The best big back the NFL has ever seen will get another chance to plunge into a different kind of end zone, the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jerome Bettis became a finalist for election into the Hall of Fame for the fourth consecutive year, joining 14 other modern-day candidates chosen by voters and announced Thursday night.
Bettis, the sixth-leading rusher in NFL history, retired after the Steelers won Super Bowl XL in his hometown of Detroit eight years ago.
Among the other finalists were linebacker Kevin Greene, who played three seasons for the Steelers in the 1990s, and Eddie DeBartolo Jr., a Youngstown, Ohio, native whose San Francisco 49ers teams won five Super Bowls while he owned them in the 1980s and 1990s.
The other finalists include first-year nominees linebacker Derrick Brooks, safety Tony Dungy (who played for the Steelers before turning to coaching), wide receiver Marvin Harrison and offensive tackle Walter Jones, Rounding out the list were defensive linemen Charles Haley and Michael Strahan, wide receiver Andre Reed, wide receiver-return specialist Tim Brown, safety John Lynch, offensive lineman Will Shields, defensive back Aeneas Williams and kicker Morten Andersen.
As many as five of the 15 modern-day finalists can be elected along with the two seniors nominees, who are punter Ray Guy and defensive end Claude Humphrey, for a maximum of seven. The final vote will take place in New York City Feb. 1, the day before the Super Bowl.
Bettis played 13 seasons, his final 10 with the Steelers. He rushed for 13,662 yards. Of the 14 all-time career rushing leaders, he is the only one eligible who is not in the Hall of Fame. In addition, Bettis played his entire career with asthma and often could be seen sitting on the bench breathing through an inhaler while the Steelers defense was on the field.
ColdHardFootballFacts.com, a respected website that often takes alternative looks at statistics, ranks Bettis as the best big back in NFL history. It uses 240 pounds as the cutoff for describing a big back. Bettis weighed between 250 and 265 during his career.
No such back among the 10 had half as many yards as Bettis. CHFF lists Jamal Lewis as No. 2. He rushed for 6,669 yards. To show how few successful big backs there have been in the NFL, former Steeler Bam Morris is ranked No. 10.
"The sixth-best running back in the NFL should be in the Hall of Fame," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has said regarding Bettis' candidacy.
Last year, Bettis cited the two career accomplishments he was most proud of, and neither had to do anything with statistics or the Super Bowl championship ring for which he inspired the Steelers to in 2005.
"That when they called my name, I was there," Bettis said. "I answered the bell every single time. The second thing is that I inspired my teammates. In this day and age, if you're a leader, you have to lead by example and men have to want to follow you. The hardest thing in the world is to be a leader of men. And, for you to be able to improve someone's level of play because you're there, that's important. You don't see that all the time."
His teammates knew how valuable both were.
"He had the one intangible, and that was the heart and the love of the game," said Hines Ward, the MVP in Super Bowl XL who famously announced on the playing field right after the game that "I'm going to Disneyland, baby, and I'm taking The Bus."
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published January 9, 2014 9:23 PM