Jerome Bettis: Class Is As Class Does

Steelers' legendary running back elected to Pro Football's Hall of Fame.

The first person Jerome Bettis called upon being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday was Dan Rooney. And then Bettis called Franco Harris.

It seemed about right.

Bettis didn't call me. But I suppose he would have had I called him for a quick interview.

Heck, the gregarious Bettis would've called you back had you called him.

I wonder if Bettis would have called Rich Brooks, though. He probably should.

Brooks is a coach who's famous for two things: Leading the University of Oregon out of the football wilderness, and trading Jerome Bettis to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I remember the latter well. It was my first draft covering the team. I had just covered the season, and the Super Bowl, in which the Steelers had lost to the Dallas Cowboys, with no thanks to Bam Morris, among a few others. But Bam, the Steelers' big, young running back, couldn't convert on second-and-short, third-and-short or fourth-and-short near midfield late in the third quarter as the Steelers were trying to close a 20-7 gap on the Cowboys.

Two months later, Morris was arrested with four kilos of marijuana in his car, and a month after that the Steelers traded for Bettis.

Tom Donahoe announced the trade, perhaps his finest moment with the Steelers. He traded a second-round pick that year and a fourth-round pick the following year for Bettis and a third-round pick later that day. The three draft picks combined didn't make a tenth of the splash Bettis made with the Steelers.

Only three years earlier, Bettis had been the 10th pick of the draft by Chuck Knox and the Los Angeles Rams. Bettis became Rookie of the Year in 1993 and was also a first-team All-Pro. He had another great season for Knox in 1994, but things soured when the Rams hired Brooks, who rotated Bettis with Greg Robinson and Leonard Russell. Bettis finished with 637 yards in 1995, which would be his lowest output until 2005.

That off-season, Brooks talked to Bettis about moving to fullback, but Bettis resisted and Brooks traded him, and also threw dirt on him with allegations of Bettis being a prima donna.

So we didn't know what to expect in Pittsburgh. But, it didn't take long to scratch the prima donna label. Bettis would go down as one of the most personable athletes in the history of Pittsburgh sports. He was loved by all, except by maybe one. One popular radio host with a big microphone and a bigger ass ran Bettis into the ground at every opportunity. That was the guy's schtick, to tear down legends, but it only made Bettis work harder.

I wonder if Bettis called Mark Madden on Saturday night.

He should have.

I wonder if Bettis called Oliver Gibson. It was Gibson who set the tone, at least for me, with Notre Dame athletes in Pittsburgh. Gibson didn't play much but I considered him to be a thoughtful spokesman whenever given the opportunity. That's when one of the older scribes told me that I should expect it out of players from Notre Dame. And he was right. Bettis came along and was pure class. So were, for the most part, Malcolm Johnson, Travis Davis, Arnaz Battle and Sean Mahan, just to name the Irish who made stops in Pittsburgh since Bettis. That class is personified today in Stephon Tuitt.

I wonder if Bettis will call Tuitt today. They might talk about spanning eras.

Tuitt, one of the Steelers' top rookies this past season, certainly knows what Bettis has meant to Steelers history. Tuitt has heard, from me at least, about the day Bettis got the chance to go up against Brooks and the Rams. Bettis put the Steelers on the board first with a 3-yard touchdown run, and then he ripped off a 50-yarder that reminded us of his startling run as a fullback at Notre Dame, the day he was introduced to the nation in that No. 6 jersey.

But in that first season with the Steelers, in that first revenge game, Bettis staked his team to a 21-3 halftime lead over Brooks' Rams with 110 yards rushing. Late in the third quarter, with a 35-6 lead and 129 yards, Bettis was pulled. He argued -- politely, of course -- to be put back in, but Cowher told him there were bigger battles to be fought down the road.

No doubt Bettis has called Cowher.

I remember when the Steelers changed uniforms from their old block numbers to the rounded numbers before the 1997 season. Bettis and Kordell Stewart fashioned the new look at an offseason press conference and Cowher was asked what he thought. "I don't know," he said. But his smile and eyes both widened as he added, "I just know I like the athletes wearing them."

Bettis rushed for a career-high 1,665 yards in 1997 to lead the Steelers to the AFC Championship Game, but a loss to Denver precipitated a free fall for the Steelers that wasn't corrected until 2001. That's when Bettis was running wild and leading the NFL in rushing by a comfortable margin until the 11th game, when a 16-yard screen pass -- that set up a 21-3 third-quarter lead against the potent Minnesota Vikings -- resulted in Bettis injuring his groin. The tackle by Tyrone Carter not only cost the Steelers their first rushing title since Bill Dudley, it knocked Bettis out of commission until the playoffs.

To play against the Baltimore Ravens a month later, Bettis needed a shot, but the needle struck his femoral nerve and left his entire leg numb for the next eight hours. Bettis couldn't play but the Steelers beat the Ravens anyway, 27-10.

I wonder if Bettis will call Dr. Jim Bradley anytime soon.

Oh, of course he will.

And I doubt Ben Roethlisberger had to wait long for his phone call. It was Roethlisberger who convinced Bettis to return after his third loss in an AFC Championship Game. It was early in 2005, and after Hines Ward sobbed publically about not being able to win one for Bettis, Roethlisberger called Bettis and promised him a championship if he returned.

Bettis returned, and not as "second string" to Amos Zereoue or Deuce Staley, as he had been in 2003 and 2004, but as "The Closer" to Fast Willie Parker. This was a subtle but ingenious move by Cowher which gave Bettis a legitimate niche. And it worked beautifully down the stretch.

I wonder if Bettis will call Brian Urlacher, the most public victim of that great close in 2005.

Bettis rushed for 101 yards and two touchdowns against the Chicago Bears in the penultimate game of the 2005 season, and he famously ran over Urlacher at the goal line for one of those TDs.

Bettis followed that up with a three-TD game against the Detroit Lions to send the Steelers into the playoffs and on their way to their first title in 26 years.

Bettis couldn't have closed any better than with a storybook return home to Detroit. He retired after the game, setting a new standard for all athletes who want to win a ring and call it a career.

So Bettis is now in the Hall of Fame, deservedly, of course. But it's unlikely that this honor will change Bettis in any shape or fashion. He's a guy who, at the height of his stardom, took the time to score me -- a suburban sportswriter -- front-row tickets to a USC-Notre Dame game. And he would no doubt do it again at the drop of a phone call.

Bettis was a unique and precious talent, but more than that a unique and precious human being.

“To think a little fat kid from Detroit who had never played football until high school, to think that I could ascend to this level," he said upon being elected to the Hall, "this is something that I never dreamed of, never thought of.

"My goal when I played football in high school was to get to college. Once I got to college and realized that the opportunity was there to earn a living and help my family, so at no point was there ever a time that I thought to myself that I had the ability to get to the Hall of Fame. That was never the idea. To now actually be here, it’s humbling. Some of the greatest men to have ever played the game, to see Jim Brown, to know that I am now a teammate of the greatest running back to ever play this game, that’s a special and humbling moment and it’s something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”


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