Oct. 14, 2015
Note: Former Irish greats Jerome Bettis and Tim Brown will be honored at Saturday’s ND-USC football game. Bettis and Brown were inducted in August into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
When you attain a level of greatness that warrants election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, people might be interested in your recipe for greatness. So when Jerome Bettis shared his four keys to greatness – overcoming failure, overcoming pain, sacrifice and love – near the conclusion of his Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in August, people took notice.
When asked which of those four essentials is most important, it seems that Bettis takes a page right out of the playbook of the apostle Paul – according to Bettis, the greatest of these is love.
For Bettis, who was the Associated Press National Football League Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1993, love was the last piece of the puzzle. Indeed, it was an absence of love for the game that almost ended Bettis’ Hall of Fame career before it really got started.
As a youngster, Bettis didn’t dream of playing football; he dreamed of going to college. He saw football as a means to an end – a scholarship that would allow him to earn a college degree. The beginning of Bettis’ high school career saw failure, pain and sacrifice – he lived with his aunt and uncle so he could attend school in their neighborhood. But his lack of love for football made Bettis question the failure, pain and sacrifice he was experiencing.
“The only reason I was playing was to try to get a scholarship to college,” says Bettis, who retired following the 2005 season as the NFL’s number-five all-time leading rusher with 13,662 yards. “I was making all these sacrifices and it seems none of it was paying off.”
A move back home and a position change improved things a bit during Bettis’ sophomore year. By the end of his junior season, he was starting to feel a little love, along with the realization that college scholarship he had always wanted was within reach. A strong senior season brought too many scholarship offers to count, including from Notre Dame, Michigan and USC.
“It became a labor of love,” says Bettis.
The love affair fully bloomed at Notre Dame, but not immediately, as Bettis was slowed by an ankle injury during his first year on campus. It wasn’t until Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz utilized his standard approach of resting his starters during the first week of bowl practice that Bettis really got a chance to shine.
“At that time, I found out how special Jerome Bettis was as a football player,” says Holtz, who coached Notre Dame to the 1988 national championship and was enshrined in the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame in 2008.
As Holtz was learning about Bettis, Bettis was learning more about the game – on and off the field.
“My freshman year before we went out to play USC, Coach Holtz made the team take a test about the Notre Dame-USC rivalry,” Bettis recalls. “At that time, I was starting to appreciate everything about the game, and things really took off from there.”
Bettis capped off his sophomore season at Notre Dame with a performance for the ages in Notre Dame’s 39-28 upset of Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Rushing for 127 of his 150 yards in the second half, Bettis shredded the Gator defense for three touchdowns in the game’s final five minutes to earn the Sugar Bowl MVP and secure the stunning victory for Holtz and the Irish.
While Bettis’ personal love for the game was growing, Holtz was busy administering his own special kind of love.
“He wanted me to become the best I could be,” says Bettis of Holtz, who coached Notre Dame to more victories (100) than any head coach other than Knute Rockne (105). “It was a tough love that was pushing me to become more than I thought I could be.”
Holtz traces his tough love approach to legendary Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes, whose 1968 Buckeyes team won the national championship with Holtz as defensive backs coach.
“The one thing I learned from Woody Hayes was that your obligation as head coach was not to be well-liked, not to be popular,” says Holtz. “Your obligation is to help your players to be the very best they can be, and to do that, you’ve got to get them out of their comfort zone, you’ve got to challenge them.
“Woody Hayes used to say, `If you want a friend, buy a damn dog.'”
Neither Holtz nor Bettis has forgotten the day when Holtz announced to the entire team that Bettis’ lack of effort was jeopardizing the team’s chances at a national championship.
“I told Jerome, `If I start with you, I don’t have to correct many others, but if I start at the bottom, I’m going to get to you eventually anyhow,'” recalls Holtz. “That way, everybody understood that there are no sacred cows on our football team.”
“What Coach Holtz did for me was to teach me how to expect more of myself daily,” says Bettis. “He taught me to practice as though it was a game, and I know it’s a cliché, but that’s what I started to do. My speed in practice was full go.
“And I carried that philosophy into the NFL,” he says. “Every time I touched the ball in practice, I ran 40 yards. All the other running backs were, `Man, stop doing that, you’re going to make us look bad.’
“But I knew that if I kept pushing myself, the sky was the limit.”
After a banner junior season at Notre Dame, Bettis was selected by the Los Angeles Rams with the 10th overall pick, his philosophy and talent paid immediate dividends. Bettis rushed for 1,429 yards, good for second in the NFL and the first of eight 1,000-yard seasons.
But just because Bettis was no longer playing for Notre Dame didn’t mean Holtz was no longer coaching him. And to put it mildly, Holtz wasn’t too impressed with what he saw during Bettis’ third season with the Rams.
“We had an open date and I watched him, and he played terrible,” says Holtz. “I called him on Monday and said, `I have no idea why you didn’t go to the game. Somebody with your jersey, with your number and your name on it is impersonating you. I don’t know who it is, but if I were you, I’d find out and put a stop to it because he’s going to ruin your reputation.’
“That’s all I said.”
Apparently, that’s all Holtz needed to say. Bettis decided to spend five months during that offseason back at Notre Dame, taking classes and adjusting his mindset and outlook. Near the end of that time, Holtz received a telephone call from Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach Bill Cowher, who Holtz had recruited to play at North Carolina State. Cowher said the Steelers were contemplating a trade for Bettis and asked for Holtz’s perspective.
“‘I think you’re going to get a person with the same talent and a different attitude than your saw last year,'” says Holtz of his conversation with Cowher. “And the rest is history.”
Indeed, a rejuvenated Bettis reeled off six straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons upon joining the Steelers, leaving his mark as one of the greatest players in Pittsburgh and NFL history. Bettis capped his Hall of Fame career by helping the Steelers to the Super Bowl XL championship, played in Bettis’ home town of Detroit, Michigan
“God gave him the talent and the ability to be a great athlete,” observes Holtz of Bettis, the 2001 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year in recognition of his volunteer and charity work, along with his accomplishments on the field. “But I want to tell you that his greatest attribute is his personality, his leadership. He had great peripheral vision, he had great strength, he had great balance, but his personality, his competitiveness and his positive upbeat attitude were what made him truly special.”
Reflecting on his time at Notre Dame, Bettis uses surprising word – carefree.
“That was really a special time,” he says. “I rode a little red bike around campus, and I still think about hanging around with my teammates. And there’s just one image, and that’s running out of that tunnel (entering the field at Notre Dame Stadium). You just wish you could do that one more time.”
Bettis recently was reliving some of those memories, watching videos of his Notre Dame career with his son Jerome, Jr. After the two had finished watching together, Jerome, Jr., romped around the house, imitating his father’s mannerisms on the football field.
“So much excitement and joy,” says Bettis. “Just a special, special time.”
With that special time in the rear view mirror for both Bettis and Holtz, their relationship has taken on a different look.
“We’re very close and we play a lot of golf together,” relates Holtz. “I took him down to Augusta (National Golf Club) and he shot a 76 or 77. He has helped me out on my (charitable) foundation so many times.
“He’s just a wonderful young man that I can’t say enough good things about him, with the things he does with his charity and his kindness,” Holtz says.
Listening to Holtz speak about Bettis with such great fondness, it’s almost enough to make you wonder whether Woody Hayes is turning over in his grave.
— By Craig Chval Sr.