Bettis Is Back On Track

PITTSBURGH - Put yourself in Jerome Bettis' shoes for a minute. You're young, at least by society's standards, good-looking, and rich. You can't go too many places without being recognized. Your character had never been called into question since you arrived in Pittsburgh via a trade in 1996. In 2001, the NFL honored you as the Man of the Year, for your service in the community.<p> By all accounts, you are one of the NFL's good guys.

Then, on the heels of the worst injury of your career, you are accused of sexual assault. To add insult to injury, you get off to a slow start and people start saying your career might be finished. Even your coach begins to wonder if you've lost it, pulling you out of a close game against Cleveland in the third quarter.

Bettis is used to being the target of opposing defenses. But he quickly found himself the target of worse things: false accusations and fan doubt.

That is why the occurrences of the past week - a 109-yard, two-touchdown effort at Cincinnati and the news two days later that the Westmoreland County District Attorney would not press charges on the sexual assault allegations - had to be like pulling a 500-pound weight off Bettis' shoulders.

"It's unfortunate, when people reach a certain level of success or recognition that they become targets of plots and schemes and unfounded accusations," Bettis said. "To be associated with this type of behavior is uncharacteristic of me as a person and it's awful that anybody would be subjected to the type of criticism that I received."

"I'm just thankful that everybody didn't cast doubt so quickly."

It was easy to back Bettis the person. But there were definite questions about Bettis the football player and whether he could still be effective. Bettis returned from a severe groin injury last year to play in the AFC Championship. He would have been better off sitting the game out. He was limited to eight yards on nine carries and reinjured the groin, forcing him to skip much of his offseason conditioning.

Then, he began this season by rushing for 100 yards in the Steelers' first three games. It began to look like Bettis was at the end of his stellar career.

But, after bottoming out in an overtime win over Cleveland three weeks ago, when he was limited to 24 yards and pulled by head coach Bill Cowher in favor of Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Bettis has gained 193 yards in his last two starts. He now needs just 68 yards Monday night against Indianapolis to pass Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson and move into 11th place among the NFL's all-time rushers.

Bettis is also 184 yards short of moving into 10th place on the league's all-time rushing list. That is a milestone Bettis badly wants, not only because of where it will place him in history, but because of who he will overtake: bruising runner John Riggins. Of the running backs ahead of him on the all-time rushing list, only Riggins could be considered a pure power runner like Bettis.

Once he passes Riggins, Jerome Bettis will have to receive consideration as the best big back ever to play. And after watching him the past two weeks, it's obvious Bettis is going to continue his climb up the league's all-time rushing list until he receives consideration as not just the best big back, but as one of the best of all time.

Sit back and enjoy it.

-- Dale Lolley

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