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Former Irish Backfield Still in Motion : Pro football: Bettis and Brooks trying to become first pair from one school to rush for 1,000 yards each in first season.

November 19, 1993|MIKE REILLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On his last trip to Southern California, Reggie Brooks enjoyed that traditional victory meal of bananas and soda that awaited the flu-stricken Notre Dame tailback in the locker room after the Irish had beaten USC.

Brooks, a rookie with the Washington Redskins, returns to the Southland this weekend for a game against the Rams and rookie tailback Jerome Bettis, his former Irish teammate.

Always the gracious host, Bettis plans to pick up Brooks at his hotel, show him around town and reminisce about the not-so-old days at Notre Dame.

Bettis said he might even offer to prepare some dinner.

"I'll probably fix him something with some acid in it," he said, laughing. "Just to get Reggie sick. But he will probably make sure I eat first."

Bettis might want to scrap that game plan altogether. He should remember that last November, Brooks' stomach did back flips but he still ran for 227 yards and three touchdowns in a victory over the Trojans.

"I wasn't doing too well that day," Brooks remembered. "In fact, I felt pretty lousy."

Still, there was no stopping Brooks that day, or since. With Brooks, Bettis and quarterback Rick Mirer, Notre Dame had one of the top rushing attacks in the country last season. All three were among the top 45 picks in last spring's NFL draft.

"I felt last year we had the best backfield in college," Brooks said. "And we're showing it this year in the pros."

Brooks and Bettis are enjoying solid rookie seasons even though their teams are struggling at 2-7. The Rams have a five-game losing streak and the Redskins lost six in a row earlier this season.

Learning to deal with losing has been the biggest adjustment for both players. Notre Dame was 20-4-1 in their final two seasons.

Brooks and Bettis are trying to become the first tailbacks from the same college to rush for more than 1,000 yards as NFL rookies. Brooks leads rookies this season with 615 yards in 125 carries. Bettis' 557 yards rank him third, behind Brooks and New Orleans' Derek Brown, who has 569.

"I haven't thought much about it because it's so far out," Bettis said of the possible double 1,000-yard season. "You concentrate on your team and what you're doing and you don't want to look at what your counterpart is doing.

"But when you look at it, I think it would be an accomplishment. You have to attribute the success to Notre Dame, how it was able to sculpt us and mold us into good athletes."

Bettis and Brooks nearly pulled off double 1,000-yard seasons last year. Brooks ran for 1,343 yards in 167 carries, averaging eight yards a carry and falling just shy of the legendary George Gipp's school record of 8.1.

Bettis was on pace for 1,000 yards, too. But an ankle injury forced him to sit out a game and slowed him through the late part of the season. He finished with 825 yards.

"It was disappointing because we were on our way there," Bettis said. "We had been checking it every week to see that we were on pace, then I went down."

Said Brooks: "We had a contest going all through the season, seeing who could do what. When he got hurt, I felt real bad because I knew how much 1,000 yards meant to him. I knew how hard he worked for it, and I felt he should have had it. But things happen for a reason, and I felt he's going to be a better person because of it."

After last season, the NFL picked apart the Irish backfield. Mirer went to Seattle as the second overall pick. Bettis, who gave up his senior season, was taken 10th overall by the Rams.

Brooks said he nearly became a Dallas Cowboy. A Dallas representative was in his home on draft day when he was taken in the second round--45th overall--by Washington, where his uncle, Tony Peters, played safety from 1979-85.

Dallas was waiting with the 46th pick.

"I was surprised to be drafted by the Redskins because I didn't think they had any interest in me," Brooks said. "It was an awkward situation with the Cowboys' representative there and the Redskins calling. He was as shocked as I was when the Redskins took me."

Brooks found a crowded backfield when he arrived at training camp. Brian Mitchell had played behind Earnest Byner for three years and appeared ready to take over the starting job. Former USC back Ricky Ervins had averaged nearly 600 yards in his first two seasons.

But Brooks had been in that situation before, at Notre Dame. After backing up Ricky Watters as a freshman, Brooks switched to cornerback the next year, backing up his brother, Tony, now with the Philadelphia Eagles. He asked Irish Coach Lou Holtz to move him back to offense as a junior. Holtz agreed, and Brooks emerged as a star.

The Redskins wanted to bring Brooks along slowly, but he wouldn't let them. He got limited carries until the third game, at Philadelphia, when he came in on the second series and never left. He had an 85-yard touchdown run and finished with 154 yards, enough to convince the Redskin coaches that his time was now.

Since then, Brooks has run for 117 yards against Buffalo and 105 against Indianapolis.

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