IT DIDN'T take him long to feel at home in Pittsburgh. When the Steelers' new running back Duce Staley trotted to the team's huddle for the first series against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, the Heinz Field crowd of 60,147 rained a familiar greeting upon him--the one TV announcers assure viewers is not a boo: "Doooooose!" It continued throughout the 15-play, 67-yard drive, during which Staley carried eight times for 24 yards and caught one pass for three more. Though it was longtime Steelers back Jerome (the Bus) Bettis who ended the drive with the first of his three one-yard touchdown runs, it was Staley who did the heavy lifting and who ultimately made the difference, with 91 yards on 24 carries, in a 24--21 victory.
"Duce reminds me of a young Jerome Bettis," coach Bill Cowher said afterward. "He's patient, he fits this offense, and he's a hard-nosed runner. Plus, he and Jerome are great for our young team. They're totally unselfish. It's one thing for me to preach that, but it's different for a player to live it."
Indeed, when Staley, 29, was named the starter over Bettis five days before the season opener, Bettis was the picture of grace, saying he understood the decision and would accept a backup role. And when Bettis got the nod to finish off the three scoring drives, Staley was his biggest cheerleader, running onto the field to exchange high fives and chest bumps with Bettis. After the game, as Bettis joked about his curious stat line--five carries, one yard, three touchdowns--Staley pointed to a welt on his scalp inflicted by Bettis's helmet. "I won't be the first guy meeting him anymore," Staley said jokingly. "I'm happy for Jerome, and it's good to be here in this offense. I mean, 24 carries? That's three games' worth in Philly."
Though he had three 1,000-yard rushing seasons in his first six years with the Philadelphia Eagles, Staley fell out of favor when he sought a contract extension during a 26-day holdout before the 2003 season. Not only did he not get the deal, but also his carries fell last year, to 96 from 269 in 2002. In March he was more than happy to sign as a free agent with the Steelers, getting a five-year, $14 million deal including a $4 million bonus.
Squat and powerfully built at 5'11", 220 pounds, Staley repeatedly pushed the pile on Sunday and often dragged more than one Raider downfield. "He was emotional in the huddle, and we fed off his running," said wideout Hines Ward. "I'd release my block, then look over and see him still going. He just never quit."
After the Steelers blew an 11-point lead and Oakland tied the game at 21 with 4:51 left, Staley carried four times for 18 yards in a 10-play drive that ended with Jeff Reed's 42-yard game-winning field goal with :07 left. As Staley ran off the field, hundreds of fans gathered above the players' tunnel and gave him one last cheer. It clearly was not a boo. --Josh Elliott