Jerome Bettis stands with his bust at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, on Saturday. (Lucy Schaly/The Times)
CANTON, Ohio -- They came on foot, by car and, you better believe, by bus.
They hailed from Detroit and South Bend and elsewhere, but, man, did they come from Pittsburgh. Thousands of them.
Steelers fans, of every stripe, made the pilgrimage to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night. With apologies to Charles Haley, Tim Brown and other members of the Hall's Class of 2015, this was a decidedly Steelers crowd here at Tom Benson Stadium.
This was a Jerome Bettis crowd.
The grassy parking lots at the Stark County Fairgrounds, shuttling fans to the Hall and back, resembled parts Max Yasgur's farm circa summer of '69 and Heinz Field circa fall of '04.
Inside Benson Stadium, Bettis' black-and-gold No. 36 jersey was everywhere, and, of course, Terrible Towels twirled.
"We're in Canton, Ohio, but this is Steelers country!" Bettis said in the opening remarks of his well-delivered, wide-ranging 33:32 speech.
Bettis may not have been the best of the Steelers' 23 inducted players in the Hall. He may not even be the best Steelers running back to don the gold jacket, but few were as popular as the affable running back. Everybody loves the Bus.
Hard to imagine that Rod Woodson, Jack Butler or Dermontti Dawson, Hall of Fame players in their own right and the last three Steelers to be enshrined, were the draw that Bettis was here Saturday night in Canton. Such was the command Bettis held with Pittsburghers affections even nine years after his last game.
Detroit was always home but his bruising, blue-collar, take-no-prisoners style endeared Bettis to Pittsburgh fans like no other in the post-Steel Curtain era.
In his induction speech Saturday night -- of course, he was the last to go; Haley and Brown were the opening act on this stage -- Bettis reciprocated that love for Pittsburgh. He led the crowd, the "best football fans in the world," in a towel-twirling rendition of "Here we go, Steelers!"
"I want to thank you for appreciating a power running game," Bettis said. "Three yards and a cloud of dust was better than a 40-yard bomb down the field."
Bettis' speech stressed his family's role in shaping him from a kid on Detroit's rough west side to Canton.
He thanked his wife, Tameka, and the couple's two children. He thanked his older brother, John, who presented him for induction, his sister, Kimberly, and his Uncle Leroy.
But it was when speaking of his father, Johnnie, who died nine years ago, that the big running back briefly choked up.
"My dad a was my hero, he was my biggest fan," Bettis said, pausing. "He taught me how to be a man. He had two jobs, worked to the bone. Never complaining. Never asking for a break. All that while supporting three children. He was the strongest man I will ever know.
"It's because of him that I am here. When my father sent me off to college, he told me one thing: 'Son, I'm sending you off to school. I'm not giving you much, but I'm giving you my good name. So don't mess it up.' Dad, I hope I made you proud."
It was only the second biggest tear-jerker of the night, after Sydney Seau presented her late father just minutes earlier.
Like his adopted hometown, Bettis was tough and talented. He battled asthma like he bulled over Brian Urlacher in the snow in 2005. He rushed for 13,662 yards, sixth-best all-time, yet had to wait until his 13th and final season before winning an elusive Super Bowl. He toiled for five years waiting to be induced into the Hall of Fame, and Bettis did that too.
In a storied franchise's lore, Bettis ranks up there with Mean Joe and Franco, who sat on the dais behind him.
Along with Bill Cowher, who was in Ireland for his daughter's wedding -- "Raise a pint for No. 36," Bettis said -- perhaps no one is more responsible for the Steelers' renaissance in the mid-'90s than Bettis. It's a winning tradition that has lasted, almost uninterrupted, to this day.
It's why dozens of his former teammates were on hand as were members of the current Steelers, including Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.
"I owe you for life," he told his former quarterback, for making a game-saving tackle in the 2005 divisional round against Indianapolis.
Bettis thanked everyone from former coaches, including East Liverpool's Lou Holtz, Sewickley's Chuck Knox and, of course, Cowher. He thanked high school teammates, college teammates and his teammates with the Steelers.
But in the end it was Pittsburghers, thousands of them, thanking Bettis.
"The Bus will always and forever run in Canton, Ohio," he said.