PITTSBURGH – The cameras had left; the microphones, too. All that was left around Jerome Bettis's locker were three newspaper reporters, so the big guy could relax … and answer trivia.
Bettis has rushed for 100 yards 50 times with the Pittsburgh Steelers. What's the Steelers' record in those games?
"Out of 50 games?" Bettis repeated. "I would say probably 42 and 8."
Right on the money. Thanks for playing, Jerome. Here's your prize:
Yes, the reporters have given Bettis one more start. Coach Bill Cowher wasn't sure what he was going to do as Bettis approached his final home game, but Cowher has been badgered into it by reporters – or so they'd like to think so.
It's the least they could to one of the most easygoing, eloquent and insightful players in team history. Oh, and Bettis is intelligent, but the trivia answer gave that away.
Is this the last start? Is Bettis sure about that? Is he retiring for certain after the season?
"I don't know," he said.
What's he waiting for?
"Same thing as last year, to get myself to the point where I can actually think about it and make a rational decision," Bettis said. "Last year, if you would have talked to me after the New England game, I would have told you I'm done. I'm going to wait."
Bettis will start today, but it's only an honorary designation. Bettis has settled into his role as short-yardage back and game "closer" behind Willie Parker. And it's a role that any 33-year-old with a rich history would love to be in. Easy money, right?
"Yeah, it's not bad at all. I'm not complaining," Bettis said. "But the question is: Can I still do it?
"You have to understand, because of where I fit into this role, I may be asked to carry the load. You never know. You have to realistically think that if something happens, can you carry the load? That's the reality of it. You can't think that I'm in a specialty role that won't change.
Everything changes. If something happens to Willie, they're looking at you like: Hey, let's go."
It's what Bettis asked himself before the 2004 season, and he answered in the affirmative. Even though the Steelers had brought in free-agent runner Duce Staley, Bettis felt his body could take the pounding. And guess what? Bettis ended up making six starts in the regular season, eight counting the playoffs.
"You can't have any (indecision) and say I'm only the closer," he said. "If you're going to be here, you have to be ready to do everything. That's the mentality I have to have because you can't go on thinking you're only going to have to carry the ball eight times a game."
But the pounding has taken its toll on Bettis. He had off-season surgery last winter and had difficult walking up and down the stairway leading to the Steelers' meeting rooms. He has the same trouble every Monday. ESPN shows the footage every now and then and the viewer must find it hard to believe Bettis is still an NFL running back.
"That's nothing new," he said. "Two years ago, five years ago, it was the same walk. It's physically demanding. It's not where it's one of those things where you can't do it any more. It's just physically a grind."
And so Bettis is on the verge of retirement, even if he won't confirm it.
Cowher must believe it to be so, or he wouldn't have opted to start Bettis today against the 5-10 Detroit Lions in a game that (as of Saturday afternoon) still means something to the Steelers' playoff push.
Bettis will retire as the as the greatest big back the game has ever seen. Because of their large bulls-eye, only two 250-pound backs have rushed for over 1,000 yards more than once: Christian Okoye did it twice; Bettis has done it eight times.
"There's a price you pay," he said. "You understand it. That's the nature of the beast. It's nice, but there are a few things that come with it. A healthy paycheck comes with it, but a lot of pain too. But hey, that's why they pay you the big bucks."
And look at what those big bucks have bought: 42 and 8 for starters.