On Aug. 8, fans, family and admirers will look on as Jerome Bettis has his bronze bust unveiled at the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. In the final days before he played in a career-capping Super Bowl victory, the Steelers running back, a favorite of fans, media and his fellow players, was looking for one final on-field fulfillment at Super Bowl XL in Detroit. This article originally appeared in the February 06, 2006 issue of Sports Illustrated, and then again in the February 15, 2006 commemorative Super Bowl issue. Subscribe to SI magazine here.
First there is the sickening realization: it's gone. Where did it go? Then comes the wave of helplessness: Oh, no. How could this happen?
Those were the sensations that Steelers running back Jerome Bettis experienced—yet again—as he walked down a flight of stairs at the Firehouse Lounge in Pittsburgh's Strip District late one night in January. “I lost my phone,” a grimacing Bettis announced to a group of teammates and other revelers as he rummaged through the large pockets of his black velour pants. Several well-meaning onlookers joined the search. “I don't even want to think about what numbers are in there and who might end up with it.”
If only the Bus were equipped with NeverLost GPS technology. For as he rolls toward the end of a glorious 13-year career, suddenly in position for a storybook send-off in Super Bowl XL, Bettis has become the NFL's answer to Harry Potter's ham-fisted pal Neville Longbottom. Consider that the night before his trip to the Firehouse Lounge, Bettis had mishandled his other cell phone, which doubled as a PDA, and cringed as it bounced down a staircase at Morton's Steakhouse. Fumble!
“I had dropped it on the cold pavement coming out of the stadium in Denver the day before, so it was already banged up, and this time the damn thing exploded—parts were flying everywhere,” recalled Bettis. “But you know what? Things are about to get crazy, and I'd been thinking I should probably change my number anyway. So all that did was accelerate the process.”
In other words, things worked out smashingly. Of course they did. Fate has been kind to this future Hall of Famer. “I can't think of a better ending, and there are a lot of us who feel the same way,” says Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Marcellus Wiley, one of Bettis's many NFL friends and fans. “He definitely has someone smiling down on him, which makes sense because I've never seen someone who has accomplished so much and yet maintained his humble spirit.”
Perhaps the most popular and respected player within NFL circles, Bettis, who turns 34 on Feb. 16, found out how much those friendships mean following his most embarrassing lost possession of the month—his fumble in the AFC divisional playoff against the Indianapolis Colts on Jan. 15, with 1:20 to play and Pittsburgh on its way to closing out a 21-18 upset. Bettis says his stomach dropped when he saw the ball bounce cleanly off the RCA Dome artificial turf and into the hands of Indy cornerback Nick Harper. As he watched Harper sprint downfield, seemingly headed for a game-turning touchdown, a resigned Bettis thought to himself, If this is the way it's supposed to end, so be it.
But that's not how it ended. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made a lunging tackle at the Indianapolis 42, the Pittsburgh defense held, and Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt badly missed a 46-yard field goal attempt that would have tied the game with 21 seconds left. After Bettis boarded the team bus for the airport, he checked his cell phone for messages and was overwhelmed by the volume of calls and the heartfelt words that awaited him. “It really touched me,” he says. “One of my good friends called and said, ‘I'm not a very religious person, but I got down on my hands and knees and prayed it wouldn't be the last carry of your career.’”
Why all the fuss about the Bus? Why so much hype about a role player who ran for a career-low 368 yards this season and 137 in three playoff games? Because most everyone who has come to know the 5'11", 255-pound back as he piled up 13,662 rushing yards—the NFL's fifth-best total all-time—finds that Bettis's quest for a Super Bowl championship resonates with them.
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I met Bettis for the first time in the spring of 1995, following his second season with the Los Angeles Rams (who were in the process of moving to St. Louis), and was taken by how genuine, grounded and likable he was. Bettis had insisted on picking me up at the Detroit airport, and he rolled up riding shotgun in a modest sedan driven by his equally unpretentious mother, Gladys. (There was so much junk on the floor that even then Jerome couldn't find his cell phone.) We went to the house he had purchased for Gladys and his father, John Jr., after signing with L.A. and that he lived in during the off-season. Between animated conversations with his parents and his elder siblings, John III and Kim, Jerome and I discussed his NFL prospects, and he told me, “I worry because my running style is not one that's going to enable me to play in the league for 14 or 15 years. Who knows how long I'll be able to keep this up.”
We sat and watched Stargate on video, and I marveled at my good fortune. Here was a star athlete who seemed neither self-absorbed nor needy; he was accommodating and engaging. After about a year I realized he was like that with everyone in the media. “He is so down-to-earth and respectful of people, regardless of who they are or what they do or how big their newspaper is,” says Jarrett Bell, who has covered the NFL for USA Today since 1993. “When I visit with him, what starts as an interview inevitably becomes a conversation.” Not surprisingly, Bettis, whose Bus Stops Here Foundation works to improve the quality of life for troubled and underprivileged children, last July became the first recipient of the Good Guy Award from the Pro Football Writers of America.
It's hard to believe now that in April 1996, following a contract dispute with the Rams that spurred talk in St. Louis that his career was on the downslide and he was becoming a bad influence in the locker room, Bettis, who had rushed for only 637 yards in 1995, was shipped to Pittsburgh for second- and fourth-round draft picks. (The Rams, amazingly, drafted troublesome Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips to replace him.) “Getting traded is a humbling experience,” Bettis says, “because no matter what you tell yourself—‘I didn't want to be there anyway’—there's a team that didn't want you. Going through that kept me from getting caught up in my early success.”
Based on his experience with the Rams, Bettis, who'd left Notre Dame after his junior season, felt so uncertain about his NFL future that he returned to South Bend in the spring of '96 to take undergraduate business classes. Bettis, however, quickly became, in the eyes of Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, the symbol of Steelers football. “The running style he brings to a team is something that hits close to me,” Cowher says. “He exemplifies what I think a football team should be—he brings a toughness, an identity and, of course, he is the consummate pro.”
On Jan. 24, two days after the Steelers whipped the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game to reach their first Super Bowl in a decade, Bettis was a busy man and said the fact that he was going home to play for a title still hadn't sunk in. He was at Heinz Field with his parents, and they were filming an NFL Super Bowl promotion in which the Bettises were surrounded by school buses and screaming kids wearing number 36 Steelers jerseys. Before the final take Jerome asked a friend to run to a nearby trailer and retrieve a digital camera from his pants pocket. “I want to remember every last minute of this,” he explained.
After the shoot, as the running back climbed into his Chevy Tahoe on his way to do another TV spot, a grandfatherly man called out to Bettis, “You will get that ring, buddy.” At the studio Bettis changed into a business suit to make a commercial for Urban Mortgage, a Pittsburgh home-loan company in which Bettis has an ownership stake. “He had a lot of the big boys coming at him, but he believed in what we're doing: targeting the minority community,” says Chuck Sanders, a former Steelers running back who enlisted Bettis after launching the firm last spring. “I've never in my life met anyone more professional than Jerome. I was hesitant to call him after the Denver game—he had the flu, and of course he had the world coming at him—but my phone rang earlier today and he said, ‘Hey, what color suit should I wear?’”
Sipping hot water to soothe his sore throat and clearly in desperate need of a nap, Bettis continued his tour, ending up at the Firehouse Lounge to honor his commitment to appear on linebacker Joey Porter's weekly television show. That accountability is just one reason the Bus is revered by teammates. They also appreciate that he unselfishly stepped away from his starting job over the past three seasons and helped nurture younger backs, including Duce Staley, a free-agent pickup before the 2004 season, and current starter Willie Parker. “Hey, it's not their fault,” Bettis says, referring to his demotion. After being drafted in 1993, he recalls being treated coldly by Rams back Cleveland Gary. “When I got to the Rams,” Bettis says, “Cleveland Gary never talked to me. I could have used some help.”
Now all good things are coming to Bettis. Given the way this season has unfolded for the Steelers since early December, when they were 7-5 and one loss from playoff elimination, does he buy the notion that the football gods are looking out for him? “I do believe in karma, but only to a point,” Bettis says. “When I see what Peyton Manning has to go through—the guy's been a great person, a humanitarian, and it hasn't come back to him on the field—then that line of thinking falls apart.” Besides, Bettis believes that regardless of what happens on Super Sunday, his life will be grand: With a one-year-old daughter, Jada; plans to marry Jada's mother, Trameka Boykin, this summer; and networks lining up to bid for his services as a broadcaster, he is as excited about retirement as an athlete can be.
At the end of his long day, as the Bus prepared to leave the Firehouse Lounge shortly after midnight, Bettis had one more thing coming back to him. “Hey, I found this on the floor by the couch,” a young woman said, presenting a cell phone to Bettis. “I think it belongs to you.”
Right now, what doesn't?