Spring semester at Notre Dame has begun with a lesson in renewal, delivered from a tackle-breaking former student.
Before Jerome Bettis became the Pittsburgh Steelers' star running back, before he became the smiling centerpiece of Super Bowl XL and the jolly ambassador of Detroit, he was just another college dropout with no idea what he wanted to do.
Ten years ago, as Notre Dame students were preparing for the spring semester of 1996, Bettis was moping in the backfield of the St. Louis Rams. He was an underachieving player on an underachieving team, arguing with his coach and complaining about his contract. He was pondering retirement and considering other lines of work.
"I vividly remember calling him late one night," Lou Holtz, who coached Bettis at Notre Dame, said in a telephone interview. "I told him: 'Jerome, there's somebody doing a bad impersonation of you on the field, wearing your number, wearing your jersey. You've got to do something about it.' Then I hung up the phone."
Bettis returned to Notre Dame in time for the spring semester of 1996 and marched into the office of Sam Gaglio, assistant dean in the Mendoza College of Business. If Bettis was really going to quit football, he was going to need his college degree. Having left Notre Dame as a junior in 1993 for the N.F.L., he filed a readmit application and wrote a letter to the faculty. He started mapping out a class schedule as if it were a run up the middle.
"Jerome came back with the enthusiasm of a normal student," Gaglio said. "That's one of the reasons the faculty was willing to readmit him. He made it a point of fact that he was going to be a serious student. He wasn't going to come in and just get credit."
Although Bettis's student records are confidential, he once told reporters that he took courses that semester in history, philosophy, marketing and business. In all, he said, he took 18 credits, as heavy a load as the 255-pound running back has ever carried. Bettis walked to class amid the maple trees. He lived in an apartment off campus. He exercised with Notre Dame football players on the track and in the weight room.
Bettis has not spoken often about his semester out of the spotlight, but in a news conference before the American Football Conference championship game last season, he was asked about the state of his career in 1996. "Well, actually, the thought was that it was over," Bettis said. "When I went back to school, I was firm in my commitment on not going back to St. Louis. That was the game plan — for me to finish up and start in the real world. That was why I decided to go back to school, because I wanted to really get ready."
If Bettis was ready to retire, the N.F.L. was not ready to let him. In the middle of the term, Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher called Holtz and informed him that the Steelers were interested in trading for Bettis. Holtz, who had coached Cowher at North Carolina State, persuaded him that Bettis was changing.
"Jerome told me that he was going to spend five months at Notre Dame and get his attitude right," Holtz said. "I think being around our players and our alumni was a very positive thing. The respect that people had for Jerome made him realize how good he was."
Pittsburgh traded for Bettis on draft day in 1996, and promptly tried to re-create his college experience. Known in St. Louis as the Battering Ram, Bettis once again became the Bus, his nickname at Notre Dame. Disgusted with the pass-oriented offense implemented by Rams Coach Rich Brooks, Bettis was delighted with Cowher's ground game, reminiscent of the system used by Holtz.
This week, when the Steelers showed up in Detroit for the Super Bowl, it was fitting that Bettis's teammates honored him by wearing a replica of his green No. 6 Fighting Irish jersey. If not for Notre Dame, a university that likes to talk about having mystical powers, Bettis might be morebus driver these days than bus.
And he has become football's favorite cause, carrying the ball for his sport and now for his hometown, Detroit. Many players struggle to handle the demands of Super Bowl week, with all of its pep talks and study sessions. But for Bettis, Super Bowl week started about 10 years ago, with a challenge from Holtz and a meeting with Gaglio.
Because Pittsburgh has been a playoff regular for much of the past decade, and because Bettis has been gainfully employed, he has not returned to Notre Dame to finish the coursework for his degree. Should he retire after the Super Bowl, perhaps his schedule would allow for another 18-credit semester.
"You know, I haven't heard from Jerome for a little while," Gaglio said. "But I am expecting him to call me."
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