DALLAS -- Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz will turn 56 on Jan. 6.
Jerome Bettis, his star fullback, might turn pro the same day. Happy birthday, Lou.
College underclassmen must declare their intentions by Jan. 6 to be available for the NFL draft.
Bettis, who turns 21 on Feb. 16, is wrestling with this decision as the Irish finish preparations for Friday's Cotton Bowl game against Texas A&M.;
Bettis, a 247-pound junior, said the question is out of his mind until after the game. Well, almost.
"I've got friends here, and we're just ripping and running," Bettis said yesterday. "That keeps my mind off it. But sometimes when I'm alone, my mind starts to wander.
"Whatever, I'm approaching this game as though it's my last one for Notre Dame. I wouldn't want to look back and feel I didn't go at it with gusto."
Jerome's father, John, said the family has treated this season as though it would be his son's last with the Irish.
"You never know, but we saw every game except the one at USC -- even when he didn't play," John Bettis said.
John Bettis said he and his wife, Gladys, and Jerome met with Holtz in South Bend the weekend of Notre Dame's final home game, Nov. 14 against Penn State.
"Coach told us the pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages as fair and equal as he could," the father said.
"But it's always been Jerome's decision, same as when he picked his school. We try to give him the best information, but the kid's got to make up his own mind."
There is little question Bettis, who blocks and catches as well as he runs, would be a first-round NFL choice if he declares for the draft.
He gained 972 yards as a sophomore, the last 150 coming in a Sugar Bowl victory over Florida, along with three touchdowns and the most valuable player award.
Despite a nagging ankle injury and playing in the backfield with ++ 1,000-yard rusher Reggie Brooks, Bettis still gained 825 yards this season and scored 13 touchdowns.
"He's a first-rounder as far as I'm concerned," said the personnel director of one NFL team, pleading anonymity because Bettis is a junior. "He's a productive, hard runner and when he blocks people, he snaps their heads."
Another NFL scout, likewise asking to be nameless, agreed.
"We don't really scout juniors, but I've seen him several times, in person and on film," the scout said. "There's no doubt he's a great player."
The Bettis household on Detroit's west side has been deluged with would-be agents who obviously have first-round money in their eyes.
"We've had calls from a dozen or more," John Bettis said. "They're driving my wife up the wall. Some have called two or three times. Even the college recruiters weren't as bad. They were more friendly."
L Jerome Bettis said money is not predominant in his decision.
"The money would come this year, next year, whenever," he said. "The main thing is: Do my parents and family need my help or can they wait another year?
"Certainly, they can use the financial help. My mom's unemployed right now, and my dad is working two jobs and I'd like to help my grandparents."
John Bettis' main job is as an electrical inspector for the city.
Irish quarterback Rick Mirer bypassed the NFL draft a year ago to play his senior season, but receiver/kick returner Raghib Ismail turned pro after his junior season two years ago. Bettis has talked to both about his own decision.
"Another factor is next year's outlook," Bettis said. "Coach Holtz isn't going to throw the ball 30 times a game without Rick Mirer here. Any back would love to carry the ball 20, 25 times a game. It can create a big opportunity, and so that has to go into the equation."