Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Steelers QB has made transition into NFL star look like child's play

January 31, 2006

"He's ..."


"He's come back ..."


"He's gotten better, and obviously it's showing this year in the postseason."

It's Friday, three days before the Steelers leave for Detroit and Super Bowl XL.

Tight end Jerame Tuman is trying to talk about how quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has matured since last season -- and Roethlisberger is across the locker room, chucking a mini soccer ball at him.

"He obviously has a sense of humor," a reporter says.

"Yeah, well, what is he?" Tuman says. "Twenty? I don't know."


"Yeah. The kid, he's young. He's like a little 12-year-old bouncing around here."

Tuman, a 29-year-old veteran out of Michigan, talks with his head up, without making eye contact, waiting for the next missile.

"We've done this all year long," Tuman says. "It's a fun game to play, but it's not fun when you're trying to do stuff in your locker and you're not paying attention. You always got to pay attention."

"Has he ever nailed you in a bad spot?"

"Oh, yeah. We've both hit each other in the face. As accurate as he is on the field, he's awful throwing that Nerf ball. Awful. You never know where it's going."

* * *

Looking at Roethlisberger these days -- from his efficient play on the field to the bushy beard on his face -- it's easy to forget he isn't a grizzled vet.

But at 23 years, 11 months, he will be the second-youngest quarterback ever to start a Super Bowl and will be trying to become the youngest ever to win one. Dan Marino was 23 years, four months, when he led the Dolphins to Super Bowl XIX at the end of the 1984 season and lost to the 49ers.

It was only six years ago that Roethlisberger was in high school in Findlay, Ohio, a small town less than two hours from Detroit.

It was only two years ago that he was in college at Miami (Ohio), in the same league, the Mid-American Conference, with Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan and Western Michigan.

Big Ben?

Big Boy would be more like it.

If he gets a little goofy in the locker room sometimes, hey, he's just acting his age.

"We always joke around," Roethlisberger said. "It's business, but it's still fun at the same time."

The most amazing thing is how he has been growing up -- in public, under pressure -- with so few growing pains. He is an astounding 26-4 as an NFL starter, regular season and playoffs combined.

The Steelers turned to Roethlisberger in the second game of last season after Tommy Maddox went down with an elbow injury, and not everyone was excited to see what the 11th pick of the 2004 draft could do. The rookie was all of 22.

"Excited?" left guard Alan Faneca said then, according to the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette. "No, it's not exciting. Do you want to go to work with some young kid who's just out of college?"

Veteran running back Jerome Bettis, who had taken Roethlisberger under his wing from the beginning, brought him in even closer.

"That's a tough thing when you've got a team that's looking at you as a leader and you're a rookie," Bettis said. "You've got to develop that. First of all, you have to understand that's expected of you. How do you understand that if you don't know?"

Roethlisberger won his first start. Then his second. And his third. And so on.

By his ninth, Bettis noticed a breakthrough. Roethlisberger had been robotic, reading the play off his wristband without making eye contact with his teammates. Now he was relaxed.

"He was comfortable enough to read the play, get it to everybody, look at everybody and give them that sense of comfort," Bettis said. "It was like, 'OK, he's got it.' "

By the end of the regular season, Roethlisberger was 13-0 and the Steelers were 15-1.

He couldn't help but be overconfident because he had tasted only success, no failure. He couldn't help but be tired because he had never been through the rigors of an NFL season, only the shorter college schedule.

Looking back last week, Roethlisberger pointed to how rookie tight end Heath Miller handled an interview session.

"He looked like he was about ready to fall asleep," Roethlisberger said. "That's how I was last year."

It caught up to him. In two playoff games, he completed 57.4% of his passes, threw three touchdowns against five interceptions and posted a 61.3 rating.

After the Steelers lost the AFC championship to the Patriots, he grabbed Bettis and begged him to come back for another year so he could get him to the Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit.

"My performance wasn't up to par," Roethlisberger said. "It definitely motivates you to play better and not let your guys down, especially guys like Jerome Bettis, who are in this game to win it."

Roethlisberger came back this season, battled knee and thumb injuries and still went 9-3 in the regular season.

"The second year makes a dramatic difference to any player," coach Bill Cowher said. "He's more comfortable with the offense, and it makes him a better quarterback."

In three playoff games, Roethlisberger has completed 68.1% of his passes, thrown seven touchdowns against one interception and posted a 124.8 rating. He has rushed for a touchdown.

What's more, he made a season-saving tackle Jan. 15, tripping up Indianapolis cornerback Nick Harper and preventing a possible game-winning touchdown after Bettis' late-game, goal-line fumble.

After the Steelers won the AFC championship at Denver, Roethlisberger grabbed Bettis and celebrated.

"I'm glad I didn't have to cry and apologize to him that I didn't get him there," Roethlisberger said after the game. "I feel a lot better I can keep my promise to Jerome, getting him back to Detroit."

Bettis said Roethlisberger had traveled "light years" from last year to this year.

"You see the confidence, the way he's able to manage," he said. "There's not even a question mark who's the leader of the offense."

Bettis, the face of the franchise for a decade, was asked if he was handing off that distinction to Roethlisberger. He laughed.

"I didn't have to hand it off," Bettis said. "He grabbed it. And that's great, because I've never been a fan of when people say, 'Success is when preparation meets the opportunity.' No, you've got to seize the opportunity. I think that's what he's done, and he deserves everything that's coming his way."

* * *

The Super Bowl that Marino made at 23 turned out to be the only Super Bowl he ever made. He never got another chance to win the big one.

Even when he went into the Hall of Fame, some people -- despite all the gaudy statistics he put up, all the records he set -- defined him more by what he hadn't done than by what he had.

Marino called Roethlisberger last week.

"He said, 'Listen. Enjoy this. You're young. You're doing the same thing I did. You think no matter what happens, you're going to get back. It doesn't necessarily happen like that,' " Roethlisberger said. "He said, 'On one hand, enjoy it and have a good time. But take it serious enough that you want to win it because you never know when it's going to happen again.' "

Roethlisberger listened. He said he would limit his media time this week, and he was conspicuously absent at the Steelers' arrival news conference Monday.

That said, if you're walking through the Steelers' locker room this week, watch out.

"We're going to stay loose," Roethlisberger said. "We're going to have our fun."

Contact NICHOLAS J. COTSONIKA at 313-222-8831 or ncotsonika@freepress.com.

Tom Pedulla: None quite like Polamalu

Packers quarterback Brett Favre watches from the turf as Steelers safety Troy Polamalu heads for the end zone after scooping up a ball fumbled by Favre in the second quarter (11/6/05).


January 31, 2006

PITTSBURGH — He lets his hair down. That is the best way to describe the fast, freewheeling style of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Troy Polamalu, whose flowing locks obscure the Samoan surname on his jersey but whose charismatic play makes him readily identifiable.

"He can be at the line of scrimmage, over the slot, deep safety," Kennedy Pola, Polamalu's uncle, says. "It's amazing what the Pittsburgh staff has done with his talent."

He is a 5-10, 212-pound strong safety whose position does not begin to define him. It will seem to the Seattle Seahawks during Super Bowl XL on Sunday that he is lining up here, there and everywhere. His style is so unorthodox, so deceptive, so head-jarringly effective that admiring teammates call him "Tasmanian Devil."

"He's a very unique player at his position," says Steelers coach Bill Cowher. "He combines the athletic ability to cover, the explosiveness to be a great blitzer, he's an outstanding tackler and, on top of that, he's a very instinctual player."

He is everything Pittsburgh thought he could be when the franchise, beset by problems in the secondary, took him 16th overall in the 2003 draft. The two-time All-American at Southern California has emerged as a two-time Pro Bowler who represents one of the most disruptive forces in his sport.

He is perfect for the blitzing, relentless defense that is central to Steeler success.

"You have to account for where he is," says Kennedy Pola, Polamalu's uncle and the running backs coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars. "Because of how good (his teammates) are, it's allowed him to play kind of freely."

According to Pola, highly regarded defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau gradually expanded Polamalu's role as his experience level increased. "He can be at the line of scrimmage, over the slot, deep safety," Pola says. "It's amazing what the Pittsburgh staff has done with his talent."

Polamalu is tied with linebacker Larry Foote for the team lead with 19 postseason tackles, 11 unassisted, as compiled by the club. For the regular season he had 91 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

Those statistics do not reflect how many times the pressure he exerts forces errant or intercepted passes or allows teammates to dump the quarterback because of the attention he draws. Although Polamalu has only half a sack in the playoffs, the unpredictability of his head-long charges into the backfield has helped Pittsburgh level the quarterback 12 times during the stunning three-game march to XL.

Five of those sacks came in the 21-18 upset of the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round, a game also marked by a fourth-quarter interception by Polamalu that, upon review, was ruled an incomplete pass. The league acknowledged the next day the ball had indeed been picked off.

Whatever the outcome, the game within the game that Polamalu plays with opposing quarterbacks is based on extensive film study that allows him to make swift adjustments. He is becoming known for a move in which he turns his back to the line of scrimmage as if he's dropping deep, only to spin around for an all-out blitz.

"I'm a very instinctual football player," he says. "I have to work hard to make everything in this defense and everything in my game instinctual rather than thinking about it."

Surmounting a troubled youth

His gentle voice and placid demeanor are surprising, given the hard edge with which he performs. Dig deeper, and it is clear there is nothing commonplace about Polamalu, who made a life-altering decision at age 8.

He was surrounded by drugs and crime as he grew up in Santa Ana, Calif., south of Los Angeles, the youngest of five children. His mother, Suila, was divorced and could not keep him out of trouble. Polamalu admits that he engaged in criminal activity.

"As an 8-year-old, that's really young to start breaking into houses and doing things like that," he says.

He visited his uncle, Salu Polamalu, and his cousins during that summer in Tenmile, Ore., about 150 miles north of the California border, and never left.

"When the sun shines in Oregon," Polamalu says, "there is no more beautiful place."

Polamalu's uncle and aunt, Shelley, live on a lush 12-acre spread with a river running through it. There was fishing off the dock and water skiing and so many people who reached out to a boy who desperately needed their love and support.

As Polamalu says with a smile, "It was a community effort to raise me."

The youngster who had been on a fast track to juvenile delinquency soon became serious-minded and focused.

"He always had goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, yearly goals," his aunt says.
One set of goals for academics, one for athletics.

"I've always set my goals so high, I've never attained them. I still do that now," Polamalu says. "Like they say, you shoot for the moon, and you land among the stars. It's kind of like that."

The battle within far greater

Polamalu is driven to play his position as well as he possibly can.

He approached fellow safety John Lynch of the AFC rival Denver Broncos to compare notes at last year's Pro Bowl. He also made a tape of the league's top safeties, including Lynch and the Dallas Cowboys' Roy Williams, that he studied last offseason. He wanted to see what they did well but also learn from their mistakes when they were caught out of position.

"Anybody who knows me," Polamalu says, "knows I'm passionate about everything I do, whether it's woodworking, spending time with my wife (Theodora) or fly-fishing."

He will not view Seattle as his greatest opponent Sunday. As he sees it, he must win the battle within.

"The great thing about football," he says, "is the test of will, the test of facing your fears of making a mistake or getting injured or being critiqued by people and letting that affect you."

To that end, he prays throughout each game. "I'm in constant conversation with God," he says, adding, "My prayer is not to let anything affect me."

Although Polamalu is known for huge hits, he is just as likely to help an opponent to his feet, much the way the small community of Tenmile, Ore., reached out to him so many formative years ago.

Polamalu locks on to his long locks

PITTSBURGH — Time for a trim?

Troy Polamalu is long past due for a clipping. He last went for a haircut in 2000, at the insistence of one of his Southern California coaches.
His curly locks cascade well below his shoulders during games, all but obscuring the name on the back of his jersey.

His 'do, of course, makes him easily identifiable, and he's comfortable with the look, no matter how uncomfortable it must be during the heat of summer training camp.

He regards the length of his hair as a tribute to his Samoan heritage."It's become like a fifth appendage to me," Polamalu says.

The look, he makes clear, will probably not change soon. "I'm not living 10 years from now or five years from now," he says.

Although the NFL is particular about how uniforms are worn, Polamalu says there has never been an objection to his "fifth appendage."

Offensive players such as Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams have had issues with hair extending beyond the helmet because it can give defenders one more way to slow them down by grabbing a fistful.

Fortunately for Polamalu, he plays safety. "I never have the ball enough for someone to pull my hair." — Tom Pedulla, USA TODAY

Bob Smizik: Time to get over playing underdog

Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

DETROIT -- As the Steelers traveled their improbable route to the Super Bowl, winning consecutive playoff games on the road against the three top-seeded teams in the AFC, after each victory someone on the team was bound to proclaim: "We shocked the world."

Those words might have sounded pretty sweet after victories against Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver, but the Steelers don't want to be repeating them.

There's only one way they can shock the world in the Super Bowl, and that's by losing to the Seattle Seahawks.

The team that rallied around its role as the underdog, the team that thrived on an us-against-the-world mentality is no more.

The Steelers are not just a four-point favorite against the Seahawks; they're America's team. Much of the country is rooting for Jerome Bettis to achieve his dream of ending his career in his hometown with a Super Bowl championship. Beyond that, the Steelers have most of the big names, have received more national television exposure and are the team most people are picking to win.

It's the Seahawks who are the underdog, the Seahawks who are getting no respect and the Seahawks who are employing the us-against-the-world mentality. The Seahawks this week sound like the Steelers have for most of January.

Consider this litany of whining just from this week:

"No one wants to give us credit," wide receiver Darrell Jackson said. "I don't really think anyone wants to see us here, maybe because we're not a big metropolitan media [market]; but for us having the second-best record in the NFL and still being labeled the underdog for this game is kind of ridiculous."

Linebacker Lofa Tatupu, sounding like Hines Ward, said, "A lot of people haven't given us a chance."

Defensive end Bryce Fisher said: "The great thing about our team is that we don't care one bit about what the so-called experts have to say. The people on ESPN, NFL Network, the people who get paid to be right, don't have anything invested in our team and our season."

Sound familiar?

It should. It's similar to a lot of what the Steelers have been saying since they faced the daunting challenge of having to win their final four regular-season games and then playing higher-seeded opponents in three playoff games.

But if the Seahawks believe they can walk in and play the no-respect card against the Steelers, a team that has mastered this particular gambit, they are mistaken. Ward, who championed the team's underdog role -- even when it wasn't the underdog -- used the first media session of the week yesterday to reclaim the low ground.

"We don't feel like we're the favorites. That's the oddsmakers' decision," he said to a media throng that stood five deep around his interview station.

The Steelers are the favorite, whether they want to admit it or not. That's not important. Here's what is important: The Super Bowl will be won not by the team receiving the least respect but by the team that plays the best game on Feb. 5.

It's possible, although not likely, that the Steelers needed the motivation that comes from believing no one thought they had a chance in order to win these seven consecutive games.

Generally speaking, though, such motivational devices go only so far. Teams don't make championship runs based on anything but being championship-caliber. If motivation was all it took, Dr. Phil would be coaching and winning in the NFL.

Sure, the Steelers are on a memorable run. But let's not forget they were an awfully good football team before this seven-game streak. In fact, in the past two seasons, there has been only one three-game span in which they weren't exceptional.

From the start of the 2004 season until they lost to the Baltimore Ravens Nov. 20, the Steelers were 23-4. Two of those losses came to the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. After losing three in a row in late November and early December to the Ravens, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers are 7-0.

In other words, aside from a comparative blip, the Steelers have been superb for two seasons. That's a point many, including this column, overlooked during the losing streak.

More to the point, the Steelers have been a hair short of sensational when a healthy Ben Roethlisberger is playing quarterback. Roethlisberger is healthy and will be starting in the Super Bowl.

Which means the no-respect card is meaningless. It's all about playing football, not talking football. The Steelers got to this point on their ability, and it's that ability that can win them the Super Bowl.

(Post-Gazette sports columnist Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.)

Monday, January 30, 2006

Gene Collier: Top 10 Reasons Steelers' Season Lives

Sunday, January 29, 2006
Pittsburgh Post Gazette

There ought to be, it says here, one more appreciative squint at the rear-view mirror before the Steelers bolt for Detroit Rock City tomorrow.

Much of what has happened in the NFL playoffs likely will be swept to the corners of our memory by the events of Super Bowl XL, so while we can still provide one, herewith a seriously unofficial Top Ten list ranking the biggest plays from three consecutive January Sundays on which Pittsburgh's team shattered hearts from Ohio to the Rockies.

There were dozens of others, like Ben Roethlisberger's hair-raising little 6-yard run on third-and-5 in Cincinnati, the first sign of life from a Steelers team down, 10-0, and dragging around a dark playoff history, and Kevin Kaesviharn's pass-interference penalty that shifted the Steelers from the Bengals' 45 to the 5 later that afternoon.

It was from there they took their first lead of the postseason.

They haven't trailed since.

But here are the 10 biggest.

10. Ben Roethlisberger to Hines Ward for 17 yards and a touchdown, second quarter at Denver.

Rolling left from pressure and throwing across his body, Big Ben floats one perfectly to Ward behind two leaping Broncos to send Steelers to the locker room with a ridiculous, 24-3 halftime lead.

9. Ike Taylor intercepts Jake Plummer, second quarter at Denver.
Taylor, who claims he has had 10 potential interceptions clank off his dubious hands in an otherwise brilliant breakout season, steps in front of an awful pass from Jake the Fake to Stephen Alexander at the Denver 39. Play No. 10 above followed five plays later.

8. Roethlisberger to Cedrick Wilson for 12 yards and a touchdown, first quarter at Denver.

Ben pump-faked toward Ward, running a slant from the right. Denver corner Champ Bailey bit on it, leaving Wilson alone on the right border of the end zone. The Steelers jumped on top, 10-0.

7. Antwaan Randle El's throw-back pass to Roethlisberger, who bombed one to Wilson for 43 yards and a touchdown, third quarter at Cincinnati.
Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was Inspector Gadget that day. Wilson said Ben had the option to throw to him deep or to Ward underneath, but "you know Ben," Wilson said, "he likes to go for the guzzler." Uh-huh.

6. Roethlisberger to Willie Parker, a simple short-side screen that went for 19 yards and a touchdown, second quarter at Cincinnati.

Down, 10-0, and the postseason looking perfectly stillborn, Parker took Ben's dump-off and bolted in to defibrillate Bill Cowher's team.

5. Roethlisberger to Wilson for 54 yards to the Bengals' 21, second quarter at Cincinnati.

Shaking loose for his longest reception of the season, Wilson ignited the drive that punctured a second 10-point deficit (17-7), allowing the Steelers to go in at halftime down by three points instead of 10.

4. Bryant McFadden breaking up Peyton Manning's pass to Reggie Wayne in the Steelers' end zone, fourth quarter at Indianapolis.

Protecting a three-point lead, McFadden, the rookie corner, outjumped, outfought, just flat outplayed Wayne at that moment. Had he failed, the Colts would have gone ahead, 25-21, with 25 seconds left.

3. Troy Polamalu's interception that was and then wasn't, fourth quarter at Indianapolis.

The splendid Steelers safety, lunging and tumbling across the giant horseshoe-on-the-helmet logo in the middle of the RCA Dome's carpet, picked off Manning's pass to tight end Bryan Fletcher. But after an extended ("this ain't right, the jury's out too long") review, Polamalu's ostensible victory-clinching play is ruled an incompletion by referee Peter Morelli. Madness ensues.

2. Kimo von Oelhoffen's bull rush toward quarterback Carson Palmer, first quarter at Cincinnati.

Palmer was about to start the day 1 for 1 for 66 yards, but he was also about to leave on a cart with his knee in shreds. Von Oelhoffen almost universally was absolved of guilt except for some idiot Ohio talk-show callers, but who's to say that Palmer wasn't the player best equipped to derail the Steelers' playoff season?

1. Roethlisberger's desperate, spinning, arm tackle on Nick Harper, who'd picked up Jerome Bettis' fumble at the Colts' 7 and set off to the land of Immaculate Receptions, Hail Mary's, Music City and Meadowlands Miracles, et al., fourth quarter at Indianapolis.

Harper scooped it up in the middle of the field, faked as though he was headed toward the sideline, turning Ben around 180 degrees, then inexplicably cut back toward the middle, where Roethlisberger's right arm corralled him at the 42. That play essentially left things up to Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt, who wasn't wearing No. 13 for nothin' that day. His hysterically wide right 46-yard field-goal try was last seen headed toward a mezzanine men's room.

The Steelers embarked in another direction: Motown via Colorado.

(Post-Gazette sports columnist Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.)

Friday, January 27, 2006

Joe Rutter: Play Still Haunts Porter

Joe Rutter
Friday, January 27, 2006

After three AFC Championship game appearances, Steelers linebacker Joey Porter can finally savor a first trip to the Super Bowl and a Feb. 5 date with the Seattle Seahawks.
Even if the first missed opportunity still lingers in his mind.

Despite playing some of the best football of his seven-year career -- he has recorded sacks in all three playoff games, four dating to last season -- Porter continues to be haunted by a play he didn't make in the 2001 AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots.

Had Porter not dropped a potential fourth-quarter interception in that 24-17 loss four years ago, the outspoken linebacker believes he'd be talking up his second Super Bowl trip, not his first.

"If I can walk off the field knowing I left everything out there, I'm not going to be down on myself," Porter said after practice Thursday. "That first time I walked off the field, I didn't feel like I played my best because I had a crucial mistake in the game. I was down on myself."

Porter was referring to a Drew Bledsoe pass intended for David Patten with 6:40 left in the game. The Patriots were ahead by seven points and had a first down on their 20-yard line when Porter stepped in front of Bledsoe's pass in the flat.

"I had a chance to make the play of the century," Porter said. "If I make that interception, I walk into the end zone."

Instead, the Steelers didn't get the ball back until late in the game. Kordell Stewart threw an interception, and the Patriots ran out the clock to advance to the Super Bowl, the first of three they won over the next four seasons.

"I felt like I let my team down because I feel like I'm a playmaker and should make that play," Porter said.

Porter felt better about his performance last January -- "I played my heart out" -- even if it resulted in another championship game loss to the Patriots.

The results, of course, were much better last Sunday in Denver when the Steelers blitzed the Broncos, 34-17, to advance to their second Super Bowl under coach Bill Cowher.

Porter, who had a team-high 10 1/2 sacks during the regular season and was named to his third Pro Bowl squad, had a big hand in the Steelers forging a 24-3 halftime lead. His sack of Jake Plummer late in the first quarter forced a fumble that nose tackle Casey Hampton recovered at the Steelers' 39. The turnover led to the Steelers' first touchdown and a 10-0 advantage.

The previous week, after he challenged the Indianapolis Colts to play a more physical style of football, Porter backed up his talk in the Steelers' 21-18 victory. He had 1 1/2 sacks on the next-to-last drive, including one on fourth-and-16 deep in Indianapolis territory.

Porter's drive to be an impact player this postseason is derived from his coach. Cowher has never tried to censor Porter's mouth or harness the feistiness that once got Porter kicked out of a game in Cleveland during pre-game warm-ups.

"He accepts me for who I am and he knows I play with a lot of emotion," Porter said. "I'm going to go out there and do what I do best. He accepts that, and he accepts how I play. As long as he appreciates what I do, he knows I'll feel the same way about him.

"He's given me more than enough chances to be in this situation. He's why I'm here right now."

Although he's never played deeper into a season than this one, Porter bristled when a reporter asked whether he has anything left for the Super Bowl.

"I always have something left in the tank," he said. "I've never been burnt out. We just finally got over the hump."

And, make no mistake, Porter not only will be ready for the Seahawks, the tank will be empty when he walks off Ford Field at the end of the game.
"You get to this game, there's no need to hold anything back," he said. "Use your full arsenal, whatever you've got. Whatever you've been saving for that moment, use it now. There's no bigger stage, so there's no need to hold anything back."

Porter offered no bold predictions about the game. In fact, he said he'll maintain silence after media day is held Tuesday even though player availability is made the next two days.

"I'm not going to be talking unless someone gives me a lot of money," he said, laughing. "Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, I'm going to be getting ready for the biggest game of my life."

Joe Rutter can be reached at jrutter1234@aol.com.

Today's Most-Read Articles

1. Play still haunts Porter
2. Notebook: Starks gives tickets to W.Va. family
3. One-man Super Bowl dynasty
4. Past losses drive Steelers vets
5. Steelers riding wave of momentum

A big game for the Bus, an even bigger one for Cowher

Friday, January 27, 2006
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It has become a common theme for Super Bowl XL that the Steelers, the AFC champion, want to win a championship for Jerome Bettis before he retires, as though it's some sort of going-away present they can buy at Kaufmann's.

That is almost as preposterous as the notion Bettis, after fumbling near the goalline in Indianapolis and almost costing the Steelers a playoff victory against the Colts, would return for one more season because he didn't want his almost-certain Hall of Fame career to be remembered for a fumble.

When looking back on Bettis' career, which has seen him become the fifth all-time leading rusher in the National Football League, people will remember the battering runs, the way he churned his 255-pound into motion, the little side-step he did after a big run, the 2001 season. They will not remember him for one fumble no more than people who think they will remember a deceased person for the way they are lying in a casket.

The Steelers want to win a championship because that is what they are paid to do, what they are supposed to strive to do, and what they didn't do last season when they were 15-1. It would be nice to win one for Bettis, who is expected to retire after the season. But it is highly unlikely Ben Roethlisberger will throw a football or Hines Ward will catch a pass or Alan Faneca will pull on a counter sweep in Detroit's Ford Field thinking, "Man, gotta win one for JB."

If there is such motivation to win this game, it probably should be channeled in the direction of someone else: Bill Cowher, who deserves a Super Bowl victory as much, if not more, than Jerome Bettis.

Unlike Bettis, Cowher is more remembered for the games he has lost than the 152 he has won in his 14 seasons as head coach. He is more remembered for losing four of five home conference championship games than winning eight division titles and making 10 playoff appearance since 1992, a percentage of postseason appearances not even Chuck Noll could manage.

But, unlike Noll, who won four Super Bowls in four appearances, Cowher is 0-1 in Super Bowls. And it's not just the defeat that is dangled over his head as though it's the sword of Damocles.
It's that, with five golden opportunities to get there, he only managed to get to just one measly Super Bowl (now two).

If anybody needs a victory to crystalize what he really is, it is Bill Cowher.

If the National Football League threw the names of 32 head coaches on a table and told a start-up franchise they could pick any candidate to run their team, Cowher wouldn't last till the third pick.

If Cowher were suddenly a free-agent coach, let go for some strange reason by the Steelers and free to sign with any NFL team, how many owners do you think would flirt with the notion to fire their coach and instantly hire the 48-year-old from Crafton? Twenty-nine? Thirty?

This is a big game for the Steelers, and for Bettis, but it probably a bigger game for Cowher.
Win and he is likely to cement a legacy as one of the best coaches of his era and perhaps find a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Lose and he may forever endure the label of a coach who could never win the big game. The Bud Grant of his era.

That is plausible motivation, in case the Steelers are looking for some.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Bettis juggles ticket requests, TV commercials and interviews

Thursday, January 26, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Related articles:
Veteran Seahawks reflect on previous meeting with Steelers
Fans told to watch for bogus Super Bowl tickets
Suicide ruling in Long's death hasn't ended controversy
Notebook: 4 Steelers must practice plays and new lines
Steelers Super Bowl Mailbag: 1/26/06

His dream of going home to Detroit for Super Bowl XL accomplished, Jerome Bettis is determined not to let it deteriorate into a nightmare of distractions.

"I'll keep it under control," Bettis promised yesterday. "My cell phone is going to black as soon as I touch down in Detroit, so that will take a lot of pressure off of me. I just kind of want to focus in."

Bettis spent yesterday morning making logistical arrangements for family and filming a Disney commercial and last night filming an asthma-awareness ad. In between, he sat down for a few quick interviews and both answered and fended off non-stop callers to his cell phone.
That's just the beginning.

Later last night, he recorded his weekly show for KDKA-TV. Fans had started lining up for it at 9:30 a.m. yesterday morning.

This morning, he's scheduled to go live on ESPN's Mike & Mike show. There's the popular Time magazine Ten Questions feature upcoming.

He and his mother, Gladys, will film a new Campbell's Soup commercial with Donovan McNabb and his mother Tuesday in Detroit. A week from today the Jerome Bettis Super Bowling Extravaganza takes place at the Majestic Theatre to benefit his charitable foundation (Ticketmaster is selling tickets). The tournament features NFL players such as Clinton Portis and Edgerrin James.

Oh, yes, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick wants to designate the days leading up to the Super Bowl as Jerome Bettis Week, and the Bus is on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the second time in the past three issues.

He needs more than 100 tickets to the game, but officially gets only 15 from the Steelers, prompting him to "beg and borrow" from other sources. Former teammate Mike Schneck of the Buffalo Bills offered his two, but no matter how many he gets, there won't be enough to go around. So Gladys Bettis came up with a way.

"My mother's rule is before you can send in a ticket request, you had to go to three games this season. She can really limit it. It draws to a smaller group, and people understand that they can't ask to go to the Super Bowl if they didn't ask to go to any of the other games. But still, there's going to be a raffle for some of the seats because I still can't accommodate everybody."

One of his tickets will go to his high school coach, Bob Dozier. Bettis also will pay to fly Dozier from his home in El Paso, Texas, to Detroit.

Bettis wants to enjoy his time going home to Detroit, but he also does not want it to become a disruption to him or his team. He knows he will be the most popular man in Detroit next week and believes that might actually help the rest of the Steelers as they prepare to play their first Super Bowl in 10 years.

"We still have to play football," Bettis said in the quiet of a back office at the team's UPMC training site yesterday. "A lot of people are saying there's going to be a lot of distractions on me.
Well, you know, hopefully, I can take some of the pressure off a lot of other players. Hey, you can focus on me. I'm not an every-down player, so I think that's very beneficial for our team.

"Everything that's happened to me, it's a situation where, if I was in year one, year two, year three, it would be harder. But in Year 13, I know how to handle it, know how to conduct myself and make sure I'm ready to play a football game. So the benefit I have is experience. That's not going to be an issue."

The hoopla surrounding his parents, Gladys and John, is another matter. It started when ESPN flew them directly from the game in Denver to New York to appear Monday morning on Cold Pizza. They've granted many interviews, and there are many to come.

"For them, I think it will be really huge," Bettis said. "I think a lot of people want to talk to them, want to interview them, want to meet them. I think for them, their world will be upside down.
"I think at some point later in the week, I think they're going to have to curb it because they're going to go out of their minds. But then, they don't have to play a game. There's no distractions for them, so there's no problem."

Bettis spoke with a gravelly voice yesterday, the result of his weekend experience in Denver. He used his inhaler to help his asthma more than usual during the game.

"I got sick in Denver. I think it was the flight. By the time I landed I was in rough shape. The asthma was rough, I was sick on top of that -- and the altitude. It made for a difficult time. I got through the game."

All he needs now is to get through one more.

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Barry Melrose: Sad to see another great leave NHL

Special to ESPN.comArchive

I really hate seeing great players retire. We all do, no matter the sport. But the NHL has lost some of the all-time best this season. Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens, to name a few. Now, Mario Lemieux.

There was so much optimism for the Pittsburgh Penguins before the start of the season. The team drafted Sidney Crosby and signed veteran free agents such as Sergei Gonchar and John LeClair. The new rules, something Lemieux fought long and hard for, would benefit his game. The fact that Mario was even coming back was the icing on the cake. Everyone thought the Pens would be a playoff team.

Unfortunately, outside of Crosby's performance, nothing has worked out right in Pittsburgh. But don't read too much into that regarding Lemieux's second stint in the NHL. Overall, his return was definitely a success. I was in Pittsburgh the night he came back in December 2000, and when you watched him then, he was as good as ever.

So many of us thought his first retirement at age 34 was too soon. He was in the prime of his life. If he wasn't healthy back then, he would not have come back. Now that he's 40, and the game is much faster under the new rules, it was the right time for Mario to retire, but I certainly wish it weren't. I love watching him play. But given his health issues and the state of the franchise, would his playing at this point help the team? No.

Now, the argument will resurface: Is Super Mario the best ever? It's a great argument, but overall, I still believe Wayne Gretzky was the best player to ever play in the NHL. You can't argue against Wayne's numbers and his longevity. Longevity is part of what makes a player great, and it's an unfair argument to say "what if Lemieux was healthy?"

But I will say this: Mario Lemieux was the most physically gifted person to play in the league. His size (6-foot-5, 230 pounds), his speed, his hands, the way he saw the ice -- that physical combination will be very difficult to match. No big man has been able to do the things Mario could do.

As for the future, Lemieux will still be a part of the franchise, doing everything he can to keep the team in Pittsburgh. Bottom line: He's the only reason there is still a team in Pittsburgh. No one has given more to Pittsburgh. They owe him.

So, when you think of Lemieux, think of him as that big physical, presence, think of him as Pittsburgh's savior. Think of the Canadian, skating up the ice with Wayne Gretzky in the 1987 Canada Cup, Lemieux driving up the middle, taking a perfect pass from Gretzky on a two-on-one and scoring the winner against Russia.

Think of Mario as one of the greatest. I'll miss watching him.

Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN.

Scott Burnside: Lemieux's Second Stint Completed Career

Updated: Jan. 24, 2006, 7:26 PM ET

Lemieux's second stint made career more complete

By Scott Burnside

We were there when Mario Lemieux was rushed into the Hockey Hall of Fame back in November 1997, his successes seeming to hang on his shoulders like an ill-fitting coat, as though he knew somehow he had unfinished business.

And we were there, skeptical, when Lemieux announced on Dec. 11, 2000, that he was not done after all, that he believed there was still some magic in the old No. 66.

And we were there again, all skepticism quickly erased, that Dec. 27 when Lemieux's gold and black jersey descended specterlike from the rafters of rickety old Mellon Arena and gently folded into a box moments before Lemieux stepped back onto the ice and notched his first of three points 33 seconds into the game.

So maybe it wasn't just about the money but about something deeper and much less tangible.
The Penguins, behind their captain, rolled to the Eastern Conference finals that spring. The following winter, he captained the Canadian team to the country's first Olympic gold in 50 years and reprised the role two years later as Canada rolled undefeated to a World Cup of Hockey championship.

On Tuesday afternoon, Lemieux closed the circle and finished the picture, walking away from the game once more, this time for good, he said. And what is clear is that there is a natural symmetry to this Lemieux retirement.

There will be a temptation to simply add Lemieux's name to a list of elite players who might be considered victims of the lockout and the new, up-tempo NHL.

Mark Messier, Scott Stevens, Al MacInnis and Vincent Damphousse all retired before the season started. Brett Hull retired early in the season. Dave Andreychuk recently was waived by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

And to be sure, Lemieux was rarely a factor this season. Long before heart problems surfaced (he said Tuesday that he is contemplating having surgery in the next month or so), Lemieux seemed at times out of place, out of sync. He scored 22 points in 26 games and was a whopping minus-16.

"If I could play this game at a decent level, I would come back and play, but I've not been able to do that thus far this year. I don't see it getting any better as time goes on," Lemieux said. "And this is really the new NHL, and it's built on speed and young guys; you can see how many young guys are dominating, and it's great to see. It hasn't happened in a lot of years. If I could still play this game, I'd be back on the ice."

For those who like their departures with a dose of irony, Lemieux's retirement Part II has a healthy portion. After years of Lemieux complaining that the game's skill players were being dragged down by the muckers and plodders, the NHL has become what he wanted, just a little late for Lemieux to fully enjoy.

But Lemieux has earned the right to walk out of the NHL on his own terms. Indeed, he always has set his own clock.

In 1997, tired of fighting a chronic back problem and Hodgkin's disease and dissatisfied with the state of the game, Lemieux took his leave.

At the time, he said he thought he was gone for good, and the hockey powers believed it to be so, rushing him into the Hall of Fame that November, bypassing the normal three-year waiting period.

When Lemieux returned in December 2000, a year after leading an ownership group that bought the team out of bankruptcy, many believed it was merely a dollars-and-cents move, an effort to make sure he got his money out of the team.

It turned out to be about more bedrock issues, like family and pride and a burning desire to compete, issues people believed did not motivate the sometimes dispassionate Lemieux.

Watching Lemieux collect an incredible 76 points in 43 games during the last half of the 2000-2001 season was a perpetual exercise in suspension of disbelief, as though his very presence on the ice defied the laws of time, space and nature.

It didn't last, but even when injuries once again began to take their toll, Lemieux surprised many with the breadth of his passion for the game.

After accepting the captaincy of Canada's Olympic team, a hobbled Lemieux essentially sacrificed his entire NHL season to take part in the Salt Lake City Games. Penguins fans were understandably upset that Lemieux played only a handful of games after the Olympics, but his presence on Team Canada was instrumental to the gold-medal win and redefined his profile in Canada, where he always had existed in Wayne Gretzky's shadow. He was no longer the uncomfortable French Canadian teen who went off to save the Steeltown team but rather a player who could wrap himself in the flag even if it meant tremendous personal sacrifice.

Off the ice in recent months, Lemieux once again has been a surprise, tirelessly and eloquently campaigning for the funds to build a new arena that is crucial to the team's continued existence in Pittsburgh. The team is now for sale, and Lemieux said he will help shepherd the franchise through to a new ownership group. Beyond that? Who knows?

The team, in spite of its woeful state, has a handful of bright young stars led by Lemieux's houseguest Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury.

The Penguins face a long climb back to respectability. But so, too, did the Pens back in 1984, when the shy Francophone named Mario Lemieux arrived in the city.

On Tuesday, Lemieux closed the door to the dressing room one last time, again revealing a depth of emotion that was both surprising and gratifying.

"That's always the toughest part. Being around the dressing room with the guys, being able to play this game. So that's going to be a challenge, but I think I'm ready for it," he said, pausing to keep his emotions in check.

"All I can say for the young players is enjoy every moment of it," Lemieux went on, once again pausing for a long moment. "Just enjoy every moment of it. Your career goes by very quickly. And it's a great game and you guys are all very special to be in the NHL, very privileged, so enjoy every minute of it."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.

Michael Farber: Lemieux's Second Act Closes

Mario the player eventually became Mario the human

Posted: Tuesday January 24, 2006 2:06PM;
Updated: Tuesday January 24, 2006 8:12P
Sports Illustrated

More health problems finally forced Mario to call it quits again.

• MUIR: Pens are now firmly Crosby's team
• GALLERY: Scrapbook of Mario's career
Reactions to Mario Lemieux's retirement

To hell with F. Scott Fitzgerald. There are second acts in America (and Canada), acts even better than the first one, as in the case of Mario Lemieux.

There also are, sadly, second retirements.

On Tuesday, Lemieux said goodbye to hockey a second time, this time more of a proper farewell than he afforded the game -- or the game afforded him -- the first time. The Pittsburgh Penguins center orginally left after a 1997 playoff loss in Philadelphia, escaping faster than the Barrow Gang after a bank heist. He didn't walk away from the NHL, he sprinted.

After battling Hodgkin's Disease and chronic back problems, his hockey immune system rejected the "garage league" he thought he was leaving behind forever, the on-ice rodeo in which players with his glorious skill were not allowed to exhibit it. Almost since the day he entered the league as a pimply 18-year old, there were damning whispers Lemieux didn't have much passion for the game. What originated as a smear, based largely on his languid style on the ice and his diffidence off it, ultimately became an apt description.

If Lemieux didn't love the game by that point, it shouldn't have been startling that the game really didn't love him back. Outside of Pittsburgh, no one seemed to notice, or care, that he had retired. This was not a long goodbye, but a quick good riddance to a player who inarguably was among the 10 best in history. Gone in 60 seconds, forgotten in 60 minutes.

Maybe the gaps in his résumé, a product of his injury and illness, had given the hockey world enough of a glimpse of life post-Mario that when he did bolt almost nine years ago, it did not seem to be the major loss his retirement seems now.

The reason: In his way, Mario II was more impressive than Mario I.

This notion seems so counter-intuitive. Mario II was never a sure bet to be in the lineup, let alone on the scoresheet. Mario I was flat phenomenal. He had only one peer, Wayne Gretzky, during much of his first act, and you could have a splendid barstool argument over which was better in his prime.

Like Gretzky, Lemieux recorded Nintendo numbers. Like Gretzky, he became the foundation of a Stanley Cup-winning franchise, although it took him seven years to win his first Cup; Gretzky needed five. Lemieux once scored five goals in a game five different ways: even-strength, power play, short-handed, penalty shot and empty net, proof that the man who scored on his first shot on his first NHL shift really could do it all. With his reach and vision and underrated hockey IQ, he turned plumbers into 40-goal scorers (Warren Young) and made good Penguins teams into champions.

Of course the Lemieux who returned after a 3½-year hiatus was not the same player. More important, he was not the same person. His first game back, in late December 2000, at Mellon Arena, was an emotionally dappled triumph as his retired No. 66 came down from the rafters. But the spotlights that night felt more like soft backlights that cast a flattering glow on Lemieux, something that had escaped him even during his 199-point season of 1988-89 or the pair of Cup runs in 1991 and 1992.

He had shrunk some as a player, grown mightily as a man. He seemed more human somehow, at peace with his changing skills and himself.

There was an economic imperative for his returning to the ice -- the bankrupt franchise owed him millions and the Penguins were worth more with him as a leader than a creditor -- but his desire to impress his young son, Austin, who had no recollection of his father as a player, seemed as genuine as it was charming. Lemieux had more time now, time for the game he had missed and time for the people around it. He viscerally enjoyed hockey now, and fans began to enjoy him more than they did a decade earlier.

Lemieux had 35 goals and 76 points in 43 games during that wondrous half season, a 1.77 points-per-game average that exceeded scoring leader and teammate Jaromir Jagr by more than a quarter of a point. The question: Was Mario that good or was the rest of the league that ordinary?

In 2000-01, Lemieux had not returned for a victory lap. He had returned for some victories.
No longer the dazzling scorer who terrorized goalies, he was more of a conduit. Lemieux did not control the play, but it almost always came through him. Literally. In Salt Lake City, he opened his legs, like making a dummy in soccer, and let a puck slide through to a teammate in the offensive zone for an easy goal.

Lemieux would be captain of the first Canadian team in 50 years to win Olympic gold, even though he would play in just 24 games that season because of a hip injury sustained in early October. If Pittsburgh resented his scratching an Olympic jones at the expense of the Penguins, he has long since been forgiven.

With Lemieux, there was always something. Cancer. Back. Hip. Now heart. The atrial fibrillation flared during the summer, but his appetite for the game wouldn't allow him to shut it down until Dec. 16, when his condition deteriorated and he had no choice. The Penguins had won the lottery -- the rights to Sidney Crosby -- and he was not about to disappear again without at least trying out some of the winnings.

Other than perhaps Rocket Richard and Montreal, no player in hockey history is so intimately linked with one city, one franchise. Lemieux saved the Penguins in 1984 as a rookie, won them championships as a veteran, and saved them again as an owner. He has put them up for sale as the eternal new arena-watch continues, intent on selling to someone who plans to keep the team in Pittsburgh.

Of course, there are no guarantees. As Lemieux knows better than anyone, sometimes life gets in the way. Those slam-dunk free agents of the summer -- Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, Jocelyn Thibault -- haven't worked out. New coach Michel Therien has savaged his players, and the Penguins have devolved into a dysfunctional mess.

Maybe Mario III can figure it out before the team implodes or moves, but he will have a tough act, Mario II, to follow.

Find this article at: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2006/writers/michael_farber/01/24/mario/index.html

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

AP: Mario Lemieux is Retiring Again

Jan 24, 11:39 AM EST

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Penguins star and owner Mario Lemieux, one of hockey's greatest players, is retiring for the second time, a team official said Tuesday.

Lemieux, a Hall of Famer who won Stanley Cups and scoring titles and then battled through cancer and heart problems in a comeback, will announce his decision at a news conference later Tuesday.

The team official requested anonymity because a formal announcement had not been made.
Lemieux's retirement was first reported on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Web site.

The 40-year-old Lemieux learned in early December he has atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that can cause his pulse to flutter wildly and must be controlled by medication.
Lemieux, the NHL's seventh-leading career scorer with 1,723 points, tried to return a week after being hospitalized with the problem, but it flared up again during a Dec. 16 game against Buffalo and he has not played since.

Lemieux has been practicing the last several weeks with the intent on returning this season but, with the Penguins stuck in a 10-game losing streak and with no hope of them making the playoffs, decided to quit playing for a second time.

He also retired after the 1996-97 season following years of back problems and a 1993 cancer scare in which he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, but he returned midway through the 2000-01 season and has played since.

However, he has again fought through injuries - including two major hip problems - that caused him to miss most of the 2001-02 and 2003-04 seasons. He had seven goals and 15 assists in 26 games this season.

Lemieux, a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee in 1997, led the Penguins - the NHL's worst team before he was drafted in 1984 - to successive Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992. He won six NHL scoring titles, three MVP awards and two Conn Smythe awards as the Stanley Cup playoffs MVP.

Lemieux, who wore No. 66 throughout his career, scored 690 goals and had 1,033 assists in 915 career games. He also became the first major pro sports star to buy the team for which he played, assembling a group that bought the team in federal bankruptcy court in 1999.

Lemieux's group has owned the team since but announced last week it is selling - a possible prelude to the team leaving Pittsburgh in June 2007. The team has partnered with a casino company that is promising to build the Penguins a new $290 million arena if it obtains a slot machine parlor license for downtown Pittsburgh, but there appears to be little hope the team will stay if there is no new arena.

One reason Lemieux is selling is because he doesn't want to be the owner who relocates the team from Pittsburgh.

After his stunning return in December 2000, which surprised even his close friends, Lemieux helped the Penguins to the Eastern Conference final that season but the team has not made the playoffs since.

© 2006 The Associated Press.

Ron Cook: Steelers owner Dan Rooney stayed the course

Tuesday, January 24, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

How's this for a coincidence?

On Jan. 12, 1975, the Steelers -- led by a terrific, young quarterback and an All-World set of linebackers -- beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX. They were able, at long last, to give a championship to Art Rooney Sr., their beloved founder. Rooney, who, arguably, had done more for the NFL than anyone but commissioner Pete Rozelle, was 73.

On Feb. 5, the Steelers -- led by a terrific, young quarterback and an All-World set of linebackers -- will play the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Their beloved owner, Dan Rooney, the oldest of Rooney Sr.'s five sons, will be in Detroit with them. Rooney, who, arguably, has done more for the NFL than anyone but commissioner Paul Tagliabue, is 73.
Might this be the day the Steelers are able, at long last, to give Rooney a championship?
"Nothing would make me more satisfied," coach Bill Cowher said. "Nothing drives me more."

In the warm afterglow of the Steelers' 34-17 win Sunday against the Denver Broncos, on a day when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the linebackers and so many others played so spectacularly, it almost was easy to forget Rooney is going back to a Super Bowl for the first time in 10 years and just the second time since after the 1979 season when he stood behind his father and watched him accept his fourth Super Bowl trophy in six years.

But Cowher wouldn't let anyone forget, which isn't surprising considering Rooney had stuck with him through tough times earlier in his career.

The players also wouldn't let anyone forget, which is surprising in this age of professional sports when business and money routinely trump loyalty and relationships.

"When your owner is a person just like you are and not just an owner," Hines Ward said, "it makes it all that much more special."

To the Steelers, Rooney really is a regular guy, not just the boss who signs their big paychecks and sits in a fancy office overseeing his other multimillion-dollar businesses. The team is Rooney's business. He's at the South Side headquarters every day. The players see him every day. They see him after every game when he shakes their hands after their many wins and consoles them after their relatively few losses during the Cowher era.

Rooney was there again Sunday, offering hugs to his AFC champions. He looked a lot smaller and frailer than his father did back in '75. You almost wanted to send out a search party for him when he got lost in the big, meaty embraces of Kimo von Oelhoffen, Jerome Bettis and the rest.

Ward got one hug from Rooney on the field when both were blown away by the Steelers fans who gathered behind the team's bench and always seem to take over the opposition's stadium. He got another in the locker room and a third on his way to the team bus when he whispered to Rooney, "Love you, man."

I'm guessing Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert and the others said the same thing to Rooney Sr. back in the day.

Is it any wonder that Rooney's eyes were so watery in that Invesco Field locker room?
"This is one of the great moments in my whole history of the league," he said. "And I've been around a long time."

Ward said Rooney was one reason he ended his contract holdout in the summer. Sure, he didn't want to be a distraction for a team that everyone thought could make Super Bowl XL after going 15-1 last season. But he also knew Rooney would take care of him, as promised, which, of course, he did by giving him the richest contract in Steelers' history.

"Mr. Rooney was the first to shake my hand when I came back," Ward said. "There were no hard feelings. That means a lot to me."

Rooney also is a reason Bettis took pay cuts to stay with the Steelers. Bettis has become a Pittsburgh icon, more popular than any player since the Super Steelers. But he also stayed because he knew Rooney would give him his best chance to finally get to a Super Bowl, which, amazingly enough, is going to happen in his hometown of Detroit.

"Mr. Rooney has given us the chance every year since I've been here," Bettis said. "It's just a shame it's taken us this long to get him back to a Super Bowl. He deserves it more than any of us."

Cowher shares Bettis' regret about not getting to a Super Bowl since after the 1995 season when the Steelers lost to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX. He must feel especially bad about the losses to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship games after the 2001 and '04 seasons because those came after Rooney had kept him as coach after the Steelers missed the playoffs in 1998, '99 and 2000.

"I'll always appreciate that patience," Cowher said.

One of the major story lines at Super Bowl XL will be Rooney's loyalty to his coaches. The Steelers have had just two -- Cowher and Chuck Noll -- since 1969. Rooney said he never gave any thought to replacing Cowher after those 7-9, 6-10 and 9-7 seasons even though there was considerable public sentiment for him to do just that.

"Honestly, I never did," Rooney said. "He always conducted himself the way I thought he should. He's a good coach and a good person."

Told that Cowher said he was driven to win the Super Bowl for him, Rooney blinked those watery eyes and said: "That means an awful lot to me. That tells you a little about our relationship. It's special. I don't think every team in the league has that kind of relationship."

There are no guarantees, of course, that Rooney will get to hold that Super Bowl trophy even if Cowher did promise him: "We're not just going to Detroit to be there. We're going there to win."

Certainly, there are no guarantees that Rooney, at this late stage of his life, will get four championships like his dad did, although, with the wondrous Roethlisberger, anything seems possible.

That's why Rooney will enjoy every second at Super Bowl XL.

"I feel terrific," he said, quietly. "But I'm really happy for these coaches and players. They've worked so hard. They deserve this."

On this, one of the most glorious days in Steelers' history, the feeling was mutual.

(Post-Gazette sports columnist Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.)

Monday, January 23, 2006

Steelers step into Broncos' back yard and take charge

Monday, January 23, 2006
By Thomas George, The Denver Post

DENVER -- Most of the Denver fans had already slipped away. Much of what was left in the stands the final seconds were fans waving yellow towels.

Terrible ones, by any measure.

They provided a salute to the Steelers. A goodbye wave to the Broncos.

The Broncos all season talked about going into someone's back yard and owning the place. The Broncos always displayed their desire to do something special in this season. The Steelers, on cue, read the lines, rehearsed them, stood tall and delivered.

It took a ton for the Steelers to hammer Denver, 34-17, in the AFC championship game yesterday at Invesco Field.

It required the Steelers to plunk themselves in the face of the Denver blitz and not blink.

It entailed mixing pass protections, always keeping the front side and passing lanes free, working the edges and working over the rookie cornerback, Domonique Foxworth.

How many times did you see it? Here comes the Denver blitz. There goes the ball quickly from Ben Roethlisberger's hands. There goes the Steelers' receiver on an out or curl pattern. First down accomplished.

When you blitz and do not get there, you get blitzed.

Especially with a quarterback prepped for the rush, receivers who run sharp routes and a rookie corner playing it safe.

"We didn't want to throw the ball at Champ Bailey," coach Bill Cowher said. "It was nothing against Domonique."

Actually, they threw at Bailey, too. For a touchdown, on a pump fake that made him bite hard inside and set receiver Cedrick Wilson free on a 12-yard flare into the end zone for the first touchdown.

Receiver Hines Ward came back to Foxworth: "When you get some balls caught out, you tend to play a little soft or loose and not take chances. We wanted to exploit that."

Oh, really? Let us count the ways.

Actually, let's not bother.

Because it was clear from the start of this game and throughout that the Denver blitz was not getting to the quarterback fast enough and that the cushion Foxworth was granting receivers was way too much. And that meant double trouble. And the Steelers kept going at it. Their third-down conversion success in the first half was comical. Their success at converting turnovers into points was laudable. The Broncos failure to implement a defense that clicked was miserable.

It had become their staple, a defense that could whip the best in the league. A defense that could bring safety John Lynch off the edge and into the backfield or a variety of others that could get there. Bailey, for the most part all season, did his part in shutting down his receiver. That other corner position remained in flux. Denver hid it often with blitzes.

Lenny Walls opened there. Good athlete. Not much as a tackler. Started the first two games. Rookie Darrent Williams started the third game. Walls was back for the fourth. Soon he was gone, set free from the Broncos' doghouse.

So, Williams started the next eight games. Groin injury. Foxworth inserted.

Foxworth started the final four regular-season games. The playoff game against New England, too. And this AFC championship affair.

The Steelers did their homework.

They knew that stability at the cornerback spot opposite Bailey was as good a place as any to pick on the Broncos' defense. They knew that Williams is a much more aggressive cornerback than Foxworth. The Broncos did not do enough to adjust. At some point earlier, they should have backed off and given Foxworth more help and took the game away from Roethlisberger and took their chances with the Steelers' run game. At some point earlier with the blitz they should have taken their chances with Foxworth in press coverage to take away the underneath stuff.

Everybody gets so concerned with the bomb, the big play, the circus toss.

What is the difference if you allow yourself to be killed in a slow and soft manner.

You're still dead.

"We saw a lot of film of New England and Philadelphia where they spread out on offense and were not able to handle the Denver blitz," tight end Jerame Tuman said. "We've been using the tight end a lot lately in the passing game. Today we were being used as extra blockers in pass protection.

"A lot of times, we were the ones picking up the blitz. We anticipated the pressure."

And tossed it back into the face of the Broncos.

A 21-3 second-quarter edge buried the Broncos. The Steelers scored on passing plays on the first play of the quarter and on the next-to-last play of the quarter. Though the Broncos won the second half, 14-10, that Steelers' second-quarter spree proved insurmountable.

"All season we were able to blitz and play sound defense with that and get off the field," Lynch said.

Not this time. The Broncos were blitzing but simultaneously playing it safe.
No one wanted to be the goat.

That got them busted. And beat.

Steelers have a difference and it's the best quarterback left

Bob Smizik
Sunday, January 22, 2006
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

As we know all too well, the Steelers have been here before. The AFC title game, the cusp of glory, is familiar ground to the Steelers. So is the crushing disappointment that comes with it.

When the Steelers play the Denver Broncos at 3 p.m. today, it will be their sixth appearance in 12 seasons in this final steppingstone to the Super Bowl. In four of the previous five appearances, they came away not just losers, but losers by upset on their home field.

Which means deep in the hearts of the celebrating Steelers Nation, buried beneath the outward shows of loyalty, confidence and fanaticism, lies the fear of disappointment.

Why should this game be any different than in the past?

Why will a Steelers team that is playing a third consecutive game on the road be able to do something prior clubs could not do at home?

Here's why.

For the first time in their six title game appearances, the Steelers have the most important ingredient for victory. Forget about the awesome defenses they've brought to these games. Forget about the crushing running games they come with. Those are important, but not as important as this:

For the first time since they've entered the NFL semifinals in the Bill Cowher era, the Steelers have the best quarterback in the field.

Ben Roethlisberger, who should be an inexperienced neophyte overwhelmed by the pressure of the postseason, is a commanding presence in these playoffs. He has not just been good, he has been excellent. It's too early to say with all certainty, but Roethlisberger appears to be a quarterback on the verge of greatness.

While his future is unclear, his present is not. Amid a field of veteran journeymen -- Jake Plummer of Denver, Jake Delhomme of Carolina and Matt Hasselbeck of Seattle, -- playing in today's AFC and NFC title games, Roethlisberger is the clear No. 1.
It's never been close to that before. Consider:

In 1994, the Steelers had Neil O'Donnell. The other quarterbacks in the field were Stan Humphries of San Diego and two future Hall of Famers, Steve Young and Troy Aikman.

In 1995, O'Donnell was good enough to win over Jim Harbaugh of Indianapolis, but was no match in the Super Bowl for Aikman, whose Cowboys had beaten future Hall of Famer Brett Favre in the NFC title game.

In 1997, the Steelers had first-year starter Kordell Stewart playing against future Hall of Famer John Elway. In the other side of the bracket were Favre and Young.

In 2001, it was Stewart again against future Hall of Famer Tom Brady. In the NFC game, the quarterbacks were Kurt Warner, at the time playing like a future Hall of Famer, and Donovan McNabb, a possible Hall of Famer.

Last year it was Roethlisberger, a rookie, against Brady. In the NFC, it was McNabb against the wondrously gifted Michael Vick.

Every year the Steelers' quarterback has been in the bottom half of the talent pool when the season came down to its final two games.

But not this year. In two playoff games, Roethlisberger has been superb.

On Jan. 8, in a first-round game at Cincinnati, he completed 14 of 19 passes for 208 yards and three touchdowns in leading the Steelers to a 31-17 win. He did not throw an interception, and his passer rating was 148.7, which is close to perfect.

In an AFC semifinal game Sunday against top-seeded Indianapolis, he completed 14 of 24 for 197 yards and two touchdowns and outplayed Peyton Manning in a 21-18 Steelers win.

In the postseason, his passer rating is 124.7. Just as he did in the regular season, when he was third in the NFL, Roethlisberger has a higher rating than any of his remaining competitors. Delhomme is 112.6, Hasselbeck is 100.6, and Plummer is 78.5.

Much is made of how the Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer, a journeyman at best, at quarterback. But Dilfer was the exception. The rule is that the team with a great quarterback wins the Super Bowl.

In the past 16 years, 11 Super Bowls have been won by Hall of Fame or future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Aikman and Brady have won three, Elway two and Young, Favre and Joe Montana one. Another was one by Warner, who was playing at a Hall-of-Fame level.

The other four were won by journeymen, but in two of those games -- when Dilfer beat Kerry Collins of the New York Giants and when Brad Johnson of Tampa Bay beat Rich Gannon of Oakland -- the opposition quarterback was no better or worse.

Only twice in the past 16 years has the better quarterback been beaten. That happened when Buffalo's Jim Kelly lost in successive years to Mark Rypien of Washington and Jeff Hostetler of the New York Giants.

At this time of year, it's a game of quarterbacks. And the Steelers have the best one.

(Post-Gazette sports columnist Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.)

Friday, January 20, 2006

Joe Bendel: Master Communicator

Joe Bendel
Friday, January 20, 2006

In each of the past two seasons, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has gathered the team around him and recited, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."
Word for word. From memory.

"I don't know how he knows the whole thing," linebacker Larry Foote said. "It's 10 minutes long."

Most players say it is the most captivating 10 minutes they have experienced. LeBeau begins the pre-holiday ritual by discussing the author, Clement Clarke Moore, and he then tells the team what the poem (originally called "A Visit from St. Nicholas") meant to him.

"It should be recorded and put on a CD so people can buy it," cornerback Deshea Townsend said Thursday, three days before the AFC Championship game Sunday in Denver. "You should hear coach LeBeau tell this story. It is amazing. He's telling us something we've heard hundreds of times -- and he has a way of making you want to hear more."

Added safety Mike Logan, "I looked around when he was telling it this year. Not one guy blinked."

The theory goes, if LeBeau can capture the team's attention with a 501-word poem, imagine what he can do when explaining zone blitzes, fire zones and the nickel, dime and quarter packages.
He is like the E.F. Hutton of the NFL -- when he talks, everybody listens.

"I think the important thing to know about him is that you don't want to disappoint him; you don't want to let him down," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "He's one of those people who don't make a big fuss when you make a mistake. And because he's like that, it makes you want to play for him even more."

LeBeau is the oldest member of the Steelers coaching staff at 68 -- he's five years younger than chairman Dan Rooney -- yet he has a way of getting through to players who are as much as 45 years his junior.

That's why he is every bit as effective in communicating with rookie linebacker Andre Frazier as he was in communicating with Frazier's father 25 years earlier. The elder Frazier played linebacker for LeBeau in the early 1980s, when the latter was the defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals.
"He might be older, but you would never know it," Frazier said. "He's like one of us."

LeBeau has transcended age, finding ways to move forward in the ever-changing NFL. He is credited with creating the zone blitz -- in which defensive linemen drop into coverage where linebackers are typically deployed -- and his weekly game plans are enough to make even the greatest quarterbacks feel dizzy.

Just ask Peyton Manning.

The Steelers made the Indianapolis Colts All-Pro look like a rookie for much of last Sunday's 21-18 Divisional playoff victory at the RCA Dome.

"He always had us in the right places," said linebacker James Farrior, who had 2 1/2 sacks. "If he tells us to be in a certain spot, we know it's going to work. His word is God."

Clearly confused, Manning threw high, threw low, threw wide and threw wildly. He was sacked a career-high five times -- due to LeBeau's blitz scheme with safety Troy Polamalu and the linebackers -- and completed just two passes for 37 yards in the pivotal first quarter, when the Steelers took a 14-0 lead.

Manning quickly discovered why LeBeau is the NFL's version of the "Master of Disguise," as he never seemed to know where the Steelers were coming from. LeBeau's finest work might be unfolding right now with the way he is utilizing Polamalu, who attacks (or fakes attacks) from all angles at any moment.

"We just try to get the best players in the best positions to succeed," said LeBeau, who's defense ranked third against the run and yielded just one 100-yard rusher this season.

Although LeBeau has been in the NFL for 47 years -- 15 as a cornerback with the Detroit Lions (62 interceptions) and 32 as a coach (including two-plus as a head coach in Cincinnati) -- a Super Bowl title has eluded him.

He's been to the big game twice with the Bengals and once with the Steelers in '95, but he has yet to claim the Lombardi Trophy.

"I'm not thinking about those things right now," LeBeau said. "My concern is the Denver Broncos."

LeBeau is scheming to stop the league's No. 2 running game, led by 1,000-yard rusher Mike Anderson and near-1,000-yard rusher Tatum Bell, along with the always dangerous Jake Plummer, who is having his best season as a pro with 18 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.

If the Steelers struggle defensively at Mile High, it won't be from a lack of preparation. And LeBeau will surely pass along one of his favorite quotes: "Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes, the bear gets you."

"I apply that to the game of football," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "But I also apply it to life. He teaches us about reality, and we feel honored to have him as our coach."

Joe Bendel can be reached at joecbendel@aol.com or (412) 320-7811.

Back to headlines

Today's Most-Read Articles
1. A scout's take on Steelers vs. Broncos
2. Staley always falling just short
3. Master communicator
4. Steelers dominate TV ratings
5. Notebook: Smith, Plummer once played on same team

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Bettis close friend, mentor to Roethlisberger

Updated: Jan. 17, 2006, 5:09 PM ET

By Michael Smith

The woman and her husband sitting at the next table were from out of town, you see, just passing through, and admittedly only casual football fans, so they could be forgiven for not recognizing the king and prince of Pittsburgh. Not that it stopped the comedy duo of Ben and Bussie, with some help from their mini-entourage, from having a little fun at the couple's expense, going along with it when the woman asked Ben how his injured hand was feeling.

And when Ben and his boy barely got a smile out of the gentleman when they rather enthusiastically informed him that they, too, were Miami (Ohio) RedHawks, well, that was just the perfect ending to Bussie's day. Earlier, he had received a game ball after running for 101 hard-earned yards in a Week 14 win over Chicago, though he nearly lost his 100-yard game late, meaning Ben had no choice but to give him grief for that -- and for, of course, getting tackled from behind on a 39-yard run -- the rest of the night. But now, thanks to the priceless look of disappointment Ben wore when his fellow alumnus didn't respond to "You're from Miami of Ohio?! We're from Miami of Ohio?!" a fresh inside joke had fallen into Bussie's lap.

The king of the city looked to the heavens and says with that famous broad smile of his, "Thank you, God." Guess you had to be there.

Then there was Wednesday. Bussie is leaving a television interview, Ben is on his way in. Ben sees it as another opportunity to tease Bussie about his ugly halfback option pass against the Bengals that Sunday. Ben tells Bussie that he owes him money, it was such a bad throw. Bussie pays him back all right -- with a smile and a shot to the chops. It's probably the hardest hit Ben would take that week.

That's pretty much what it's like when Ben (Roethlisberger, the Steelers' star quarterback) and Bussie (The Bus, future Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis) get together. They've got jokes.

"We're always laughing," Roethlisberger says. "Anyone that sees us together says we should have our own TV show. It's like when we get together, something just clicks."

Talk about your odd couples. It doesn't get much better than Findlay, Ohio (Roethlisberger's hometown), and Detroit (Bettis'), than the age of 33 with 13 years in the league, and 23 with two.

"What I think it is," Roethlisberger says, "we're almost so different that we get along so well. We've got similarities. We get around each other and it's always nonstop laughter. There are times that we're very serious, but most of the time, when we're together, we're laughing about something. A lot of times we're laughing at each other."

On the serious tip, though, these two are tight. They're both among the other's best friends on the team. To Roethlisberger, who has only a younger sister, Bettis is "a big brother. He's a fatherly figure. A mentor. A coach. A teacher. And a role model."

"There's many times, and I know this sounds crazy, people wear those bracelets that say, 'What Would Jesus Do?'" Roethlisberger says. "There's times when I think, 'How would Jerome handle this?'"

Bettis, naturally, has handled Roethlisberger's arrival and rapid rise to stardom with class and grace. You see, Bettis is the Steelers, a role player now but still one of the most popular figures in team history. Roethlisberger came along last year and took the city by storm. More passes are made at him by adoring female fans than he throws on most Sundays. Some stars might have been resentful or even envious of a young player who's achieved as much (first QB to take his team to the conference title game in each of his first two seasons) and gained as much popularity as quickly as Roethlisberger has.

"He's been nothing but amazing with that," Roethlisberger says. "He knows that he doesn't have much left and he's passing the torch on to me. He's accepted that. It's not like I'm forcing him out, it's more like he's passing it along to me."

Roethlisberger recalls his first day with the team in 2004, after the Steelers drafted him with the 11th pick of the first round. He was carrying his playbook and a notebook. Bettis walked up to him and grabbed the notebook.

"He writes 'Jerome,'" Roethlisberger says. "He writes 'home number' and 'cell number.' And he goes, 'Anything you need, I have. Anything you want, I have. If you ever want to go out. Anything you ever need, just give me a call. Don't hesitate to call me.'"

Roethlisberger called, and the first time they hung out, at Ben's crib, they talked for hours.

"We talked about everything from how to deal with people, the media, how to equal out your time between your teammates, don't show favoritism one way or another," Roethlisberger says.

"I know that he's always there. No matter what it is, if I need to call him, I can call him."

Bettis nearly called it a career after last season, which ended for the Steelers with another home loss in the AFC Championship Game. But after thinking it over in the offseason, he decided to come back and give getting to his first Super Bowl one more shot. Super Bowl XL happens to be in Detroit on Feb. 5, and so one of the subplots of the season has been the Steelers' trying to get the Bus to the big game. The team pretty much has dedicated this season to him.

Bettis told Roethlisberger that he also came back so he could play with him one more time. With Roethlisberger, Bettis believed, the Steelers had a good chance to not only deliver Bettis his first championship, but the franchise that long-elusive "one for the thumb."

"That was unbelievable for him to say something like that to me," Roethlisberger says, "the confidence he instilled in me with that."

Roethlisberger had to pick up Bettis on Sunday. On his way into the end zone for a touchdown that would have put the game out of reach, Bettis fumbled for the first time all season. The Colts' Nick Harper recovered, and if not for Roethlisberger's tackle, Indianapolis would have taken the lead and the Steelers' dream would be over. Likely, so would Bettis' illustrious career. It would have been a shame for him to go on such a low note.

Instead, the Steelers travel to Denver, one more road upset away from getting the Bus to Detroit.

When this is all over, Ben and Bussie, probably at Bussie's wedding this offseason (the one Ben said he'd "consider" attending), the two friends will look back on the play and laugh.

"Things happen for a reason," Roethlisberger says. "I told him that after he fumbled, 'There's a reason that you fumbled.' We were supposed to win the game the way we did, I guess. No matter how ugly it was, we still got the win for Jerome."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Bettis' mom sought divine help after the fumble

Thursday, January 19, 2006
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Gladys and John Bettis sat in the RCA Dome Sunday staggered at what had happened with 80 seconds left and the Steelers clinging to a 3-point lead over the Indianapolis Colts. The dream ending to their son's career, a Super Bowl game in their hometown of Detroit, was dissolving into a nightmare in Indianapolis before their very eyes.

After Bettis lost the ball from the Colts' 2 and cornerback Nick Harper picked it up and Ben Roethlisberger made his season-saving tackle, Gladys Bettis could watch no more.

"She went to the bathroom," John Bettis said yesterday. "She left entirely."

She stayed inside the ladies room, praying, as the Colts advanced into Steelers territory.

"I couldn't even look out there on the field, I was stunned, totally stunned," John Bettis said. "I couldn't believe it was going to end that way."

Of course, it did not, and the Bus' mom left the bathroom only after Mike Vanderjagt missed a 46-yard field goal that would have tied it.

"She only came out," her husband said, "when she heard some Steelers fans cheer."

She also had some advice for her son.

"My wife called Jerome that night and asked, 'What are you going to give Ben for saving the game for you?' He said, 'Yeah, that was big.' "

Roethlisberger got a big thank you from Bettis and the chance to keep the dream alive, the one the Steelers have for the Bus, the same one they have for themselves.

Hines Ward bawled like a baby when the season abruptly ended in the AFC championship game in 2005 because he thought it was Bettis' last chance to get to a Super Bowl. Now, Bettis is one game from a possible storybook ending of his career with a Super Bowl victory in Detroit. Think Dan Marino ending his great career with a Super Bowl in Pittsburgh.

Ward knows a Super Bowl is motivation enough but said the drive to get Bettis there is also real.

"I think every player has been touched by him in some form or way. You know, if this is going to be his last run and he's not going to be here, you want to go out and do everything you possibly can to get this man there.

"He helped me out, helped who I am in my career. He helped Ben out. Every player on this team has been helped by Jerome. That's why I think we kind of rally around that. We want to cherish every moment we can if this is his last year."

Bettis said if that helps motivate his teammates, so be it, because he'll take any extra stimulation to land in his first Super Bowl and win it in Detroit after three losses in AFC championship games with the Steelers

"Whatever it takes, that's fine, I'll take it. The goal's the same. The means, that's negotiable. It doesn't matter what our means is as long as our final outcome is what we want it to be."

He's neither thinking about the end of his career nor about the chance to finish it in the Super Bowl.

"I've done that before, and it cost us. I think we all did that before, thinking of the Super Bowl, making Super Bowl preparations and all that kind of stuff, having Super Bowl meetings, that kind of stuff and it cost us."

That happened in January 2002 when the AFC championship game was played in Heinz Field and the Super Bowl game followed a week later. Now, there are two weeks between the games so nobody has to worry about Super Bowl plans until they actually find out if they're going.

This likely is the final season for Bettis, although he acknowledged yesterday that had the Colts won after he fumbled, "it would be hard to walk away from a last carry like that."

Instead, he likely has, at most, two more football games left in him.

"When you come out and you're not the same football player, then it's a discredit to you first and also your organization," Bettis explained. "They expect the guy who's coming out here like this year, they don't want a guy who's any different.

"If you go out there and you're not able to do that, then what are you? You're just a shell of the player you used to be. That's the scary part with athletes. Sometimes, it's hard to get us to walk away, but sometimes it's better to walk away because then you're not in a situation where you're holding everybody back and you're not the same player you used to be."

Up in the Denver stands, Gladys and John Bettis will watch again Sunday as they have for every one of his NFL games. This time, they hope to celebrate without a prayer being offered in a Mile High bathroom.

"We've been close before," John Bettis said.

"Until I see double zeroes on the clock and we're ahead, I'm waiting. I can't have too many more of these fumbles. I'm an old man."

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.)