'Legacy Weekend' a chance for Notre Dame Football family to make lasting connections

Greg McKenna
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Pulling up his hood, Jerome Bettis started jogging through the rain toward Notre Dame Stadium. The Pro Football Hall of Famer, Super Bowl champion and former Notre Dame running back’s trudge was partially filmed by his amused son, Jerome Jr., a wide receiver being recruited for the class of 2025.

The pair were heading from an event for football alumni and recruits at the Irish Athletics Center, the second year the gathering punctuated what is billed as “Legacy Weekend.” Nearly 300 former players attended the reunion events last April, the brainchild of second-year head coach Marcus Freeman, in the leadup to the annual Blue-Gold Game.

Jerome Bettis looks on as the first tight end draft pick Michael Mayer takes the stage during the Blue-Gold Spring Football Game Draft on Wednesday, April 20, 2022, at Notre Dame in South Bend.

Not as many were in attendance on Saturday for this year’s spring game, played in 40-degree temperatures and periodically heavy rain. Bettis, however, was on hand to see former Irish teammate Bryant Young — who joined “The Bus” in the Hall of Fame after being inducted in 2022 — receive a tribute on the video board in the second quarter.

“I think it’s critically important,” Bettis said of Freeman and the program inviting former players back to campus. “You keep them invested in the program. And ultimately, it pays dividends because these kids remember some of the players that played here at one point or another.”

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Former and current players connect, like Malik Zaire and Jayden Thomas

Former Irish quarterback Malik Zaire, who transferred to Florida after graduating from Notre Dame in 2016, was also in attendance for a second consecutive year.

“You put so much work in and your time here flies by so fast that you don't always get to take advantage of the wealth of people that have been here before you or come after you,” Zaire said. “For Marcus Freeman and what he's doing with the program to build a safe place where guys from any class can come back and really connect and have events to connect, not just show up on campus, it's a real welcoming feeling because it keeps me coming back.”

5/22/2017: Former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire (9) has yet to announce which school he’ll attend next season. Tribune photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

11/30/2016: Notre Dame’s Malik Zaire (9) waves as he exits the field following Notre Dame’s 45-27 loss to Southern Cal last Saturday. Zaire reportedly will request his release from the school.

Notre DameÕs Malik Zaire (9) waves as he exits the field following Notre DameÕs 45-27 loss to Southern Cal in an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, Calif. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN via FTP

Freeman’s current players have also been able to meet and develop relationships with former Irish stars, particularly during a networking dinner on Thursday hosted at the South Club in Notre Dame Stadium. After experiencing the event last year, junior wide receiver Jayden Thomas was excited to collect a few more phone numbers this time around.

“Just hearing their experience, having somebody I relate to telling me it’s going to be OK and (about) the windows that Notre Dame offers for us off the field in the future, it was pretty fun,” he said Wednesday.

Thomas, who finished second on the team with 362 yards on 25 receptions last season, said the words of football alumni helped him deal with the consistent demands of football and his coursework.

Notre Dame wide receiver Jayden Thomas (83) and quarterback Sam Hartman (10) do a touchdown routine during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football game on Saturday, April 22, 2023, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

“Sometimes it can get stressful, but hearing somebody that has been in my shoes, literally, sat in the same seats as me in the Gug, just hearing that is a reassurance that I came to the right place for a reason,” said Thomas, who had four catches for 71 yards and a touchdown in the Gold team’s 24-0 victory on Saturday. “Full circle”

Zaire’s advice to players like Thomas? Have fun.

“That's what it's about,” said the 28-year-old Zaire. “You need to make the most of being here and then get old like me, and then we can talk about what we used to do.

“You want to have places where you can have memories, and this is a place to do it.”

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Zaire and Bettis are enthusiastic about talking with current players, while remaining wary of overloading them with unsolicited advice. Zaire particularly enjoyed reconnecting with Chris Tyree, who Zaire first met when the running back turned slot receiver was being recruited. On Thursday, Tyree had plenty to ask Zaire, who has worked on-air and as a producer for CBS Sports, Sirius XM and digital outlet Overtime.

“It brought it full circle because now he's a senior about to be done and interested in media,” Zaire said.

Zaire knows these conversations are important because the transition to life after college or professional sports can be difficult. For football players, he noted, it “can hit us a little harder.”

Taking advantage of opportunities after Notre Dame

Bob Belden, a former Irish quarterback who left professional football two seasons after being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1969, knows the “hard facts” about how few college players have lengthy careers at next level. It’s why Belden enjoyed the networking dinner’s keynote talk by Notre Dame trustee Rod West, who played on the 1988 Irish national championship team.

Belden said West, a member of the college football playoff selection committee and a Fortune 500 executive, urged current players to “take advantage” of the opportunities attending Notre Dame provides.

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Senior Jordan Botelho will likely be an important piece for Notre Dame after finishing second on the team with 4.5 sacks last season and blocking a punt that was returned for a touchdown in the rout of Clemson. His fierce reputation as a vyper defensive end proceeds him, but he also took West’s message to heart, making a point to ask for a business card from James Bent, an offensive lineman for the Irish from 2002-2005.

Besides Botelho, Bent also had the opportunity to touch base with Eli Raridon. Bent has known Eli since the sophomore tight end was born, having played at Notre Dame with Eli’s father, Scott, who was also an offensive lineman. Bent, sporting an Irish “Walk-on-Players’-Union” (WOPU) sweatshirt, also made sure to connect with fellow Mishawaka native Justin Fisher, a sophomore walk-on tight end.

Now a sales director for alcohol distributor Johnson Brothers, per his LinkedIn, Bent did a lot of recruiting in his past job at E. & J. Gallo Winery.

“I've seen a lot of different groups where people are forced to come and they kind of just stand there, but this team is really impressive,” Bent said.

“They were interacting with people. They realized the opportunity and the wealth of knowledge and experience that was in the room with having a bunch of former players back.”

It was a chance for current players to broaden their horizons, but it was also an opportunity to gather those who formerly donned a Notre Dame jersey across many eras. After year two, there’s no signs the new tradition is going anywhere.

“Even though I didn’t play with the classes before me,” Zaire said, “I feel like I played (with them) because I feel a part of the class.”