Bettis has storybook ending


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Funny, what former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis remembers most about Super Bowl XL in Detroit.

It's not being sent out alone by his adoring teammates for the pregame introductions at Detroit's Ford Field, one of the great honors in the history of Pittsburgh sports. It's not holding up the Lombardi Trophy high in the air and the falling confetti after the Steelers' 21-10 win against the Seattle Seahawks and telling the delirious crowd in black and gold, "One for the thumb!" It's not even announcing his retirement in the bedlam on the field after a 13-year career that surely will take him to Canton, Ohio, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he's eligible for induction next year.

Bettis remembers the empty locker room.

"I was the last one to leave that night," he recalled last week. "I just looked back as I was walking out and tried to soak it all in. I knew that was going to be my last time in an NFL locker room.

Somewhere, Don Meredith was singing ...

"Turn out the lights, the party's over ..."

"For me, it was a 13-year party," Bettis said. "Man, it was some party."

Especially the ending.

Many people will look back at the Steelers of the past decade and remember their 27-23 win against the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII as the highlight. They'll remember Ben Roethlisberger's winning 6-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes in the final minute or James Harrison's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown, the greatest play in Super Bowl history.

Others will remember the win in Super Bowl XL. They'll remember Willie Parker's 75-yard touchdown run or Antwaan Randle El's 43-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward.

I will remember Bettis' week in Detroit.

It's the greatest week any player had at a Super Bowl.

It nearly didn't happen.

A year earlier, after the Steelers lost at home to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, Bettis told his teammates he was retiring. Ward emerged from that team meeting and, sobbing, told the media, "I wanted [to win] more for him than me. He deserves to be a champion."

In the days that followed, Bettis' coaches and teammates worked to persuade him to play one more season. Roethlisberger begged, actually. Linebacker Larry Foote probably made the most persuasive argument.

" 'You don't want to miss this next Super Bowl, Bussie,' " Bettis remembered Foote saying. " 'You know it's in Detroit, right?' "

Their hometown.

So Bettis relented.

One more season it would be.

As usual, the man made the right decision.

Bettis was one of the all-time great team leaders. In that 2005 season, his teammates rallied around him, their goal to get him to the Super Bowl in his hometown. When they accomplished it by winning playoff games at Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver, they -- OK, linebacker Joey Porter with approval from coach Bill Cowher -- decided on that terrific pregame tribute. Television cameras showed Porter holding everyone back as Bettis ran on the field alone.

"I wanted the cameras to shine on him alone," Porter said at the time.

Said Bettis last week: "That was incredible. It meant that everything I had done as a football player and as a teammate was significant. Those guys appreciated it."

The game seemed almost anticlimactic after Bettis' emotional and uplifting week in Detroit. He had 14 carries for 43 yards. His final run went for 4 yards off right guard and was so typical of his career. He became the NFL's fifth-leading rusher at the time by moving the pile, 4 yards at a time.

Bettis did his best work in the days leading up to the game. He was a kid who survived Detroit's meanest West Side streets to become an honor student at Mackenzie High School, a Notre Dame graduate and the 2001 winner of the NFL's prestigious Walter Payton Award for community service or, as his high school coach, Bob Dozier, put it, "for reaching back in the barrel and trying to pull others up." Clearly, Bettis would be successful in life without football.

"Jerome's story needs to be told over and over and over again," Dozier said. "If it doesn't inspire kids, nothing will."

Detroit couldn't have had a better goodwill ambassador than Bettis. From the time he showed up at his first Super Bowl news conference wearing a Tigers cap and jacket, he never stopped promoting the city, which had been devastated by the brutal economic times. People who wanted to ridicule its selection as the Super Bowl city couldn't do it after seeing and feeling Bettis' passion.

"When I tell people I'm from Detroit, they say, 'That's not the greatest place in the world,' " he said. "I always say, 'You're right, but it's my place.' "

Said grateful Detroit mayor Kwami Kilpatrick when he presented Bettis a key to the city a few days before the game: "We're not giving Jerome this honor just because of football. We're giving it to him because he's a man who knows who he is and whose he is."

So it went for Bettis during his extraordinary Super Bowl week. The highlight -- other than the game, of course -- was a team dinner that his parents had in their home along the No. 2 fairway at Detroit Golf Club, the house a gift from their son after he signed his first pro contract. A total of 41 players -- actually, 40, but they counted nose tackle Casey Hampton as two because of his voracious appetite -- showed up to eat ham, roast beef, turkey, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, broccoli and carrots. "I think he had three plates," wide-eyed teammate James Farrior said of Big Snack.

That night meant the world to Bettis' mother, Gladys, an outgoing type if there ever was one. It also was pretty special for his proud dad, Johnnie, even if he was too quiet and reserved to show it.

All of it is even more significant to Bettis now. His father died of a heart attack in November 2006, not even 10 months after Super Bowl XL. He was just 61 and had been so looking forward to reliving his son's career by watching the game tapes he had collected.

Every game tape.

Hey, Johnnie Bettis was that kind of father.

"A lot of times, your parents don't get to see your ultimate success," Bettis said. "I'm so blessed mine got to share my brightest moment as a professional. They took the journey with me. They were there every step of the way."

Man, it really was some party.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . First Published February 7, 2010 5:00 AM


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