Lamenting the pursuit of an unfinished dream at Notre Dame
There’s a part of Jerome Bettis that aches every May, trying to figure out how to write the ending to an unfinished dream.
He yearns to be in Notre Dame Stadium again, not on gameday Saturdays, but on Sunday — this Sunday — when 1,996 undergraduates walk away with their ND degrees.
The 42-year-old Detroit native now living in Atlanta is one of only 11 true juniors in the 26 years the NFL Draft has opened its doors to underclassmen, who deferred his Notre Dame graduation day indefinitely to enter the NFL Draft.
Twenty-one years removed from that decision and eight years after retiring as the NFL’s fifth all-time leading rusher (now sixth with 13,662 yards), the urgency to finish remains, but the means to do so for the former Irish All-America running back remains a puzzle.
Three new names — defensive end Stephon Tuitt, tight end Troy Niklas and running back George Atkinson III — will face that same challenge someday. Tuitt, a second-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this month, has promised his mother, Tamara Bartlett — a no-nonsense deputy sheriff in Georgia’s Gwinnett County who will hold him to it — that he’ll have his degree in two offseasons.
But it’s not as easy in reality as it seems in theory. Only four of the previous eight three-and-out Notre Dame players — Rocket Ismail, Tom Carter, Darius Walker and, most recently, Jimmy Clausen — have been able to work that goal into their lives.
“I definitely want to finish,” Bettis said earlier this week at a charity fund-raiser in Olympia Fields, Ill. “I’ve got little children now — a 9-year-old daughter (Jada), a 7-year-old son (Jerome Jr.), and I want to be the example to them.
“So how can Dad tell them, ‘Hey, school’s important. School’s important.’ And you didn’t finish? It is important to me.”
It’s important to the NFL Players Association as well. Former NFL all-pro cornerback Troy Vincent, the NFL's new executive director of football operations, has been the face of the league’s and the player association’s efforts to bring education initiatives to the NFL’s current and former players and ease the transition into life after football.
The latter comes earlier than many people might imagine. The NFLPA pegs the average length of an NFL career at 3½ years. A harsher reality was a Sports Illustrated report that stated that 78 percent of NFL players were either bankrupt or under severe financial duress within two years of retirement.
The flip side for a league, that still has less than 50 percent college graduates and is attracting early entries in increasing record numbers, are two uncanny stats: That players in the NFL that have college degrees earn 20 to 30 percent than their non-graduate counterparts while playing and that the grads’ careers last about 50 percent longer.
“One theory is that players who show the intelligence, concentration, and mental discipline to complete a degree show these qualities on the field more,” the NFLPA’s website postulates. “Doing well in school from an early age also helps players develop the concentration they will need to memorize plays and avoid eligibility problems in high school and college.”
Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, who came to the NFL from the University of Oregon, buys into the grad mentality, and said the fact all six of the Eagles’ draftees from this year’s draft being college grads was not a coincidence.
“No. 1, I think it shows you the intelligence factor, and No. 2, it shows that they’re committed to establishing goals and following through on their goals,” Kelly said in an interview on ESPN. “You face some adversity, whether it’s in school or on the football field.
“You’ve got a bunch of driven guys, and that’s evidence that they are driven. It shows you what we’re looking for here, that combination of mental toughness and that high football intelligence. That’s just another indication for us.”
Former Notre Dame All-America offensive lineman and Lombardi Award winner Aaron Taylor, a first-round draft choice in 1994 after pushing away the temptation the previous winter to become an early entry himself, has recently gotten into the business of helping to run the NFLPA’s mentoring program and assisting players to transition after retirement.
“I work for a company called Athlife, and Athlife Is contracted out by the NFLPA to provide career development and education support services,” said Taylor, who will still continue to do college football analyst work on TV for CBS.
“So part of that is degree completion. It’s advancing degrees, getting MBAs, those sorts of things. But also it’s ‘So this is what a résumé is. And this is how you spell it.’ ”
Taylor said Lou Holtz’s words made it an easy decision to return for his senior season.
“I didn’t have juniors come out very often,” Holtz said this week. “I had a lot of them have the opportunity, but I kept reminding them from their freshman year on, ‘Remember when I was in your home recruiting you, and the one question you had was, ‘Are you going to be there my four years?’ And I said, ‘Yeah are you going to be there my four years?’
“They gave me their commitment plus, it’s not just that they don’t get their degree. They don’t provide the leadership to the younger players that they should. Your seniors have an obligation to teach the younger players. Unless there’s a hardship, you should not leave early.”
In Bettis’ case, there clearly was an economic hardship, one of which Holtz was clearly cognizant.
“If I had to do it all over again, would I do it again?,” Bettis mulled. “I would do the same thing, because I came in and talked to coach Holtz with my parents, and he told me, ‘It’s time for you to go.’ And so he told me that.
“I was really on the fence, and had coach Holtz said, ‘I don’t think you’re ready yet; you need to come back,’ I probably would have come back. But he said, ‘You’ve done all you can do at Notre Dame. It’s time for you to take the next step.’
“And I was blown away. I was like, ‘OK, I was thinking it. But he really confirmed it for me.’ And at that point, it was the right decision for me.”
For current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, he can live with seniors with degrees — such as 2014 third-round draft choice Louis Nix and 2013 first-rounder Tyler Eifert — passing on a fifth-year option. But Kelly, rankled by the three defections this spring — especially Niklas’ — vowed in February that he won’t recruit prospects in the future that openly target being a three-and-out player.
Overall, Kelly has tried to find middle ground with marrying the NFL dream with a Notre Dame education, after taking a hard, almost anti-NFL stance in his first few years on the job in South Bend.
“It was a matter of priorities for me,” he said. “It was just a matter of making sure that the priorities were placed in the right perspective. I have no problem talking about the NFL and making sure if that's your dream, that we keep that dream alive for you, and that we provide you every opportunity to get there.
“I just felt that maybe that the priority maybe got pushed out of what I believe to be the pecking order. And I think it's clearly in the right order. And that is, (No. 1) your degree, (No. 2) you play for Notre Dame and then (No. 3) the NFL. And if I feel like you're not playing for Notre Dame, and you're playing for your NFL career before you're playing for Notre Dame, that's where the rub is for me.
“So if I get a little bit off on comments about a guy, it could be because that NFL is starting to overtake playing for Notre Dame. It's not just me, though. Every college football coach in the BCS has got to deal with the same thing. You just have to be very careful with it. You have to be very good with your players about it. But it's a fine line, it's a balancing act.”
In terms of Bettis’ personal balancing act, if Notre Dame would give him the option of finishing online, he believes he would be able to finish in short order.
“In terms of coming back, it has been a difficult situation, because the problem is you have to do that last year at the university,” he said. “You can’t transfer the credits. That’s becoming an especially difficult proposition when you have a family, kids.
“But I’m still battling, trying to figure out how I can do it. I’ve been in contact with the assistant provost and trying to figure out if there’s a way I can make it happen.”
Here are the 11 true juniors from Notre Dame who have entered the NFL Draft since the league opened its doors to underclassmen in 1989 and their graduation status. This does not include players, such as Louis Nix and Tyler Eifert, who were seniors and left with their degree in hand but turned down a fifth-year option at ND:
Player Pos. Draft Round Grad
Raghib Ismail * WR 1991 4 1994
Jerome Bettis RB 1993 1 No
Tom Carter CB 1993 1 1995
Bobby Taylor CB 1995 2 No
Darius Walker RB 2007 Undrafted 2009
Jimmy Clausen QB 2010 2 2013
Golden Tate WR 2010 2 No
Kyle Rudolph TE 2011 2 No
George Atkinson RB 2014 Undrafted No
Troy Niklas TE 2014 2 No
Stephon Tuitt DE 2014 2 No
* Ismail signed with Toronto of the CFL before the NFL Draft was held, which affected the round he was selected in the NFL Draft.