You remember the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers season. It marked the arrival of a fifth Lombardi Trophy in Pittsburgh, and a fairytale ending for Jerome Bettis’s 13-year, grind-it-out career. It also marked the first season for a promising tight end from Virginia: Heath Miller.
As if being a fresh face in the league wasn’t enough, there was a spoken mandate in the locker room to win it all in Bettis’s honor after he’d reversed his decision to take a bow after a rough AFC Championship loss the prior season. Tears were shed and promises were made. Every man was driven to deliver, no excuses or compromises.
Welcome to the NFL, rookie. No pressure.
“There were a lot of great players, a lot of veteran players, and I had that feeling that I didn’t want to let anyone down,” said Miller with a barely-there southern lilt in his voice. “I think as a young player, I kind of felt that way toward everyone on the team. But especially Jerome."
Bettis is known as a true-blue Steel City treasure, but Pittsburgh wasn’t The Bus’s first stop. He started strong with the St. Louis Rams, but had diminishing impact when new coach Rich Brooks took over for the 1995 season and moved to more of a passing offense. Brooks has said that Bettis was just a little too slow for the direction he had in mind, so Bettis was given the option of moving to fullback or be traded.
It’s worth noting that Brooks took the reins in February of 1995 and was let go in December of 1996 because ownership was not feeling confident in that abovementioned direction. Brooks moved on to the Atlanta Falcons where he went to a Super Bowl as part of that staff, but Bettis? Well, he opted for the trade and became The Bus.
The rest is more than history. It’s Black and Gold legend.
His stats are well-reported: In his 13 years in the league, Bettis logged 13,662 yards and is the sixth-ranked rusher in NFL history. Of course that stat is important, but taking into consideration that he is one of eight players in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards for eight or more seasons, and ranks third with 3,369 rushing attempts, it becomes clear that consistency was the key to Bettis’s success.
Beyond being a jovial yet impactful leader, Bettis was simply a natural force from a physical standpoint. Bettis didn't start playing ball until he was in high school. He thought some football mixed with his membership in the National Honor Society might get him a ticket to college and off the streets of Detroit.
Le’Veon Bell points at Bettis’s short history in the game prior to making his mark as a fullback at Notre Dame, and then seamlessly transitioning from fullback to productive running back upon entering the NFL.
“I think it’s just natural," Bell said. "When you start in high school, obviously it’s just a gift that you have. Something along the way helped him be that type of athlete and have that type of skill that he has, but it’s a natural thing for him. You put a ball into his hands and he’s able to run, make people miss, and lower the boom.”
As a kid growing up in Columbus, Ohio, Bell lived in a house full of Steelers fans. The current running back says he loved watching Bettis grind through the yards and spin past the opposing defense. The Bus was something of an idol, with Bell adopting Bettis’s sleeveless preferences in cold weather.
Bell says that based on body type alone, he and Bettis are obviously very different players. But for Bell, Bettis was a man who made his mark while changing the idea of what a running back could do.
“He was the guy who started the mold for bigger guys having sweet feet," Bell said. "The way he ran the ball, guys would try to go low on him and he was always able to get out of the way of them. Or sometimes when a guy would be ready for him to get out of the way he would lower his head. So he was a guy who could give you all kinds of different looks. And that’s what made him a great running back.”
For all of the results Bettis generated on the field, he's praised with equal passion for his capacity to relate to anyone and instinctively be able to bring out the best in people, regardless of their position or personality.
“I think he was, for me, the glue that bonded that team. And that takes a special person to do that.” Miller said.
And a special person who can move a team into championship action, and even tears, is worthy of that kind of praise, but that about sums up Bettis’s final season and legacy in general.
The Bus’s performance that night in Detroit was inconsequential compared to so many other Sundays you have seen. But yards and carries really don't matter. Bettis’s magic carried his teammates forward, just as they carried him home.
Magic is required for any fairytale, and this weekend at Canton is the equivalent of the big, bold “The End” in cursive font that closes such a storybook.