The Bus Finishes Education Route At ND

While there are plenty of former athletes content to do relatively little after retirement, the premier players look to continue to push themselves with the spirit they had while playing on the field/diamond/court. Jerome Bettis has always seemed like a player who wants to better himself. The Bus did just that last weekend as he graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in business from the university’s Mendoza School of Business.

The coolest part of this journey is that this was personal for Bettis. The 50-year-old may have left Notre Dame 28 years ago to become a legend in the NFL, but this premier player had unfinished business based on a promise that he had made to his mother.

“I promised her years ago, sitting in Coach (Lou) Holtz’s office, that I would come back and graduate,” Bettis said last month on the Pod of Gold podcast. “So, I owed that to her as well.”

While his promise to his mother was one factor that made the Hall of Famer return to school, the other factor was something he wanted to show to the next generation of his family.

“Having children now, I understand how important it is,” he said. “To be a college graduate, I want my children to understand how important that is,” Bettis said.

It is easy to forget that Bettis was not only a premier player for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bus was actually drafted by the Rams with the No. 10 overall pick of the 1993 NFL Draft and won Rookie of the Year honors that fall. Bettis rushed for over 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns that season, breaking the myth of the rookie running back wall as he ran over defenders that were not used to seeing a back with his power and size on the field.

It was 1996 when the Rams traded Bettis to the Steelers in a move that would dictate the future of both teams. The Rams would use a Marshall Faulk-led backfield under Dick Vermeil to create “The Greatest Show on Turf” in a speed-based attack that Bettis would not have fit. The Steelers went the other way. They built around Bettis, adding parts like wide receiver Hines Ward, and The Bus got to retire from the sport he loved in the most romantic way possible. His last game was the Steelers winning Super Bowl XL in his hometown of Detroit.

When Bettis retired, the stats book was complete. Bettis had rushed for the eighth-most yards in NFL history (13,662) and the 11th most touchdowns (91). They don’t make players like Bettis anymore, workhorse backs who are out there for three downs every single game drive. They certainly don’t make them as big as Bettis or as durable as he was remarkably healthy throughout his career for a running back that carried such a heavy workload.

Bettis seemed to love going back to school. He was able to participate in the types of activities he couldn’t the first time around as he was so focused on football. He was able to do this while also assisting head coach Marcus Freeman, a man new to that spotlight after taking over from Brian Kelly (who moved on to LSU).

It did not take Bettis long to graduate, as he was only a few credits short when he initially jumped to the NFL. However, his return to college is a shining example of how a premier player can use his platform to keep promises, inspire others, and finish what he started.

Written By Premier Players Steve Wright

From Heart Attack, Out of Work, To Star Player

Christian Eriksen played out the final minutes of the 2021-22 Premier League season with Brentford, relishing every second of being on the pitch. This will be a big summer for him, one where he will have a choice between a number of top teams in England that are vying for his signature. This is pretty standard for a top-level Premier League footballer making his name at a smaller club.

However, Eriksen’s story is far from typical when you consider that he almost died on the pitch last summer as the world watched on during a match at the pandemic delayed Euro 2020.

It was the 42nd minute of an uneventful game between Denmark and Finland in Copenhagen’s opening group stage match when Eriksen collapsed on the pitch while about to receive a throw-in. The crowd immediately went silent as cardiopulmonary resuscitation and defibrillation were performed. This was not the first time a player had suffered a heart attack on a soccer pitch, and knowing fans expected the worst, the Dane was stretchered off and rushed to the hospital. Later, Eriksen said in an interview he had died for five minutes.

The overall news, however, was great. Eriksen fought – hard – and survived the incident. He was fitted with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, a device similar to a pacemaker but that gives the heart a mild shock if it starts to beat out of rhythm. It was widely assumed that Eriksen’s career was over, but the inspirational Dane had other ideas.  As soon as he was cleared by medical staff, he started training with his old club OB in Odense to see if he still had the desire to play and a body that would let him do so.

The next hurdle for Eriksen to overcome – the one after fighting to survive post-cardiac arrest – was that the club he was currently contracted to play for wasn’t able to let him continue his career. He had relocated to Inter Milan in Italy in a move that would have made him over $10 million per season for four years starting in June 2020. He won the Serie A title with Inter in the 2020-21 season, but the rules in Italy meant that a player with the heart device that Eriksen now has would not be eligible to play in the league for insurance reasons.

This was obviously a blow to a player doing everything he could to continue playing and whose journey quickly became an inspiration to others. After all, if a player could suffer a heart attack and then return to playing at the highest level, heart attack survivors could follow his lead and not live their own lives turning down opportunities for fear of another medical emergency.

Inter terminated its contract with Eriksen in December 2021. This gave him a chance to find a new team in a league without the rule against heart devices being in place. That league was the Premier League – a league where Eriksen had made his name previously with Spurs – and the club was West London outfit Brentford.

It was a perfect match. Brentford was in the middle of its first-ever Premier League season and desperately needed some experienced attacking quality. Eriksen is a gem of a soccer player who glides around the pitch and always seems to be in five yards of space when getting the ball. This means he is never in a rush and always able to use his wand of a right foot to pick out a pass.

Eriksen starred for Brentford. The premier player also scored a goal two minutes into his return to the Danish national team, and his journey has truly been inspirational. His time at Brentford is likely over – teams like Spurs, Leicester City, and perhaps even Manchester United are in the market for his services – but the union of the Bees and the Dane for a magical half-season was a sports story that even the most cynical of Premier League fans could get behind.

Story by Premier Players Steve Wright

Ex NFL Punter McAfee Was No Ordinary Player

There aren’t many former punters that would be described as premier players and premier athletes. Pat McAfee, however, is no ordinary retired punter.

In truth, McAfee wasn’t even just a regular punter when he was playing in the NFL between 2009 and 2016 with the Indianapolis Colts. Most punters – specifically before the influx of Australian crossover athletes with massive legs – were cited as being contact shy and, if we were to be mean, not real football players.

McAfee broke that mold. At 6-foot-1 and every bit of 225 pounds, McAfee was built more like a linebacker than a punter.  A placekicker and punter at West Virginia, McAfee was taken with the No. 222 overall pick in Round 7 of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Colts.

McAfee immediately became a fan favorite. He handled placekicking and punting duties for the Colts and he was excellent at both. A two-time Pro Bowler in 2014 and 2016, McAfee was also named First-Team All-Pro at his position in 2014. McAfee retired after eight seasons in the league and to date still holds the NFL record for highest career net punting average at 41.1 yards with a minimum of 250 punts made.

What made McAfee stand out on the field most was his willingness to hit kickoff and punt returners and usually win the battle. He was not a player willing to be juked and fall to the ground to avoid a tackle. McAfee knew he was a football player and he seemed to make it his mission to prove that not every specialist was afraid of contact.

There are a number of hard hits on his resume, but the one that stands out the most was on a Sunday Night Football game in 2013 against the Denver Broncos. Broncos’ returner Trindon Holliday – one of the fastest players on the team – was flying down the left sideline on a return. That’s when McAfee appeared. He took the angle of a safety, using the sideline to trap Holliday, before just running him over with everything he had from the side as the Bronco reached the 45 yard-line.

It was an epic hit – Holliday spun through the air as if hit by a truck – and the commentary duo of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth meant that the hit was instantly immortalized as one of the best of the season by any player, let alone a punter.

As good as McAfee was on the field, what the 35-year-old has done in retirement has made him stand out even more. His retirement was early by NFL standards, with McAfee having an open offer to work for Barstool Sports where his oversized personality was an instant fit. This change was helped because he had been unhappy with the leadership structure within the Colts organization for a while and wanted to try something new.

From there, McAfee worked with Fox Sports and ESPN on college and pro football broadcasts and panels. He has also worked extensively in radio and hosts his own show on Sirius XM radio. The show is one that’s always newsworthy because Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is a frequent guest.

Even with all this going on, McAfee has more on his plate. An avid professional wrestling fan, McAfee has transitioned to call WWE Smackdown, one of the two flagship shows for the company. He also has dabbled as a wrestler, wowing the WrestleMania audience with his athleticism and ability between the ropes.

What stands out about McAfee is that this premier player is simply unwilling to be bad at anything. He might be the most driven ex-professional football player on the planet, grinding to mark off his goals and grow his brand. He runs or helps run multiple foundations and charitable endeavors. His own Pat McAfee Foundation works with the sons and daughters of military personnel, while he is involved with “Fur the Brand” which helps with the cost of animal surgeries.

McAfee is a larger-than-life character with a larger-than-life heart and he is someone everyone should root for as he continues his assault on the world of sports broadcasting.


Did Suns’ Booker Inspire Luka’s Next-Level Play?

It is not a good idea to make Dallas Mavericks’ superstar Luka Doncic even mildly annoyed.

Doncic is arguably one of the most exciting young premier players in the NBA with the 23-year-old Serbian looking like the next coming of Larry Bird. At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, the comparisons to Larry Legend are easy to make.  Bird, though, had an attitude and swagger that we hadn’t seen from Doncic until Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals this year with the Mavericks taking on the Phoenix Suns.

The Suns won Game 5 110-80 and needed to win just one more of the two remaining games, with the last game of the series at home, it figured to be a foregone conclusion. The problem was that Suns’ shooting guard Devin Booker had made an enemy of Doncic. Booker was fouled hard while driving for the basket late in Game 5. He turned to the camera and unleashed the phrase “Luka Special”.

This was not Booker admiring Doncic’s game.  This was Booker attempting to get under the skin of the Mavs’ star. Booker – you see – had flailed around on the floor for a few seconds mimicking a flop. Doncic has been accused (rightly in some cases) of hitting the ground a little too easily on the basketball court. The intent of the statement was clear and, while not entirely wrong, it was very, very ill-advised.

Doncic was a star already in the series but he took his play to the next level in Game 6.  Whether he was fuelled by Booker’s jibe – or the premier player just decided to bring everything he had facing elimination two straight nights – Doncic completely took over.  In Game 6, he secured 11 boards and scored a game-high 33 as the Mavs routed the Suns 113-86. The last game of the series, the vital Game 7, was expected to be far, far closer.  It was not.

The half-time score was 57-27 in favor of the Mavs. Doncic – who had previously been 0-2 in elimination playoff games – had scored 27 of those 57. He matched the total of the entire Suns’ team on his own in the first half. It was a career-defining 30 minutes for the 23-year-old.

Booker, on the other hand, struggled in the two games. In Game 6, he scored 19 points but committed a season-high eight turnovers. In Game 7, Booker had just 11 points.

A side note to this story is that while the legacy of Doncic is just beginning, the legacy of Chris Paul in the playoffs continues to be a mess. Paul became the first player ever to blow 2-0 playoff leads in five best-of-seven series and Paul has now lost four straight Game 7s.  It is a weird caveat to an outstanding career.

The story here, however, is Doncic. The Slovenian already has more NBA records than players with an entire career’s worth of work. He is a triple-double machine and – by all accounts – a model citizen off of the court who works to be a better basketball player every day.  He’s also the Mavs’ career leader in triple-doubles as well, and it took him only 122 games to pass Jason Kidd.

Can’t wait to see how Doncic continues to contribute to the Mavs, the league, and to the fans because he definitely doesn’t display a “me-first” attitude.

By Premier Players Steve Wright