At the time, Gladys Bettis thought football was too violent for her youngest son.
"I got pretty good (at bowling)," Bettis said. "I was averaging about 176. My mom would say, 'Why don't you forget about football and stick to bowling?' She was a typical mom."
Bettis, whose 17 touchdowns are second in the nation to Michigan's Desmond Howard's 20, has rushed for 887 yards this season. He is on target, with two games remaining, to become just the fourth running back in Notre Dame history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. The Irish (8-2) play at Penn State (8-2) on Saturday.
"A lot of guys picture me as a big, fat kid who doesn't have much speed," said Bettis, whose touchdowns include runs of 40 and 53 yards. "I think they underestimate me a little bit. I like to burn them when they do that."
Bettis has been running over people since he took up the sport in junior high. Although he was 5-8 and weighed 205 in eighth grade, Bettis never had any designs on being a lineman.
He wanted to be the quarterback.
"My favorite play would be to drop back and pump a couple times to make my friends think I was at least thinking about them," he said. "Then I'd run around the end.
"Back in the huddle, I'd say, 'Hey, you guys weren't open.' "
Who was going to argue with this massive man-child?
Bettis has always had a knack for contact. He started his high school career as a linebacker before going platooning as a fullback-linebacker his junior year when he rushed for 1,000 yards. He averaged 15 tackles per game as a middle linebacker the following year.
"I always want to hit someone, whether I'm blocking or running the ball," he said. "A linebacker can take control of the game with big hits, so when I moved to fullback, I had to incorporate the big hits. I like to hit. It makes it that much more fun to go out there and take someone's head off."
Bettis picked Notre Dame over Michigan and Southern Cal after spending time with senior tailback and captain Rodney Culver, another former Detroit prep star, on his official visit.
Culver originally was penciled in as Notre Dame's fullback this year. But coach Lou Holtz decided last winter Bettis was too valuable to keep on the bench. So he moved Culver to tailback.
"I wasn't thinking about having this good a year because I thought I'd be doing a lot of the grunt work for (tailback) Tony Brooks and Rod," Bettis said.
Bettis rushed for 179 yards against Stanford and 178 against Southern Cal. After the Irish edged SC, 24-20, Trojans coach Larry Smith said he thought Bettis was the "best fullback I've ever seen."
"He's a load," Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry, whose Falcons lost 28-15 to the Irish in October. "He's bigger than any offensive tackle we've got."
Said Bettis: "I'm big enough that one guy shouldn't take me down. I take it as an insult if I'm tackled by just one person.
"If they do, I'll make it a point (not to let that player do it again) the next time . . . I may take his number down."