Sunday, February 05, 2006

Last Stop for the Bus | by Jay

Usually there are at least a few different storylines floating through the ether during Super Bowl week, but this year there's only one dominant theme: Jerome Bettis, the grizzled and garrulous warhorse of the Pittsburgh Steelers, returning to his hometown of Detroit to hopefully cap off a magnificent pro career with a championship ring.

He only played two full seasons for the Irish, but Bettis remains one of the most popular players to ever grace the field at the house that Rock built, and one of the most lovable and entertaining players in the history of the game. I don't really have a dog in the hunt today, but I'll be rooting for the Steelers and for Jerome, and I suspect a lot of other neutral-party domers will be doing the same.

Big, lovable, always with a smile on his face, he's a teddy bear with a fire in his belly, built like a gas pump, a fullback playing tailback, dishing out laughter and pain in equal measures. That's how I remember the Bus. I once saw him riding a Honda scooter around campus, with the wheel fenders scraping the ground under the weight, joking with pedestrians as he bumped and sputtered along the sidewalk.

But he was quite nimble for his size, and quickly became the featured back in a crowded Lou Holtz backfield. Bettis carried only 15 times in his freshman year for the Irish but was so impressive in averaging 7.7 yards per attempt that coach Lou Holtz handed him the starting fullback job at the start of spring practice and switched Rod Culver to tailback.

"We saw something in him as a freshman that led us to be believe he would be an excellent fullback," Holtz said. "He's a natural there. He loves the game. He doesn't care whether he blocks or whether he carries the football." He's very intelligent, an excellent competitor, always upbeat and the players like him."

When Bettis was highly recruited out of Mackenzie High School in Detroit, he wasn't sure if he wanted to play linebacker or fullback in college. He averaged 15 tackles a game in his senior year at middle linebacker.

His punishing running style, reminiscent of Pro Football Hall of Fame back Earl Campbell, made up his mind for him.

"Now, I've seen the possibilities in the fullback position," Bettis said. "I can do as much hitting at fullback as I can at linebacker. I can inflict as much punishment while I'm carrying the ball.

"I'll go for the dirty yards, down in the trenches. If I can bust through (the line) as fast as I can and take sombody with me, it always pumps me up. I like to inflict a little pain on people."

In 1991, as a sophomore, he had 23 touchdowns and set a school record for most points and touchdowns, rushing for 972 yards, at a 5.8 yards per carry clip. In his first college start against Indiana, he ripped off runs of 40, 25, and 14 yards and piled up 111 yards on only 10 carries. Against Southern Cal, he tore up the turf for 178 yards and two touchdowns, propelling himself into the Heisman conversation and into the hearts of Irish fans everywhere. As the Chicago Trib wrote at the time:
Watching Jerome Bettis roll over linemen, bash linebackers and strike fear while rumbling toward mere defensive backs, it is hard to imagine there was a time he left the game bruised, battered and whimpering.

He will be the first test for the Michigan defense without linebacker Erick Anderson when the No. 6 Wolverines try to stop No. 3 Notre Dame on Saturday.

If Bettis is not slowed, it opens up the Notre Dame offense. When he plows toward the line-with or without the ball-he freezes linebackers a half-step. That allows the pitch or the handoff to a tailback out wide, quarterback Rick Mirer more time to throw or to tuck it and keep on the option.

But the 250-pound fullback has been considered a crybaby. That's how his grandmother described him as a child.

As a kid growing up in the rough streets on the west side of Detroit, Bettis tried to hang out with his brother, Johnnie, who was four years older, and Johnnie's group of friends, especially when they played football.

"I was one of the littler guys in the group and I hardly got a chance to play," Bettis recalls. "When I did, they'd hit me on the side of the head and I'd get to crying and my brother would tell me to get out.

"I'd go get my mom, my mom would get my brother and tell him he couldn't play unless I played. That made him mad so he'd come in the house and hit me again. I'd be crying with a big knot on my head and he'd keep telling me how I would have to get tougher and tougher if I wanted to play."

The boys played football on the street and on the narrow strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk. It was a hybrid form of touch and tackle.

"It was tackle on the grass, touch on the street, but they'd still hit you on the cement," said Bettis. "The only equipment we had was a football. I still have a lot of battle scars from that."

Bettis said there came a time when he got tired of being beaten up.

"I made it a point to try to hit those guys back," he said. "I told myself, `Next time I get the ball, I'm going to try and find them, and when I find them I'm going to give them a forearm or something.'

"That's how I picked up always wanting to hit somebody. As a kid carrying the ball on the street, I was always looking for somebody to hit out there."

Bettis loves to punish. A onetime noseguard and linebacker, he makes it his trademark.

"Inflicting pain is the most important thing as a fullback," he says. "If that changes, that changes me as a runner.

"The only way I can be effective is if I pound it in there. I need to be able to hit somebody. It fuels me. It gets my adrenaline pumping."

A native son of Detroit, it was surprising he escaped the clutches of Ann Arbor and ultimately cast his lot with the Irish.

To Moeller's chagrin, Bettis-like Mirer and Culver-just missed wearing the maize and blue instead of the blue and gold.

Bettis didn't make up his mind until he woke up on signing day.

"The night before I was in my room and weighed both schools," he said. "In academics, they were even; in athletics, they were about even. I couldn't find anything to go on so I told myself I would sleep on it."

When he awakened at 7:30 a.m., the first thing he did was put on a Notre Dame hat and walked into the kitchen to show his parents.

Bettis can't really explain how he came to choose Notre Dame over Michigan. He was a Wolverines fan his entire life and he didn't make his decision until he awoke on signing day, grabbed a Notre Dame cap next to the Michigan cap on his chest of draws and told his parents.

"To be truthful, I have no reason why I shouldn't have been at Michigan," he says. "All indications led me to Michigan and I can't explain the sudden change in coming here, but it was the best decision I ever made."

His best highlights of his college career had to be the two bowl games, both of which he dominated: first Florida in the '92 Sugar Bowl, and Texas A&M in the '93 Cotton. In each game he scored three touchdowns, was named the bowl MVP, and pretty much carried the Irish on his back.
"Their offensive linemen were the fastest and best I've seen," A&M junior linebacker Jason Atkinson said. "And their backs ran hard. Bettis wasn't as hard-nosed as everyone said. He was faster than I expected."
(An amazing sidenote about games in the Holtz era: there were so many good running backs on those teams, but despite Bettis' dominance Lou still spread the carries around quite a bit. The rushing box score for the Cotton Bowl reads: Bettis 16-150, Culver 13-93, T. Brooks 13-68. Quite a difference from today's conventional wisdom, and its reliance on one 'feature' back. )

After the Cotton Bowl, Bettis faced a tough choice in deciding to go pro or return for his senior year. He had a hardscrabble life growing up, and in the end, it was financial concerns -- plus a lingering foot injury his junior year, a reminder of the short window and flickering fate of this chosen career -- that caused him to jump to the NFL and forego his senior year.

The decision wasn't easy for him.

"I made a commitment to the guys on the team, guys I sweated with, bled with and cried with. To leave them has to hurt in a way, but I think they understand."

Bettis, whose father works two jobs, said money wasn't the only consideration in his decision to enter the draft. He suffered a sprained ankle last fall, and although he played through the gimpiness, it made him realize the fragility of a football player's career, particularly one who plays fullback.

"We will respect (Bettis' and Carter's) decision and wish them well," Holtz said when reached by telephone. "I hope they still realize the importance of a Notre Dame degree, and will pursue it vigorously. When they receive their degree, I will be satisfied with their decision.
Interestingly, Bettis has already returned once to campus to take some more classes, but still hasn't finished out his degree. A New York Times article the other day documented Bettis' 'old college try'.

Bettis returned to Notre Dame in time for the spring semester of 1996 and marched into the office of Sam Gaglio, assistant dean in the Mendoza College of Business. If Bettis was really going to quit football, he was going to need his college degree. Having left Notre Dame as a junior in 1993 for the N.F.L., he filed a readmit application and wrote a letter to the faculty. He started mapping out a class schedule as if it were a run up the middle.

"Jerome came back with the enthusiasm of a normal student," Gaglio said. "That's one of the reasons the faculty was willing to readmit him. He made it a point of fact that he was going to be a serious student. He wasn't going to come in and just get credit."

Although Bettis's student records are confidential, he once told reporters that he took courses that semester in history, philosophy, marketing and business. In all, he said, he took 18 credits, as heavy a load as the 255-pound running back has ever carried. Bettis walked to class amid the maple trees. He lived in an apartment off campus. He exercised with Notre Dame football players on the track and in the weight room.

Would he return to finish it off? Don't bet against it.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.In the meantime, Bettis has been feted this week like no other player in recent Super Bowl memory. He's such a great advocate for his beaten-down hometown, and Detroit adores him in return. Knowing how much this stage means to him, members of the Steelers donned green #6 'Bettis' jerseys in his honor when they arrived in town.
By the time Bettis and five Steelers teammates (all still wearing those kelly green jerseys) showed up to talk about Sunday's showdown with the Seattle Seahawks, almost 50 print and broadcast media were waiting for him, three times the amount at any of the other tables. "Hello everybody! Welcome to Detroit!'' his booming voice trailing off to laughter. Any doubt that Jerome Bettis wasn't already going to be the official feel-good story of Super Bowl XL, was erased by the time the Steelers' interviews were over Monday afternoon.

His coach and teammates gushed over the NFL's fifth-leading all-time rusher, about his talent and commitment, leadership and personality.

The 33-year-old Detroit native talked with almost wide-eyed wonder about how much being in this game meant to him. He told story after story about his childhood, his parents, his school teachers and being a bowler before he was a football player. There was a kind of open sincerity that's usually missing from these big, scripted events filled with athletes who seem more like corporate suits than entertainers. Bettis talked time and again about how both he, and this city, need this game - one to cap a career that's missing a Super Bowl ring, the other to convince America it's on the way back from decades of decline.

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"If I'm the ambassador, I'm willing to carry that flag, because I love the city,'' Bettis said. "(The Super Bowl) gives the country an opportunity to see Detroit in a better light. From a corporate standpoint, you didn't want to have your headquarters here in Detroit, and I think it's important the thought be changed, and it takes an event like this to change the minds of people, to get them to actually come here.

"I don't think Detroit was on the destination list most people have. It needed to get this boost for them to see, hey, Detroit is on the upswing. We all have bumps in the road, but I think Detroit will rise as a great city, and I'm committed to this city. I'm willing to put my resources into this city and try to make it the city it can be.''

And it's not just lip service. The kid from Detroit, whose mom was first reluctant to let him play the game, has turned his talent and his opportunity into something great, a charity called The Bus Stops Here, which helps out about 500 inner city Detroit kids each year.

So tip your hat today to one of the game's greatest ambassadors, and one of the Irish's favorite sons. When Jerome Bettis takes a handoff today, and churns his legs, and hits the line, and the Seattle linebackers brace for the collision, and grit their teeth, and wince at the impact, and the Bus is tackled, finally, and he pops right back up, and smiles, and pumps his fists, because you know, he almost got an extra yard on that run...well, you're watching someone for whom the struggle of life is still joyful, equal parts pain and laughter, and in the end, you come home...and it all works out just fine.

Update, 10:22 PM:

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