Exit, Biggest Stage Left

In front of fans from both of his hometowns, Jerome Bettis closed out his career as a champion
February 13, 2006

TWO HOURS afterSuper Bowl XL had ended, Jerome Bettis, the last member of the victoriousSteelers to leave the locker room at Ford Field, paused at the door and asked afew friends to wait a second. Then the 13-year NFL veteran took out a thindigital camera and switched to video. Panning the empty room slowly, he said,as if to himself, "This is what it's all about. Super Bowl. Last time in alocker room." Then he blew a kiss to the empty room and walked out into theDetroit night.

The wind wasbiting and the temperature well below freezing, but the few members of SteelerNation who had stuck around the stadium didn't care. "Jerome! Jerome!"several of them shouted. Bettis detoured from the open door of a warm stretchlimo to walk over, sign autographs and pose for a picture. It was a night fitfor neither man nor polar bear, but to these Pittsburgh fans, a final Bettissighting was worth it.

They called afterhim to stay, to sign more, but Bettis was done. So as he hopped into the limo,the hearty souls started chanting, "Here we go, Steelers, here wego!"

Bettis's twohometowns--Detroit, where he grew up, and Pittsburgh, where he became afootball icon--came through for him big-time in the biggest week of his life.Citizens of Motown feted him for days leading up to the Super Bowl andafterward threw him a massive party, hosted by Lansing's Magic Johnson, onDetroit's West Side. At the same time, Steelers fans, with and without gametickets, arrived by the thousands, vastly outnumbering Seahawks supporters andtransforming Detroit into Pittsburgh's Far North Side. On Sunday the TerribleTowel--waving fans at Ford Field gave their team a decided--and deafening--homefield advantage. As early as warmups, Seahawks players emerging from the tunnelonto the turf were greeted with a cascade of boos; the Steelers got heroes'welcomes. Said Pittsburgh linebacker James Farrior, whose team had to win threeplayoff games on the road just to get to Detroit, "We felt like it was ahome game for us."

Outside thestadium a crowd of Steelers fans, reportedly exceeding 20,000, partied on withno hope of getting inside. "We'd heard they were coming, just to be aroundus," Bettis said. "It was heartwarming. The fans in Pittsburgh--how cananyone dispute they're the best in the world? Everywhere we've been in theplayoffs, they give us an edge. Especially today."

The Steelers'26-year Super Bowl victory drought lent an air of desperation to the fans whomade the four-hour drive to Detroit and to those who watched the game at homein western Pennsylvania. "If we'd lost this game, the cops would have hadto guard the bridges," said 35-year-old Phil Gennaro in Pittsburgh onMonday. "People would have been jumping. You can't believe the total joy inthis town, and that extends to all over the country. It's a national holidayfor us."

Bettis carried 14times for 43 yards against the Seahawks and didn't get one of his signaturetouchdowns, twice failing to punch into the end zone in the first half. Butwhen the Steelers got the ball with just over six minutes left to play andnursing a 21--10 lead, they called Bettis's number seven times, grinding downthe clock to the two-minute warning and effectively sealing the win.

The Bus retiresin fifth place on the alltime rushing list with 13,662 yards, making him asolid Hall of Fame candidate. On the field after the Super Bowl he told coachBill Cowher, "That's it. I'm done," and shortly thereafter announcedhis retirement to the rest of the world. "I am the luckiest football playerever to play the game," he said. "I've been waiting for this day for 13years, and for it to come in my hometown, with the team I love, in front of somany of the fans I love.... You send this script to Hollywood, they'd say,'This is too fake.'"

After his pressconference Bettis was walking back to the locker room when someone likened theend of his career to that of John Elway, one of the very few stars who retireddirectly after winning a Super Bowl. "Elway?" he said, with a widesmile. "It's time for someone else to join the club."

Asked about afuture in broadcasting, he laughed and said, "You think this [win] mightenhance the opportunities?" Whatever the future holds for Jerome Bettis, itmost likely will never match the euphoria of a winter night in Detroit withtens of thousands of his closest friends on hand to share in his joy.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVER  DRESSEDFOR SUCCESS
As Steeltown supporters filled Ford Field, the Bus prepared to drive off instyle after 13 seasons in the NFL.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)