|ESPN.com: NFL Playoffs 2005||[Print without images]|
Jerome "The Bus" Bettis finally reaches the second-floor conference room at the Steelers' University of Pittsburgh Medical Center training facility and forces a weary smile. It is Thursday, four days before the 13-year running back arrives in Detroit to bask in overwhelming and universal adulation. He's nursing a cold, and his voice isn't projecting its usually lethal enthusiasm.
"I came back this season for an opportunity to win a championship, and for that to happen is amazing," Bettis says softly, adjusting his Detroit Tigers cap. "But the icing on the cake is that it's at home in Detroit, where I started my career, where I could possibly end my career.
"So it's a dream come true."
Technically, Ford Field in Detroit is a neutral site for next Sunday's game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks. But for the 33-year-old Bettis, it is the ultimate home game. Make no mistake, Jerome Abram Bettis owns Super Bowl XL with his irrepressible, super-sized, undeniably extra-large presence.
This week, he will be, well, huge.
Some people are lucky enough to experience 15 fleeting minutes of fame. Bettis is looking at a staggering 10,080 minutes, give or take a few, as the lead story for the week leading up to the year's biggest sporting event.
This past week, Bettis graced the covers of The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated, the latter for the second time in three weeks. He is the subject of ESPN SportsCenter's "Sunday Conversation," and you will find him featured later this week in Time Magazine. On Tuesday, he and his mother, Gladys, will join Donovan McNabb and his famous mother to create a new Campbell's Soup commercial. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is angling to designate the Super Bowl run-up as Jerome Bettis Week. Bettis will be the leading target of the thousands of media types presently descending on the city.
Yes, it's all about The Bus in the Motor City. We'll all be shrieking for relief by Friday -- Bettis included. But, frankly, there is no one better equipped to handle this enormous load. Which is why Bettis' cell phone goes black on Monday when the Steelers' plane lands.
"Got to take care of business," Bettis said. "One more game to go.
"I think it's a good story, but the reality of it is there's going to be two teams there to play to win one trophy. It's not all about me. It's about the best team and, hopefully, we have the best team."
Talk with the Steelers and you will discover that some of them actually seem to want to win more for Bettis than for themselves. And while this sounds disingenuous, there is a genuine love in the locker room for Bettis, even when he is the affectionate butt of a joke.
"I think an XL shirt might be a little too small for Jerome, but Super Bowl Forty is a good size for him," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Thursday. "It's just a great opportunity."
On the sideline, toward the end of the 2004 AFC Championship Game -- a wretched 41-27 loss to the New England Patriots at Heinz Field -- through the tears and his mumbled apologies, Roethlisberger made an emotional, completely irrational promise.
"I said, 'Jerome, if you give me one more year, I promise' -- I can't believe I said it, because I don't like making promises I can't keep, and I didn't know if I could keep it -- 'that I'll get you to a Super Bowl in your hometown.'
"It was a spur-of-the-moment type thing. It was more, maybe, a ploy to get him to come back, really."
Wide receiver Hines Ward, too, was in tears after the loss to the Patriots. He believed that Bettis had lost his last chance to go out a winner.
"In some form, Jerome has touched every person on our team," Ward said. "He's kind of like the big brother that everyone goes to talk to. We pleaded with him to come back for another year."
|“||I came back this season for an opportunity to win a championship, and for that to happen is amazing. But the icing on the cake is that it's at home in Detroit, where I started my career, where I could possibly end my career. So it's a dream come true. ”|
|— Jerome Bettis|
And after mulling it for several months, Bettis decided to come back for one more run. He accepted another drastic pay cut, a role reduced further by the fact that undrafted rookie Willie Parker was crowding an already crowded backfield in his second season. When Duce Staley went down with a knee injury, Parker became the featured runner, carrying 255 times for 1,202 yards. Bettis was happy to accept a few crumbs, about nine carries a game, good for 30 yards per, and nine touchdowns for the season. In all, he ran 110 times for 368 yards in 12 games.
There are only four men in NFL history who have run for more yards -- Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin -- but Bettis never complained about his reduced workload. In fact, he has reveled in the opportunity to win a championship.
"It's been the driving force throughout the playoffs," said head coach Bill Cowher. "We've talked about it openly as a team. I think it's been an inspiration to the team, because he's such a selfless player.
In the playoffs, Cowher and the Steelers have returned the favor. Bettis averaged 14 carries for 46 yards against Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver and has scored a touchdown in each game.
When Bettis lost the handle on the football at the end of the divisional playoff game at Indianapolis (with some help from the helmet of Colts' linebacker Gary Brackett), it seemed he had lost his last chance for a Super Bowl ring. It was Roethlisberger who appropriately, if inelegantly, brought down a streaking Nick Harper to save the season.
"I said, 'I cannot let Jerome go out this way,' " Roethlisberger says he thought to himself as he sized up Harper. "I mean, Jerome's legacy cannot be remembered by a fumble in Indianapolis."
A facetious smile crept across Roethlisberger's face.
"I joked around, saying I didn't even get a thank-you from Jerome. And then today he actually came up and gave me a hug for the first time. I was a little disappointed [it took so long]."
Good things, the Steelers say, happen to good people, and The Bus is good people.
"I remember when we played Denver and Jerome got up and spoke to the team," said linebacker Clark Haggans. "You could see it in everybody's eyes. It just fired everybody up. For him, it's a fairytale to go home.
"You see it on TV, the victorious team wins, and all the confetti comes down, and the crowd goes wild. It's just one of those feelings you take to the grave, and we want that for him."
Ed Bouchette, the beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is the ranking authority on the Steelers. He has covered them for two decades and is the quintessential cynical reporter, but even he has been moved by Bettis' story.
"Somebody has to do a movie on it -- but it wouldn't be believable," Bouchette said. "You open up with Hines Ward crying and it looks like it is all over and that is the end. He waits a couple of months in the offseason and he says, 'Hey, I'm going to give it one more shot.' Takes another pay cut to come back, and for once he is behind everybody -- Duce Staley and this undrafted rookie, too. But he's fine with that; he knows his role.
"But then he comes in the second half of the Chicago game and rushes for 100 yards, and then the fumble [against the Colts] and all that stuff. Last year, they go 15-1 and he figures they're finally going to the Super Bowl -- and he doesn't get there. This year, they've got to win seven games in a row to get there, eight to win. It looks like he's going to get shut out, but here he is."
Indeed. Here is The Bus, prepared to face his destiny. Looking into the potential abyss of retirement for the fifth straight game. By all accounts, the last game.
"It would mean everything," Bettis said. "It would mean, first of all, that I'm a champion. Through every course of my life, in terms of high school, college and 12 years in the pros that opportunity has eluded me, for whatever reason. To have an opportunity to do that would be something I've never accomplished before, so it would be big."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.