Saturday, August 08, 2015

Picture-perfect career for Bettis

By F. Dale Lolley

August 7, 2015

Jerome Bettis receives his Hall-f Fame jacket at Thursday's Induction dinner.

There’s a photo that graces the wall in the press box of Heinz Field that shows Jerome Bettis running over Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher in the snow and mud to score a touchdown in a 2005 regular season game.

For many, it represents a lasting memory of Bettis, who made a living in the NFL by running over, and around, many of the best players during a career that spanned 13 grueling seasons, 10 of which were spent with the Steelers. He rushed for 13,662 yards, the sixth most in NFL history.

It’s taken some time – 10 years since his retirement following that 2005 season – but Bettis, fondly nicknamed The Bus for his hard-nosed running style, will be honored today as one of eight men inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Bettis will be joined by wide receiver Tim Brown, defensive end Charles Haley, linebacker Junior Seau, offensive linemen Will Shields and Mick Tingelhoff, and Ron Wolf and Bill Polian, who were voted in as contributors to the game, in the Class of 2015.

He will be the 23rd person associated with the Steelers to enter the hall. As part of the weekend’s ceremonies, the Steelers will open their preseason Sunday night against the Minnesota Vikings in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, making the weekend a Pittsburgh-themed event.

“It’s going to be a special moment because they’re all part of my family, all the teammates that I played with, all the guys that have supported me and been a part of my success. It’s important that they be there as well to celebrate with me,” Bettis said. “Part of them is in me and what I’ve been able to accomplish.

“It wouldn’t be the same without my teammates there, and the fans as well. There was a love affair that was there with the fans when I got (to Pittsburgh) that was very unusual and unique. They took to me immediately.”

The Steelers acquired Bettis in 1996 from the St. Louis Rams, who had selected him with the 10th pick in the 1993 draft after a stellar career as a fullback at Notre Dame.

Rams head coach Chuck Knox immediately moved the 5-11, 255-pound Bettis to tailback, a position he was unfamiliar with but one he quickly embraced.

Bettis had just five carries for 24 yards in an opening-game loss to Green Bay that season, saving his coming out party for the next week against, ironically, the Steelers.

Working against a defense that was one of the best in the league then, Bettis gained 76 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, helping the Rams hand the Steelers an embarrassing 27-0 loss.

He would go on to finish second to Detroit’s Barry Sanders in rushing, gaining 1,429 yards and earning Rookie of the Year honors. He had his second 1,000-yard season in 1994 – he would retire with eight such seasons – but team success didn’t follow and the Rams fired Knox, moved from Los Angeles to St. Louis and Rich Brooks became the head coach.

Brooks wanted to throw the ball more and Bettis saw his carries fall from 319 to 183 as he gained just 637 yards in his third season.

Recalling their struggles against him a few years earlier, the Steelers jumped at the opportunity to acquire Bettis in a draft-day trade in 1996, hoping he would be the final piece to the puzzle for a team that had lost in the Super Bowl the previous season.

“I was shocked because he had played against us with the Rams and we all thought he was very good,” said then-Steelers Pro Bowl safety and current secondary coach Carnell Lake. “We thought they were giving away the franchise over there. We lucked out. We did.”

The trade to the Steelers revitalized Bettis’ career as he would become the workhorse back of the Steelers for the next decade, piling up 10,571 rushing yards, the second-most in team history behind Franco Harris.

His charismatic personality and bruising style became an immediate hit with Pittsburgh fans and teammates.

“Jerome is an example of what you want as a professional football player on and off the field,” said Lake. “Not only that, he’s just a great guy to be around. He was a team leader. He really gave the team a shot in the arm when he was playing. It was infectious with his play. It really brought us all together.”

Unfortunately, the ultimate goal, a Super Bowl championship, continued to elude Bettis and the Steelers. They reached the AFC Championship in 1997, and after a couple of down seasons, returned in 2001 and 2004.

Each time, they came up just short.

Following the 2004 season, Bettis, then 32 and coming off a season in which he had gained 941 rushing yards despite starting just six games, was ready to call it a career.

“I was very close to retiring. I talked to the team and told them I was retiring,” Bettis said. “I was pretty much done. At the 12th hour, I was convinced to come back and give it one more shot.”

Good thing. Bettis and the Steelers, coming off a 15-1 regular season with then-rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, put together one of the more memorable seasons in Steelers’ history.

After a loss to Cincinnati dropped them to 7-5, the Steelers needed to win their remaining four games to have a chance to make the playoffs.

First came the Bears at Heinz Field, where Bettis made that memorable run over Urlacher in the fourth quarter to seal a 21-9 victory.

The victories continued to come, eight in a row as the team didn’t lose again en route to the franchise’s fifth Super Bowl victory and first since the 1970s.

“It was cool for me to see,” said tight end Heath Miller, a rookie in 2005. “Obviously, I knew the type of player he was. I watched him growing up. It was cool for me to see what a team guy he was and how he related from everyone on the team, top to bottom, everyone in the building. I think he was the glue on that team. It was an honor for me to be a part of it and I’m really happy for him.”

Bettis had just 368 rushing yards and 110 carries that season – both career lows – as he played a secondary role in the offense to Willie Parker. But he scored a team-best nine rushing touchdowns and, as Miller said, was the glue that held the team together through the tough times.

“He was such an awesome leader and person,” said Roethlisberger. “I still to this day, whenever there’s a situation dealing with a player, I think ‘How would Jerome handle this? What would he do?’ That’s how much I look up to him, because he meant that much to me and to everybody.”

Former Steelers outside linebacker Joey Porter, now the team’s outside linebackers coach, was a third-round draft pick in 1999, when Bettis was in his prime. He stayed until The Bus made his final stop in his hometown of Detroit with a Super Bowl victory.

“You see how guys are stars in the league and what they do and what they are willing to do. The way he treated us, he didn’t have to at all. But he did. I always said, ‘Man, if I ever get even close to that status, that’s the way to go.’” Porter said. “He made us young guys feel so good and that’s why we played so hard for him. That’s why when it came to the Super Bowl, the tributes we did, him running out of the tunnel, the jerseys and all of that, it was easy. At that point, it was following my big brother. Why wouldn’t we? He’d been at this thing longer than us and now we’re having a Super Bowl in your home town? It just makes sense for us to send you out the right way.

“Then you see Jerome get one. Nobody gets to write the end of their story like that. Who wouldn’t want to write the end of their story like that?”

And it made sure he wouldn’t go down as just another great player who finished his career with winning a title, something Bettis admits would have tarnished his legacy.

“You would have always had that ‘but’ there. ‘He was a great player, but they never won a championship.’” Bettis said. “To be able to win a championship, what that does is take that ‘but’ away and all you focus on is the fact that, ‘Hey, he was a great player.’”

After today, he can add hall-of-fame player to his title.

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