"I'm a big fan," Heavens said of his alma mater, Notre Dame. "I consider myself one of the biggest fans that exists. I keep a low profile but I get back to a couple games a season. If I don't get back, I'm viewing every game."
One game Heavens did not get back to was the instant classic last year with USC. He cancelled the trip at the last second and the pain in his voice was obvious for missing 2005's college football game of the year. Despite Notre Dame losing to the Trojans, it brought back memories of Heavens's playing days.
"It was a heartbreaker," Heavens said of the USC loss. "It reminded me so much of the rivalry with USC back when I was playing. It was bittersweet, just like my game with them my senior year. Even after a loss, I think they grew from that."
Heavens was a star Irish running back between 1975-78 and is fifth on the all-time rushing yards list with 2,682 yards. His career stats stellar, he now lives in Lansing, Illinois right along the border with Indiana near the Chicago area. Heavens has spent the past 25 years working for a beer distributor on the south side of the Windy City and is currently a supervisor with the firm. He is involved with the Notre Dame alumni association in Chicago and has had head coach Charlie Weis speak to the group in back-to-back years. Heavens is enamored with the new direction of the Irish football program.
"To have a guy like Charlie Weis come in is great," Heavens said. "The way they put together a great staff was crucial. Sometimes when I attend the contests, I visualize myself as a coach. I get so wrapped in the game sometimes from yelling and screaming. When I watch the game on TV, I'm a little more calm. I tried to remain that way since I left.
"You have that certain rhythm with Notre Dame football. I relate them to the New York Yankees. You expect them to win. But it's a certain way you expect them to go out there and perform. The story speaks for itself. Notre Dame is one of the great stories in sports."
Heavens came to Notre Dame out of East St. Louis, Illinois. To speak of the talent in that area, NFL Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow was born and raised in the same city. Heavens was a Parade All-American and two-time All-State performer. He arrived on campus the year after head coach Ara Parseghian retired. Dan Devine was brought in to replace the Irish coaching great. Even though Parseghian recruited him, Heavens and his mother still thought it was the best move possible to attend Notre Dame.
"We were the last class recruited by Ara and he stepped down in January," Heavens said. "We came in under Devine but we were recruited by Ara. But Devine stepped up and gave us the opportunities to come in and showcase your talents. I was lucky enough to step in and play. We had great running backs that were in my class. I had the benefit of coming from a great high school program in East St. Louis where the expectations were high. Once I got to Notre Dame, I was like a kid in a cookie jar. I was watching guys like Ross Browner and Ken McAfee give us what it would take to succeed and I followed their script."
He followed these players lead to a record-setting freshman campaign. Despite fumbling in his first attempt of the season against Boston College, Heavens rushed for 756 yards in 1975 and broke the long-standing frehsman yard mark of George Gipp. It took another two decades before current Notre Dame running back Darius Walker ran for 786 yards in 2004 to eclipse Heavens's freshman record. With the good comes back the bad: poised for a big sophomore season, Heavens injured his knee in the third game of the 1976 season and was out for the year. The transition from record-breaking running back to sideline observer was a painful one for him.
"When I think about the injury, it was the worst part of my life," Heavens said. "I had never been hurt playing any sports. It was one of those days where you just felt weird. My ankle had to get taped twice. There was just something about that day. After getting hurt, the lesson taught to me was to pick up the pieces and move on. It was very frustrating. It was painful. I won't deny that.
"The worst part was seeing the guys practice and not being able to participate. There was one day where we played Alabama and I saw them marching towards Notre Dame Stadium. That helpless feeling hurt because I couldn't do anything about it. It was one of the low points."
The pendulum swung back in 1977 when Heavens and company captured the national championship in Devine's third season with Notre Dame. The year included an early season loss to Mississippi only to see the Irish run the table from there to earn a Cotton Bowl appearance against top-ranked Texas and bruising running back Earl Campbell. Heavens and fellow back Vagas Ferguson outshined Campbell as Notre Dame whipped the Longhorns 38-10 and catapulted themselves to the national title. Heavens ran for 994 yards and six touchdowns in 1977, including 101 yards in the Cotton Bowl victory. The magnitude of the accomplishment did not hit him until a few weeks later when personal tragedy struck his family.
"It didn't really sink in until a week or two later," Heavens said. "That's the way life goes. You have peaks and valleys. After winning the national championship, I lost my grandfather. He was a person very instrumental in raising me. We won the game, though, and I think about it everyday, even if I wear my national championship ring. People will see me in Chicago and don't know it's Jerome Heavens until they see the ring on my finger. It was a real nice feeling to know that you were part of one of the greatest games that was ever played.
"That Cotton Bowl game really stands out. I thought everyone on the team was hitting on all cylinders. The odds were against us. Texas was number one. No one really gave us a chance. To see all the guys perform as good as they did was great. It was the greatest moment of my life. To see Texas run on the field in Dallas and the big Texas flag flying, it got you pumped up. It was a great moment in Notre Dame history."
As the upcoming season approaches, Heavens firmly believes that the 2006 team has the goods to redo what the 1977 squad achieved. After winning a national championship, players receive a ring to commemorate the special occasion. Heavens admits to not wearing it out all the time but makes it a point to do so when meeting a current Notre Dame player and Chicago-area native.
"Whenever I feel good about myself, I'll wear my ring out," Heavens said. "I try to keep a low profile but I'll bring it out sometimes. It's funny because I've had the chance to meet Tom Zbikowski a few times here in Chicago. Everytime I see him, I go up and say, ‘How's it going, Tom,' and rub my ring on his chest. It lets him know what you can win. I think those guys are really committed and I feel great about the upcoming season."