The Love Bus

Feb. 06, 2006
Feb. 06, 2006

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Feb. 6, 2006

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The Love Bus

A favorite of fans, media and his fellow NFL players, Steelers running back Jerome Bettis is looking for final fulfillment in Detroit

First, there is thesickening realization: It's gone. Where did it go? Then comes the wave ofhelplessness: Oh, no. How could this happen? ¶ Those were the sensations thatSteelers running back Jerome Bettis experienced--yet again--as he walked down aflight of stairs at the Firehouse Lounge in Pittsburgh's Strip District lateone night last week. "I lost my phone," a grimacing Bettis announced toa group of teammates and other revelers as he rummaged through the largepockets of his black velour pants. Several well-meaning onlookers joined thesearch. "I don't even want to think about what numbers are in there and whomight end up with it." ¶ If only the Bus were equipped with NeverLost GPStechnology. 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 hasbecome 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 hadmishandled his other cellphone, which doubled as a PDA, and cringed as itbounced down a staircase at Morton's Steakhouse. Fumble! "I had dropped iton the cold pavement coming out of the stadium in Denver the day before, so itwas already banged up, and this time the damn thing exploded--parts were flyingeverywhere," recalled Bettis. "But you know what? Things are about toget crazy, and I'd been thinking I should probably change my number anyway. Soall that did was accelerate the process."

This is an article from the Feb. 6, 2006 issue

In other words,things worked out smashingly. Of course they did. Fate has been kind to thisfuture Hall of Famer as he and the rest of the Steelers have been preparing forthe Seattle Seahawks, their opponent in Super Bowl XL this Sunday at Ford Fieldin Detroit. Bettis's first appearance in the NFL title game will be in hishometown and on Day 36--the same number that adorns his XXXL-sized jersey--of2006. "I can't think of a better ending, and there are a lot of us who feelthe same way," says Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Marcellus Wiley, oneof Bettis's many NFL friends and fans. "He definitely has someone smilingdown on him, which makes sense because I've never seen someone who hasaccomplished so much and yet maintained his humble spirit."

Perhaps the mostpopular and respected player within NFL circles, Bettis, who turns 34 on Feb.16, found out how much those friendships mean following his most embarrassinglost possession of the month--his fumble in the AFC divisional playoff againstthe Indianapolis Colts on Jan. 15, with 1:20 to play and Pittsburgh on its wayto closing out a 21-18 upset. Bettis says his stomach dropped when he saw theball bounce cleanly off the RCA Dome artificial turf and into the hands of Indycornerback Nick Harper. As he watched Harper sprint down the field, seeminglyheaded for a game-turning touchdown, a resigned Bettis thought to himself, Ifthis is the way it's supposed to end, so be it.

But that's not howit ended. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made a lunging tackle at theIndianapolis 42, the Pittsburgh defense held, and Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagtbadly missed a 46-yard field goal attempt that would have tied the game with 21seconds left. After Bettis boarded the team bus for the airport, he checked hiscellphone for messages and was overwhelmed by the volume of calls and theheartfelt 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 carryof your career.'"

Why all the fussabout the Bus? Why so much hype about a role player who ran for a career-low368 yards this season and 137 in three playoff games? Because most everyone whohas come to know the 5'11", 255-pound back as he piled up 13,662 rushingyards--the NFL's fifth-best total alltime--finds that Bettis's quest for aSuper Bowl championship resonates with them.

I met Bettis forthe first time in the spring of 1995, following his second season with the LosAngeles Rams (who were in the process of moving to St. Louis), and was taken byhow genuine, grounded and likable he was. Bettis had insisted on picking me upat the Detroit airport, and he rolled up riding shotgun in a modest sedandriven by his equally unpretentious mother, Gladys. (There was so much junk onthe floor that even then Jerome couldn't find his cellphone.) We went to thehouse he had purchased for Gladys and his father, John Jr., after signing withL.A. and that he lived in during the off-season. Between animated conversationswith his parents and his elder siblings, John III and Kim, Jerome and Idiscussed his NFL prospects, and he told me, "I worry because my runningstyle is not one that's going to enable me to play in the league for 14 or 15years. Who knows how long I'll be able to keep this up."

We sat and watchedStargate on video, and I marveled at my good fortune. Here was a star athletewho 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 theyare or what they do or how big their newspaper is," says Jarrett Bell, whohas covered the NFL for USA Today since 1993. "When I visit with him, whatstarts as an interview inevitably becomes a conversation." Not surprisinglyBettis, whose Bus Stops Here foundation works to improve the quality of lifefor troubled and underprivileged children, last July became the first recipientof the Good Guy Award from the Pro Football Writers of America.

It's hard tobelieve now that in April 1996, following a contract dispute with the Rams thatspurred talk in St. Louis that his career was on the downslide and he wasbecoming a bad influence in the locker room, Bettis, who had rushed for just637 yards in 1995, was shipped to Pittsburgh for second- and fourth-round draftpicks. (The Rams, amazingly, drafted troublesome Nebraska running back LawrencePhillips to replace him.) "Getting traded is a humbling experience,"Bettis says, "because no matter what you tell yourself--'I didn't want tobe there, anyway'--there's a team that didn't want you. Going through that keptme from getting caught up in my early success."

Based on hisexperience with the Rams, Bettis, who'd left Notre Dame after his juniorseason, felt so uncertain about his NFL future that he returned to South Bendin the spring of '96 to take undergraduate business classes. However, Bettisquickly became, in the eyes of Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, the symbol ofSteelers football. "The running style he brings to a team is something thathits close to me," Cowher says. "He exemplifies what I think a footballteam should be--he brings a toughness, an identity, and, of course, he is theconsummate pro."

on jan. 24, twodays after the Steelers whipped the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Gameto reach their first Super Bowl in a decade, Bettis was a busy man and said thefact he was going home to play for a title still hadn't sunk in. He was atHeinz Field with his parents, and they were filming an NFL Super Bowl promotionin which the Bettises were surrounded by school buses and screaming kidswearing number 36 Steelers jerseys. Before the final take Jerome asked a friendto 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, asthe running back climbed into his Chevy Tahoe, on his way to do another TVspot, a grandfatherly man called out to Bettis, "You will get that ring,buddy." At the studio Bettis changed into a business suit to make acommercial for Urban Mortgage, a Pittsburgh home loan company in which Bettishas an ownership stake. "He had a lot of the big boys coming at him, but hebelieved in what we're doing: targeting the minority community," says ChuckSanders, a former Steelers running back who enlisted Bettis after launching thefirm last spring. "I've never in my life met anyone more professional thanJerome. I was hesitant to call him after the Denver game--he had the flu, andof course he had the world coming at him--but my phone rang earlier today andhe said, 'Hey, what color suit should I wear?'"

Sipping hot waterto soothe his sore throat and in desperate need of a nap, Bettis continued histour, ending up at the Firehouse Lounge to honor his commitment to appear onlinebacker Joey Porter's weekly TV show. That accountability is just one reasonthat the Bus is revered by teammates. They also appreciate that he unselfishlystepped away from his starting job over the past three seasons and helpednurture younger backs, including Duce Staley, a free-agent pickup before the2004 season, and current starter Willie Parker. "Hey, it's not theirfault," Bettis says, referring to his demotion. He recalls being treatedcoldly by Rams back Cleveland Gary after Bettis was drafted in 1993. "WhenI got to the Rams," Bettis says, "Cleveland Gary never talked to me. Icould have used some help."

Now all good thingsare coming to Bettis. Given the way this season has unfolded for the Steelerssince early December, when they were 7--5 and one loss from playoffelimination, does he buy the notion that the football gods are looking out forhim? "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 greatperson, a humanitarian, and it hasn't come back to him on the field--then thatline of thinking falls apart." Besides, Bettis believes that regardless ofwhat happens on Super Sunday, his life will be grand: With a one-year-olddaughter, Jada; plans to marry Jada's mother, Trameka Boykin, this summer; andnetworks lining up to bid for his services as a broadcaster, he is as excitedabout retirement as an athlete can be.

At the end of hislong day last week, as the Bus prepared to leave the Firehouse Lounge shortlyafter midnight, Bettis had one more thing coming back to him. "Hey, I foundthis on the floor by the couch," a young woman said, presenting a cellphoneto Bettis. "I think it belongs to you."

Right now, whatdoesn't?


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"He exemplifies what a football team should be,"says Cowher. "He brings a toughness, an identity. He's the CONSUMMATEPRO."
PHOTOPhotograph by Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce3 PhotographyALL ABOARD Following the win in Denver (inset), Bettis was surrounded by Steelers faithful, as well as John and Gladys, at a commercial shootPHOTOJOHN IACONO[See Caption Above]TWO PHOTOSDAVID N. BERKWITZ (HELMETS)PHOTOMICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHYSHOWTIME Bettis's whirlwind week in Pittsburgh laid the foundation for the media blitz awaiting him in Detroit.