Jerome Heavens rooting for Josh Adams to run into Notre Dame history

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It’s not as much the buffet of nostalgia he might miss this weekend that pains Jerome Heavens as it is a chance to watch Josh Adams take another step into history.

One of the brightest yet humblest stars from Notre Dame’s 1977 national championship football team, Heavens hasn’t completely ruled out skirting doctor’s orders to attend Saturday night’s clash between 11th-ranked USC (6-1) and the No. 13 Irish (5-1) at Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 EDT; NBC-TV).

Roughly 80 of his teammates will be present, and celebrating the 40-year reunion of their climb to the No. 1 spot in the polls at season’s end after suffering a close loss to an SEC team the second game of the season, the latter detail a congruency with the 2017 Irish not lost on Heavens.

“I’m supposed to be taking it easy,” the 60-year-old former running back said via telephone from his home in Lansing, Ill., just outside of Chicago. “I just had a procedure done (Tuesday). I’m calling it a tune-up.”

His doctors call it surgery. Prostate surgery, specifically to address an enlarged (but not cancerous) prostate.

And on his to-do list next time he makes the trip to South Bend, whether that be on a whim this weekend or later this season, is to look up former Irish basketball coach Digger Phelps.

It is Phelps’ speech to the ’77 football squad — ranked 11th at the time — the night before it took apart a fifth-ranked USC squad (49-19) in the “green jersey game” that’s still one of the more resonating memories for Heavens that season.

And roughly five years ago it was Phelps’ voice again that ultimately made a difference.

“He was so instrumental in telling me to get checked out, that men over 50 need to do that,” Heavens said of ND’s 76-year-old men’s basketball coaching patriarch, who has beaten prostate cancer and bladder cancer in the past seven years.

“And I listened. Now I tell other men the same thing. I also tell them to take time to enjoy life, because you never know what’s around the corner.”

Much of Heavens’ enjoyment over the past couple of months has been derived from watching — albeit from a distance — Adams, ND’s 6-foot-2, 225-pound running back.

“When I watched the second play of the season (a 37-yard TD run by Adams against Temple on Sept. 2), I started laughing and crying in the same breath. There’s something different about him as a runner. There’s something very special.

“Every time he touches the ball, there’s a very good chance something great is about to happen.”

And quite possibly on Saturday night, on one of the times Adams touches the ball, the two men may crisscross in the ND history books.

In 1978, Heavens broke George Gipp’s 58-year-old record and ascended to the top of the Notre Dame career rushing list with 2,682 yards. His run at the top lasted less than a season as former teammate Vagas Ferguson leapfrogged Heavens and finished the 1979 season with 3,472.

Going into Saturday night’s USC game, Heavens stands sixth. He’s 128 yards ahead of No. 7 Adams, who just happens to be averaging 129 yards a game in 2017.

Last season against the Trojans, Adams ran for 180 yards on 17 carries. No opposing player has dented the USC defense for that much since, including the nation’s leader rusher — Stanford’s Bryce Love — who had 160 on 17 carries in a 42-24 Cardinal loss on Sept. 9.

The last time someone ran for more on USC was Love’s predecessor, Christian McCaffrey (207 yards on 32 carries), in the 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game.

“I want Josh Adams to know that I can’t wait for him to pass me on that list,” Heavens said. “Records are made to be broken. Teams are forever. All I ever wanted to do was blend in.

“My first carry at Notre Dame was a fumble — then I really wanted to blend in. But you pick yourself up and keep going. People are there to love and support you. You just make sure you do the same.”

Heavens has been out of the football spotlight for decades now. The East St. Louis, Ill., product had a run with the Chicago Bears that lasted less than a year.

He eventually gravitated into the beer business and currently works in sales for a beer distributorship in Chicago. When the subject of football does comes up, he said people seem to be more impressed that he knows the real Rudy than the fact he was such a part of ND’s history.

That included being its most prolific freshman running back ever, for 29 years, until first Darius Walker passed him, and then Adams leapfrogged them both in 2015.

“That Notre Dame experience was one of the greatest things that could have happened to me, even if people don’t remember me anymore,” Heavens said.

Adams smiled Wednesday after practice when he learned that Heavens was pulling for him and wanted to meet him.

“That would be pretty awesome,” he said. “As far as records, I don’t know much about where I am with that unless somebody mentions it. I’m out here playing football, trying to have a little bit of fun.

“I’m doing it for my teammates. For guys who aren’t playing, I’m, running for them too.”

Heavens joked that he’d like to tell Brian Kelly he still had some eligibility left, so he could talk the Irish head coach into letting him on the field for one play, just so he could block for Adams.

“I bleed Notre Dame football,” he said. “And to see this team and the way they’re coming together, it just feels like something special is happening. And it all starts with No. 33 (Adams). There’s still a few rough edges to clean up, but it feels like we’re on our way back.”

Former Notre Dame running back Jerome Heavens (pictured) once topped the Irish career rushing list. He's rooting for current Irish star Josh Adams to keep climbing toward the top. (Photo courtesy of Notre Dame)