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Labriola on Bettis and the HOF

Posted Jan 28, 2013

Over the course of the upcoming week, the national football press will be tripping over itself to find different ways to tell a similar story. It will be the story of one player being the driving force in his team’s quest for a championship. The story will focus on leadership and inspiration, how one individual is the face of his franchise. It will document a caliber of on-field performance that while no longer dominant is still meaningful to his team’s success. But the narrative also will point out how there have been dominant seasons in the player’s past, and this run to a championship would be the crowning achievement to a career forever to be defined in degrees of greatness.

Super Bowl XLVII will be played on Sunday, Feb. 3. On Saturday, Feb. 2, the 46 people who make up the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Selection Committee will vote on a player whose career path was a replica of the one at the center of the media storm to come this week.

Jerome Bettis is that player, and what he accomplished on the field alone is evidence that he deserves to be elected to the Hall. To refresh the memory:

Bettis played in 192 games over 13 seasons, during which his 3,479 carries netted 13,662 yards and 91 touchdowns. He had eight 1,000-yard seasons. He was big and powerful with the feet of a ballerina, and that’s a frightening combination to anyone charged with tackling him. He never missed more than five games in any one season, and over the course of his first eight seasons he missed only three games total. He averaged 18.1 carries per game. He had five seasons in which he averaged over 20 carries a game and a sixth where he was at 19.9. Even though he has been retired going on seven years now, he still is sixth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list, and none of his statistics were accumulated via rules changes making the job easier. Running the football in the NFL is man’s work, and there was an era when Jerome Bettis was The Man.

But there was a lot more to Jerome Bettis’ career than statistics, and he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame for those things, too. He was a leader. A teammate. Unselfish. A competitor. He never questioned authority, and he responded to every demotion by working instead of complaining. Jerome Bettis once was benched in favor of Amos Zereoue at the start of a season, but he ended up leading the team and out-rushing Zereoue by an almost 2:1 ratio at the end of that season. He was gracious to Duce Staley when the Steelers paid him big money as an unrestricted free agent to be the No. 1 running back, and Bettis then ended up rushing for 941 yards and 13 touchdowns in the nine starts Staley missed that year because of injury. He mentored Willie Parker from the naïve, Clinton, N.C., undrafted rookie he was into a polished professional who still holds the record for the longest run from scrimmage in a Super Bowl.

Jerome Bettis took pay cuts, not contract restructurings where the money is moved around but the total remains the same. He took less money to stay here, and while there was a lot of savvy business thinking that went into those decisions there also was a healthy dose of loyalty to the franchise that wanted him when none of the others did. He became part of the community, with his The Bus Stops Here Foundation created to help underprivileged children by providing college tuition assistance, teaching fundamental life skills, and buying computers for inner-city schools.

And ultimately, Jerome Bettis became the emotional catalyst for the second most successful era in franchise history.

Bill Cowher was hired to replace Chuck Noll in January 1992, and for a long time after that the Steelers were a team that won a lot of games but just couldn’t seem to get over the hump. They lost a Conference Championship Game at home and then a Super Bowl when Bettis was toiling for the Los Angeles and then St. Louis Rams, and then after Bettis arrived in that 1996 draft day trade they lost three more Conference Championship Games at home. The last of those three – after a 15-1 regular season in 2004 – was an emotional turning point. The day after it, Hines Ward wept openly in front of television cameras because he feared the Steelers had let Bettis down by coming up short of a Lombardi Trophy yet again.

But in the following months Bettis took another pay cut and returned for a 13th season, one that coincidentally was scheduled to end with a Super Bowl played in his hometown of Detroit. Not long after that training camp opened, he brokered a breakthrough in the silence between holdout wide receiver Hines Ward and Cowher to allow for a quick resolution to the standoff with no residual hard feelings on either side. Then with the Steelers heading into the homestretch of their regular season at 7-5 and facing a scenario where they had to win out and hope for some help just to qualify for the playoffs, Jerome Bettis put them on his back one more time.

The Chicago Bears came to Heinz Field that Dec. 11 riding an eight-game winning streak and accompanied by one of the league’s top-ranked defenses, a unit powered by a ferocious front seven. The weather that day was cold and windy with a light but steady snow, fitting for a December football game between teams from Pittsburgh and Chicago. And just maybe it was Mother Nature’s way of getting the Steelers back to their offensive identity. Jerome Bettis had 16 carries for 100 yards and a touchdown in the second half alone, and on his game-clinching score The Bus left All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher for road-kill in what ended up being a 21-9 victory.

The Steelers won the AFC Championship to bring Bettis home to Detroit, and he returned the favor by having them all over for dinner at his house the week of the game. Second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger described it this way: “At Jerome’s house that night there were 30-40 guys sitting around just looking around at each other and we were having this great home-cooked meal. It made it feel like you were with your high school football team when you had your Friday night meals together. It was just neat because everyone was just laughing, joking, having fun and it was really something special. Everyone just kind of sat there as the night went on and just said, ‘Wow, this is a special team.’ It was a special opportunity, and we are a very special and close team.”

There is this thing Steelers players do when they want to pay tribute to one of their own, where they wear throwback jerseys from the honoree’s past. For the trip to Detroit for Super Bowl XL, they chose No. 6 Notre Dame jerseys, in the green of course. They passionately defended him when Seattle tight end Jerramy Stevens chose Media Day to suggest the Seahawks weren’t planning on being extras for the final act of The Jerome Bettis Story. They let him take the field alone to give him the spotlight on his sport’s grandest stage, and when he stood at the podium and announced his retirement with the Lombardi Trophy in his hands, well, it didn’t get any better than that.

That win ended a 25-year drought between championships for the Steelers, and in the next five seasons they would play in two more Super Bowls and take home one more Lombardi, their sixth. Bettis didn’t play on those teams, but the foundation he helped put in place was definitely a contributing factor in their successes.

Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, the Pittsburgh Steelers have rushed for more yards than any other franchise, and during that time they have had two great running backs. Franco Harris was the first and Jerome Bettis was the second. Both won championships. Both were leaders and examples to their teammates. Both chose to involve themselves in giving back to the community.

The first is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It’s time for the second to join him.

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