They are part of the Steelers family and on Wednesday night it was only fitting that James Conner and Jerome Bettis shared the stage at the 83rd Annual Dapper Dan Dinner and Sports Auction.
Conner was named the Dapper Dan Man of the Year, while Bettis received the Dapper Dan Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I know Jerome, Ben (Roethlisberger), a lot of great faces in Pittsburgh won it in the past,” said Conner, referring to Bettis winning the Man of the Year in 2006 and Roethlisberger in 2004. “It’s an honor to be included with those people and add my name to that list. It's a blessing. A lot of great people here tonight. Just to see everyone get together is awesome.
Conner thanked the Steelers organization during his acceptance speech, including President Art Rooney II, Coach Mike Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert for making him part of the Steelers organization and said he wants to be "a Steeler for life."
In his first year as a starter Conner has opened a lot of eyes. But he knew what he was capable of all along.
“It’s what I have always asked for,” said Conner, who was presented by former Pitt teammate and Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald. “Not the situation it was. I didn’t ask for that. But the opportunity to be a starting NFL running back. I didn’t really feel any pressure because it was everything I was asking for. I didn’t look at it as pressure because it’s what I wanted. It was a great opportunity.”
The ‘situation’ Conner referred to was Le’Veon Bell holding out all season, and Conner taking over the reins as the team’s feature back. It put him right in the center of all of the Bell talk all season long, but he never faltered, handling it with maturity that goes well beyond a second-year NFL player.
“When my teammates said they believed in me, I didn’t pay attention to the outside world, what they thought,” said Conner. “I just came to work every day. I started all year and things worked out.”
While his teammates knew he was capable of stepping in and accepting the tall task of taking over the Steelers ground game, those around the NFL didn’t fully know what to expect from the second-year running back.
“Those of us that know him aren’t surprised by it, but at the same time we respect his journey,” said Tomlin. “He is a driven young man. He is singularly focused. He approaches it the right way. When you are around guys day-to-day that have that approach, you are not surprised by the success that goes with it.”
Conner played in 13 games, starting 12, and finished the 2018 season with 215 carries for 973 yards and 13 touchdowns, while adding 55 receptions for 497 yards and a touchdown, for a total of 1,470 yards from scrimmage. Conner was also selected to the Pro Bowl as the AFC’s starting running back.
“I don’t focus on individual stuff,” said Conner. “I always knew my talent level. I knew with an opportunity to be a feature back I could show my skills off and accomplish great things, especially with the line I run behind and everyone believing in me. I knew with hard work and opportunity I could make some noise in the league.”
It’s not just his on-field efforts that Conner is being honored for. It’s what he does in the community, the way he inspires others, from kids to seniors, that makes him the individual he is.
While playing at the University of Pittsburgh, Conner suffered an MCL injury that had him going through rehab. During that rehab he noticed abnormalities. He knew something was wrong, but couldn’t imagine what. In his wildest dreams he never would have thought he would be diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. He fearlessly battled the disease, never giving up hope that he would return to the football field, and did so for Pitt’s opening day in 2016. The rest as they say is history, as the Steelers selected him in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Conner is an inspiring individual, one who battled the toughest of struggles and shines daily as an example that you can overcome anything in life.
“He is a hard worker,” said Donald. “A guy who has been through a lot, a guy who has accomplished a lot. I see him as a brother. I am proud of him. I am glad to be here to support him and congratulate him. He has been through a lot and overcame it.
“I was like a proud mother watching him. Trying to see every game, see what he did, what he accomplished. The success he was having, I was proud. It’s a great beginning for him. He is going to have a lot more success and do a lot more things. I am excited to see him grow.”
Over the past two years it would be impossible to count how many times people have come up to him and told him he is an inspiration, shared their stories with him on social media, reached out to him in one way or another.
“It’s hitting me. It’s becoming the normal,” said Conner. “At first it was new. Now it’s becoming the normal because that is the plan for me, to have an impact on people.
“It’s the best of both worlds. People are recognizing me for something I did in my personal life and for what I am doing for a great organization. When you put it all together it’s a lot of fun. It means a lot to me. The support never goes unnoticed. It’s an honor to take the field for the Steelers and I hope to do it for a long time to come.”
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Bettis laughed about winning the Dapper Dan Lifetime Achievement Award, as he feels he has a lot more to give.
“It’s an incredible honor, but a little bit uncomfortable because I am 46 years old and I am not quite done in terms of a lifetime achievement award,” said Bettis, who was presented by Bill Cowher. “I feel like I have a lot more to do. A lot more lives to impact. But it is an incredible honor. All of the people that have received such an honor and acknowledgement, I would be remiss if I said it wasn’t humbling.”
Bettis impacts lives on a daily basis through his ‘Bus Stops Here Foundation,’ still giving back to kids in Pittsburgh, a place he will always consider a second home.
“It’s critically important for me to keep giving back to the city that gave me so much,” said Bettis. “It’s my job to do what I can, to pay it forward in a way. To give some young men and women opportunities that I received when I was a kid. If I can do that for them, hopefully in turn they can do that for someone else and it makes this area a better area to live and work in. That is my goal. Sometimes you do it one kid at a time. Hopefully I can impact a lot more kids moving forward.”
The way he is involved in the Pittsburgh community now doesn't come as a surprise to Cowher, who saw him do the same thing when he was playing.
“When he came to Pittsburgh not only did he embrace Pittsburgh, but Pittsburgh embraced him,” said Cowher. “He was a perfect fit for our football team, a perfect fit for our community. As you saw him grow as a player, and even as a person, you saw what he was made of.
“He is a kid that defied the odds. He came from Detroit. He finished his career in Detroit, appropriately so. He has continued to also take the next step. He has continued to give back with the Bus Stops Here Foundation. What you see in Jerome Bettis is a genuine individual that cares about people and really inspires a lot of people.”
While Bettis’ impact in the community is heartwarming, it was what he did on the football field that has him in the hearts and minds of Steelers’ fans forever.
His NFL playing career ended with a trip back home to Detroit, for Super Bowl XL where he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.
“When I started playing the game, the ultimate was always to win a championship,” said Bettis. “To be on the podium, having brought a championship back to Pittsburgh, that was an incredible moment.
“I could have never imagined how everything happened. The fact that I was about to retire the year before, I decided to come back, the Super Bowl was in my hometown. We have this amazing football team, and for us to go and win and retire on the podium. That story doesn’t usually happen. For it to happen to me it was like, pinch me because I was dreaming.”
But the excitement wasn’t over for Bettis. The Steelers all-everything running back became a part of football immortality when he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2015.
Bettis became the fourth Steelers’ running back in the Hall of Fame joining Bill Dudley, John Henry Johnson and Franco Harris, who has been a fan of Bettis’ since day one.
“He had a brilliant career, made big plays and was a big factor in the run the Steelers had,” said Harris. “It’s tough to last with the running style he had. Running backs don’t last a long time. He ran tough and ran well.”
Bettis began his career with the Los Angeles Rams in 1993 but had his best days once he was traded to the Steelers on draft day in 1996. Bettis rushed for 10,571 yards with the Steelers, and amassed 13,662 career yards.
“He was a bruiser,” said Harris. “Wow, could he pound that football. He pounded and pounded. He was a great competitor, a great team player. He contributed greatly to those teams. He was one of the main reasons that those teams were successful and accomplished what they did.
“He went on to put up numbers that were incredible. It was fun to watch him pound and see what he did. We were completely different runners in our styles, but I loved to watch the way he ran. He was so effective.”
Bettis capped his career in fairy tale fashion when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL in Bettis’ hometown of Detroit, and then he announced his retirement from the podium with the Lombardi Trophy in his hands.
“You look at his size and tenacity,” said former teammate Hines Ward. “To be that size and have quick feet was just amazing. Sometimes you found yourself as a teammate watching like a fan to see him get through a hole, side step somebody, run over somebody and then get up and do his patented ‘The Bus’ dance. That is what made him such a special running back. You don’t see many guys be able to maneuver the holes and run somebody over.
“To do the things he did at that size is amazing. I don’t think there will ever be another big guy like Jerome who did it the way he did and for how long he did it.”
Bettis was the Steelers leading rusher from 1996-2001 and in 2003-04, and he rolled up 50 100-yard games with the team.
“He was unusual because most backs weren’t as big as Jerome,” said Hall of Fame center Dermontti Dawson, who blocked for Bettis. “Usually a back of his size would come in on special situations, short to mid-range run plays. But he was a feature back for 13 years in the league. What made him unusual being a larger than normal back, he was so agile and strong he could take the pounding and be the feature back all of that time. He was a phenomenal runner. As an offensive line you love to have a back like Jerome in the backfield”
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In addition, Dino Tomlin, son of Mike Tomlin, was honored as the Dapper Dan Youth Athlete of the Year, University of Pittsburgh Athletic Director Heather Lyke was presented with the Dapper Dan Sportswoman of the Year and Penguins President David Morehouse won the Dr. Freddie Fu Sports Leadership Award.