The final chapter of Jerome Bettis’ playing career was a dream come true – although it almost ended as a nightmare.
Bettis capped off his career by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl in Detroit, Bettis’ hometown. Three weeks earlier, however, Bettis came within a shoestring tackle of being the goat of playoffs, one of those moments that would be talked about – and replayed nationally -- for years to come.
The Steelers led the Indianapolis Colts 21-18 in the AFC Divisional Round Playoffs with 1:20 left and had the ball at Indy’s 2-yard line. The Steelers handed the ball to the usually sure-handed Bettis, but he coughed it up and the Colts’ Nick Harper recovered.
While Harper raced down field, Steelers fans collectively held their breath (one man actually went into cardiac arrest). Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (who was several yards behind the play when Bettis fumbled) was able to dive, reach out and catch enough of Harper’s foot to trip him up at Colts’ 42, saving a touchdown. The Steelers weren’t out the woods yet, however, as the Colts moved into field goal range before Mike Vanderjagt missed a 46-yard kick that would have sent the game to overtime.
It was fitting that Roethlisberger saved Bettis from an ignominious finish to a brilliant career seeing as how Big Ben had talked the Bus into staying one more year to try and win it all. The following week, the Steelers went on to win the AFC Championship Game in Denver. And though Bettis had been an effective, but less than spectacular back in three playoff games – his rushing high was 52 yards in the wild card game at Cincinnati – he nevertheless got the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan.
For the fifth leading rusher in NFL history, the chance to play in the Super Bowl was amazing. Considering it would be played in Detroit and he was likely to retire at the end of the season, the opportunity was also a dream come true. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick even declared the week leading up the game as “Jerome Bettis Week.” Not to be outdone, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm declared Feb. 1 as “Jerome Bettis Day.”
Leading up to the game, Bettis got the opportunity to speak with Terry O'Neill, the 50-year-old Pittsburgh resident who had a heart attack seconds after the Bus’s infamous fumble during the Colts’ game. O’Neill said the reason for his distress was not that he was worried the Steelers would lose but that Bettis, his hero, would be remembered for that play.
Not too worry, however, because while the Super Bowl itself produced few memorable moments for Bettis (14 carries for 43 yards), the Steelers methodically beat the Seattle Seahawks 21-10. It was one of Bettis’s crowning achievements and following the game he announced his retirement.
Bettis finished with 13,662 yards in 13 seasons, which was a testament to his durability. Though nicknamed “The Bus,’’ Bettis likened himself to a pickup truck in a league full of sportier vehicles. He may be the last pure power runner, a guy who was never that fast but was always tough to bring down. He had quick feet and was built like a bowling ball.
Appropriately enough, the sport Bettis played most as a kid was bowling. The Bettis family loved to bowl and the football star later said his parents used weekend bowling events to keep the kids busy and out of trouble. Bettis often accompanied his mom on league nights and friends recalled him doing his homework at lanes while mom tried to knock down pins.
In high school, Bettis turned to the gridiron, playing at Mackenzie High School in Detroit. Among his teammates was Gilbert Brown, a lineman who went on to play in the Super Bowl for the Green Bay Packers. Bettis was named the Detroit Free Press’ Player of the Year and the Gatorade Circle of Champions Michigan Player of the Year in 1989, his senior season.
Bettis gathered plenty of recruiting attention and signed with Notre Dame. While at Notre Dame, Bettis set a season scoring record with 120 points in his sophomore year. Bettis capped his junior campaign with three touchdowns in the Cotton Bowl as Notre Dame beat Texas A&M 28-3. On Jan. 5, he announced he was going pro, the same day highly touted Georgia running back Garrison Hearst announced he had the same intentions.
The Los Angeles Rams desperately wanted Hearst and tried to trade up with the Phoenix Cardinals (who had the third overall pick) to get him. But the Cardinals wouldn’t budge and chose Hearst despite concerns of knee problems. The Rams settled for Bettis with No. 10 overall pick of the first round. Bettis rushed for 1,429 yards in 1993 and was named The Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year. Hearst meanwhile, rushed for only 265 yards in his rookie year.
Bettis ran for 1,025 yards his second season. After the 1994 season, the Rams moved from Anaheim, Calif., to St. Louis. Coach Chuck Knox, known as Ground Chuck for his love of the power running game, decided he didn’t want to relocate with the team. The Rams brought in Rich Brooks, who had run a slick passing offense while coaching at the University of Oregon. Brooks was less reliant on Bettis, and the Bus gained only 637 yards in his third season. Questions began to surface about his durability.
The Rams were unhappy with him, but he was unhappy with the Rams and wondered if his career might be over.
He reapplied to Notre Dame, was readmitted and took 18 hours of coursework that spring semester. Then, as John Madden would say, “Bam!” Something happened. The Steelers top running back Bam Morris pled guilty in June 1996 to possession of marijuana, which proved to be the beginning of a long downward spiral of legal problems for him. The Steelers released Morris and traded for Bettis, who immediately thrived in the Steel City, gaining 1,431 yards, making the Pro Bowl for the third time in his career, and winning NFL Comeback Player of the Year at age 24.
Bettis topped the 1,000-rushing mark for the next five seasons and in 1998, he was involved in one of the most bizarre officiating incidents in the history of pro sports. On Thanksgiving Day, the Steelers and Lions finished regulation tied 16-16, and Bettis got to call the coin flip to see who would kick off in overtime. Bettis called tails and the coin came up tails. Referee Phil Luckett said Bettis called "heads-tails", however, and awarded the Lions the opportunity to either kickoff or receive. Upon further review, it’s clear that Bettis only called tails, but nevertheless the Lions received and wound up kicking a game-winning field goal.
During Bettis’ first nine seasons with the Steelers, they went to the conference title game three times but never made it to the big stage. In January 2005 the Steelers fell to New England 41-27, and Bettis openly considered retirement. He set a June 1 deadline to give the Steelers his answer and in April, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer he was coming back – and the Bus made his final run a victory lap.
Bettis on the web
Official Jerome Bettis website
Site includes his career statistics, updates on charitable work, and news links.
Pro-football-reference.com: Bettis page
Page contains a detailed season-by-season statistical look at his career.
YouTube: A tribute to Bettis
A video with a series of still photos set to a rap about the Bus.
YouTube: The Bus goes over Urlacher
The Bus flattens the Bears linebacker to score in 2005 game.
Bettis is a commentator on NBC’s “Football Night in America” and on the NFL Network. He stirred up controversy in August 2007 when his bio, "The Bus. My Life in and out of a Helmet", recounted how he faked a knee injury one year in training camp to keep the Steelers from cutting him.
News and Commentary
New York Times: With old college retry, Bettis revived his career
Bettis thought his career was over, so he went back to Notre Dame.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: Jerome Bettis, King of Pain
Bettis moans and groans the day after a game against Cleveland.
ESPN.com: Homecoming brings memories for Bettis family
Going back to his boyhood home is bittersweet for back.
Time Magazine: 10 questions for Jerome Bettis
Before the Super Bowl, Bettis gives a Q&A on retirement, bowling and other subjects.
On his speed
“I was never a fast guy, ... So the little speed I did have and may have lost is not detectable. People look at me as a guy with quick feet and power. Because of that, I'm able to do the same things I was able to do at 26 and 27. I don't rely on speed, never have, so my game doesn't have to change much.”
On his durability
“I would probably go with the terminology of cars--whereas most running backs are Ferraris or Porsches, I'm a Ford F-150 pickup. I'm consistent and crank up every time you put the key in. But I'm not going to win too many races. I'm durable but not the sexiest vehicle to drive.”
On winning the Super Bowl
"It's the reason why I started 13 years ago on this quest, to win a championship."
On the Wolverines
"I was born and raised in Detroit but I HATE Michigan."