest, two-time baseball and football All-American Samardzija was selected in the fifth round of the 2006 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Chicago Cubs.
He made his MLB debut in 2008. He was with the Cubs 2008 into the 2014 season when he went to Oakland Athletics. That was the same year he was chosen for the All-Star Game though he did not play.
Samardzija played for the Chicago White Sox in 2015 and San Francisco Giants 2016-2020. He won 12 games in 2016 and 11 in 2019.
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound right-hander with a four-seam fastball that got up to 99 mph appeared in 364 games (241 starts) and went 80-106 with one save and a 4.15 earned run average.
“It’s tough when you have to choose a path,” said Samardzija. “I made the right decision.”
A gift from the family and more than 40 donors, Samardzija Field at Tower Park is a youth diamond in Valparaiso.
Mostly off the grid in retirement, Samardzija is an avid fisherman and has spent plenty of time in recent years on the water.
Sometimes “Shark” encounters sharks.
“When I’m in Tampa we’ll get out there,” said Samardzija. “You don’t want to catch them, but sometimes they show up.
“I’ve enjoyed kind of just pulling back. It was a go-go-go life there for a long time.”
Samardzija and partner Andrea have two children.