The images today are that of distinguished Notre Dame graduates following brilliant professional careers, fading into the sunset as legends of the game.
But before there was Mr. Raider, there was shy, soft-spoken Timmy Brown, and before Marshawn Lynch’s Beast Mode, there was The Bus, or Rony as he was known growing up in Detroit.
The news that 1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown and Notre Dame’s future “Battering Ram” – Jerome Bettis – had been selected for induction into Pro Football’s Hall of Fame brought back memories of their early days in South Bend.
Today, when Brown is in front of the camera, you see a composed, distinguished, educated man that exudes composure and class. When Brown first was introduced at Notre Dame following a prep career at Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas, he was a quality prospect coming from a program that had lost 25 out of 30 games, but one that was reluctant to step in front of the bright lights.
He would go on to excel at the highest level in the NFL – finishing with an incredible 1,094 receptions for 14,934 yards, nearly 5,000 more all-purpose yards and 105 touchdowns – after Lou Holtz found a niche for him during his Notre Dame days that helped create a superstar and maximized his multiple skills.
Brown was painfully uncomfortable with the media upon his arrival, struggling to find the confidence to deal with speech issues. That was back in the day when part of the learning process of a Notre Dame football player was to be thrust in front of the media as a key ingredient in the maturation process as opposed to today when the agony of defeat is enough to gain a post-game pass for the star quarterback and/or Heisman Trophy candidate.
Brown worked his way through those issues, and today, when he addresses a crowd, not only has he become an accomplished speaker, but he epitomizes the distinguished nature that is expected of a Notre Dame graduate.
Significant credit goes to Holtz, who helped Brown understand just how great he could be, forcing him to be a more well-rounded, assertive player after an ignominious start in his college debut when he fumbled the opening kickoff against Purdue at the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome.
By his sophomore season, Holtz was using Brown in a variety of ways, including running out of a full-house backfield on occasion in addition to his pass-catching duties, and eventually returning punts to go with kickoff returns.
Truth was Brown was not that productive as a runner from the backfield, and his 137 catches for 2,493 yards and 12 TDs were pedestrian by today’s standards. Only his 18.2-yard average per grab truly stood out.
But as a return man, he was brilliant, taking three kickoffs and three punt returns back for touchdowns with all three of the punt returns coming in his ’87 Heisman Trophy campaign.
By the time Brown left Notre Dame, he had gone from talented but reticent youngster to the No. 6 overall pick by the Oakland Raiders and one of the most consistently-productive players in franchise history. His pro career spanned 17 seasons, 16 with the Raiders in which he strung together nine 1,000-yard seasons and 10 campaigns in a row with at least 76 grabs.
Few great receivers offer such longevity. At age 35, the nine-time Pro-Bowler caught 91 passes for 1,165 yards and nine touchdowns. He would catch another 135 passes after the age of 35.
Bettis walked into Notre Dame in 1990 when the Irish were loaded in the backfield. In fact, he carried just 15 times as a freshman with most of the totes falling to Rodney Culver, Ricky Watters, Raghib Ismail and Tony Brooks, although he still managed to average 7.7 yards per infrequent carry.
By his sophomore year, however, there was no stopping Bettis from rising to the forefront of the Irish rushing attack while still sharing carries with Brooks and Culver. He rushed for 972 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
Ironically, by his third and last season with the Irish, another Brooks – Reggie – emerged as the top back, rushing for 1,343 yards, 13 touchdowns and an incomparable 8.0 yards per carry. Bettis still played a significant role, rushing for 825 yards and 10 touchdowns while often leading the way for Brooks through the hole.
While most will remember Bettis for his bruising style of play – particularly in the NFL – it was his incredibly quick, light feet that set him apart from other big men playing the running back position. He had the footwork of a running back 35 pounds lighter.
And yet Bettis is best known for his performance against Florida in the Jan. 1, 1992 Sugar Bowl when he slammed, banged and hammered his way through the Gator defense, scoring three fourth-quarter touchdowns and finishing with 150 yards on 16 carries in the 39-28 come-from-behind victory.
He would go on to become the 10th overall pick by the Los Angeles Rams in the ’93 draft, where he earned rookie of the year honors with a 1,429-yard debut season. With a running style more conducive to the Steel City, Bettis was traded to Pittsburgh, where he would conclude his career with 13,662 yards rushing, another 1,449 yards receiving and 94 touchdowns. The six-time Pro-Bowler went out on top with a 21-10 victory over Seattle in Super Bowl XL.
And yet like Brown, there was another side to Bettis, which he wore on his sleeve. From the moment Bettis arrived at Notre Dame, he did so with a smile and an effervescent personality, enjoying the process of developing into one of the nation’s most talented and potent weapons.
Prior to the 1992 season, Bettis was asked to pose for a pre-season magazine cover published by Blue & Gold Illustrated. It was a somewhat painstaking process, and in addition to taking time out of his day to pose for the picture, he endured repeated sprays of water on his face to simulate him sweating after a hard day on the gridiron.
Bettis endured, never batting an eye at the length of the session, and never showing any inkling that the photo shoot was in any way an inconvenience, even though it was.
With Bettis then as well as today, what you see is what you get, and that is a guy who rolls with the punches of life and does so with a smile on his face. His touching tributes to his mother – who is enduring breast cancer amidst the news of his selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame – reveal the emotional man behind The Bus.
Brown and Bettis. Bettis and Brown. Two Notre Dame stars, one after the other, at different positions with different styles. Yet both bona fide stars at the highest level and strong representatives of Notre Dame football and the University itself.
Brown and Bettis in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? It’s a no-brainer.