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  • Pete Sampson (The Athletic)

The Bus goes to school: ‘It’s abnormally normal how he fits in with us Notre Dame seniors’

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Jerome Bettis settled into the front row of Room 320 inside DeBartolo Hall, mask up and hat pulled low for the first Monday afternoon of the semester. Maybe nobody would notice the Pro Football Hall of Fame running back in their midst, he thought.

That fantasy lasted about five minutes.

Professor Mike Montalbano had perused the class roster before that first day of Strategic Management back in February. When he got to the Bs, he paused. Who names their kid after the Super Bowl champion and All-American, never mind sends him to Notre Dame?

When he saw Bettis in person, he wondered: What kind of Super Bowl champion and All-American returns to school a generation later to finish his degree?

“Where’s he going to go with this?” Montalbano asked himself. “I had no idea.”

The professor begins every semester with name tags and introductions.

By chance, the name called before Bettis alphabetically was Irish linebacker J.D. Bertrand, a junior who led Notre Dame in tackles last season. Then came Bettis, who was already getting looks from his classmates, considering he’s built like a former 250-pound running back. He told the class he went to school at Notre Dame more than a quarter-century ago. He played football. Was a first-round pick. Played for the Rams and Steelers. Won a Super Bowl. Was in the Hall of Fame.

“It was such a mic drop on the first day,” said senior Peter Horne. “All right, who’s next on the list?”

So began one of the great senior years in Notre Dame history. The Bus was on everyone’s schedule — he participated in group projects, attended Bengal Bouts and a men’s basketball game against Duke and met with the football team. He wasn’t back on campus to check a box before returning home to Atlanta. Maybe Bettis, a business major, didn’t need the 3 a.m. cram session for Forecasting, that group project evaluating Under Armour or the Spirituality in Work course taught by a priest. He’s a multi-millionaire and owns multiple businesses. But this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“If I was going to come back, I wanted to be 100 percent engulfed in the experience, I didn’t want to come back and try to be secluded, or hard to touch or reach or contact,” Bettis said this week. “My thing was, I’ll never do it again. So let me provide all of the access as much as I can. Because if I can pay it forward, and provide any kind of information that’s going to help, that’s what I want to do.

“This is a program I love.”

The first-year head coach of the football program wanted a word. Marcus Freeman is always looking to expand his personal sounding board, and here was a program legend who had seen it all.

Freeman and Bettis began to meet once a week, sometimes for 20 minutes, sometimes for two hours. Bettis spoke to the team before a morning workout during winter conditioning. He attended pro day. He served as “commissioner” during this week’s draft for the Blue-Gold Game. When freshman running back Logan Diggs was homesick earlier this semester, Bettis met with him in the Gug.

“I run things by him in terms of former players, I run things by him regarding helping our current players,” Freeman said. “He has this credibility because of who he is, and so the ability to have that guy talk to your team and not telling him what to say, but he said the same things that you’re preaching as a head coach …

“When you hear him say those things, it’s just affirmation that we’re saying the right things.”

Bettis and Bertrand have struck up a friendship, too. They’re both Atlanta area residents. Bertrand was coached in high school by Victor Green, whose 11-year NFL career overlapped with Bettis’. The 50-year-old running back and 21-year-old linebacker are also taking Business Foresight, a course that tries to model business needs decades into the future. Bertrand studied the future of fracking; one of Bettis’ companies provides the liquids that make the process possible.

And Bertrand made Bettis teach him a little football, too. On the way out of class, Bertrand would pull out his laptop and ask for a film tutorial on how running backs try to outsmart linebackers or how offenses try to capitalize with checks at the line of scrimmage. He writes it all down, then shares the knowledge with roommates Isaiah Foskey and Alexander Ehrensberger. And yes, Bertrand is aware how wild all this is.

“He’s doing it for himself. He’s doing it for his kids,” Bertrand said. “It also just speaks on the Notre Dame community. Like, it’s not just about the individual, it’s about teaching others. I’m just so grateful that he’s given me the opportunity to learn from him.

“Luckily my parents taught me to write thank you cards.”

Bettis’ whole family plans to visit him this weekend, which will be a first this semester. His daughter, Jada, a high school junior looking at colleges, visited last week, mostly to see Notre Dame. Bettis got her into a few classes with the blessing of his professors.

“What better way than to come with a student?” Bettis said. “I made her read some of the class material. She didn’t like that at all. I said, ‘If I gotta do it, you gotta do it.’”

Setting an example for his family is only part of the reason Bettis, the final player from his recruiting class to earn his college degree, is here. He wants the practical knowledge, too. He owns a trucking company, a small marketing firm and a staffing agency. There’s that company involved with fracking. There’s a multi-phase real estate development on the waterfront around Detroit, his hometown.

When he returns to Atlanta after graduation, these courses will matter in real life — even if he won’t miss the study sessions for Business Foresight and all the math involved in Process Analytics.

“I’m dealing with equations and stuff. And I’m like, God, it’s been 35 years since I looked at an equation,” Bettis said. “I’m trying to find the P and I’m like, what? That’s been the challenge.”

Jerome Bettis acknowledges the applause from the Notre Dame student section before a game against Duke at the Purcell Pavilion. (Matt Cashore / USA Today)

Bettis had a problem. It’s hard to do a group project without a group.

Early in Strategic Management, Professor Montalbano told the class to link up in small pods to perform a case study of a business. Most of the seniors already knew each other.

“How the hell am I gonna get in a group? I don’t know anybody,” Bettis said. “I’m like at the ballpark and saying, ‘Pick me, pick me.’ I was panicking internally.”

Horne invited the Hall of Famer into his group with three other students. They’d be using Porter’s Five Forces to pick apart Under Armour, trying to figure out where the sports apparel company fits into the marketplace. Bettis, a Nike-sponsored athlete, figured he might have some perspective to offer. He gave out his number. Then the group met at one of the students’ off-campus apartments in Legacy Village.

“We got a group chat going for the project and he’s like, ‘This is Jerome Bettis and this is my number.’ I’m in a group chat with Jerome, no big deal,” Horne said. “He was a good partner. He had a lot to say. He always raises his hand. It wasn’t, ‘Jerome, what do you think about this?’

“By the end of the semester, it was just conversational with his advice and experience. He was super helpful.”

On the morning of Notre Dame’s pro day, Horne ran into Bettis at the Starbucks just off campus. He told Bettis that he was interested in a career as a sports agent, and Bettis invited him to tag along to the Irish Athletics Center. For the next couple hours, Horne met agents, including Brian Murphy and Kyle McCarthy of Athletes First, which reps Irish safety Kyle Hamilton. Horne got to eavesdrop on conversations between Bettis and Freeman or Bettis and former NFL receiver Steve Smith, now working for the NFL Network.

Remove the Super Bowl ring, Hall-of-Fame jacket and going top-10, maybe this is just how college students interact. Bettis said he can’t think of a class he’s taken that didn’t include a group project. He sat in the student section for part of the men’s basketball team’s loss to Duke. When classmates want to introduce Bettis to their parents, The Bus shakes hands.

The normalcy extended to spring break when Bettis took his family for a week to Cabo. Turns out a pack of other Notre Dame seniors was also headed to the west coast of Mexico. One was Horne. When he ran into Bettis at the airport, he invited Bettis to play golf with the group. Bettis played Chileno Bay with a dozen other Notre Dame seniors.

“Now we’re inviting Jerome to our graduation party,” said senior Maxwell Baumer. “It’s abnormally normal how he fits in with us Notre Dame seniors.”

A month from now, Bettis will fit in with Notre Dame graduates as he walks across the stage, shakes the hand of president Rev. John Jenkins and receives his diploma. He’ll move the tassel on his mortarboard from the right to the left. He’ll take pictures with his family.

This isn’t the “4 for 40” as Notre Dame imagined it, the nearly 30-year gap between junior and senior year. Yet, with a Hall of Fame career and Super Bowl ring filling that space, maybe that makes for a better recruiting pitch, anyway.

“(Notre Dame) is responsible for giving me the opportunity to get to where I was able to get,” Bettis said. “So had I not played here, not had the success here, I wouldn’t be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So when I look at this experience, it’s one that I’m thankful for. So coming back here, I’m grateful. And I have an opportunity to show how grateful I have been for this opportunity.”

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