As Steelers' players arrived at the airport hanger to depart for Super Bowl XL in Detroit, Michigan, they gathered around linebacker Joey Porter who was handing out jerseys.
Not Steelers' jerseys, but instead green Notre Dame jerseys bearing No. 6, the number Jerome Bettis wore in college. Bettis, who was in his 13th and what his teammates knew would be his final season, had never played in a Super Bowl. And now the Steelers were heading to one in his hometown of Detroit to play in the biggest game of Bettis' career.
Wearing the jerseys was their way to salute Bettis, the all-everything running back and team's inspirational leader, as he was set to take flight on the trip of a lifetime.
"He was a mentor for me while I was playing the game," said Porter, who bought about two dozen jerseys, but realized later he should have gotten a lot more. "He had that effect on me and everybody. I always looked at him as a mentor."
Bettis was a player who impacted and inspired everyone around him, whether it was a veteran linebacker like Porter, or a second-year running back like Willie Parker, who stepped into Bettis' starting role that year.
"He led me in the right direction off the field, and on the field he coached me," said Parker. "If I wasn't doing something right he told me. He showed me the blueprint and told me he was passing it on to me, telling me to do it the right way, the Steelers way.
"He groomed me about Steelers football and what I need to do to be a Steelers' running back. Every day he would talk to me and I respected everything he said. He was always trying to help me, help the team out. He knew I was a part of what the team was doing and he groomed me in that way. I appreciated everything he did for me, everyone did."
That appreciation was never more visible than during the push the team made to get into the playoffs and the Steelers' post-season run in 2005. After losing three straight games later in the season, the Steelers were 7-5 and the playoffs were starting to appear out of reach. But they wouldn't let Bettis go out that way, winning the last four regular season games before hitting the road for the playoffs. They defeated the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts, and then headed to Denver for the AFC Championship game. In the closing seconds of the win that would propel them to the Super Bowl, Bettis was one of the players dumping Gatorade on Coach Bill Cowher. Cowher turned, looked at Bettis, and said, "You're going home, you're going home," before throwing his arms around Bettis, a hug that showed the affection the entire team had for the man known fondly as "The Bus."
"We knew we were going to make a run for him," said Porter. "We knew it was Jerome's last run. When you have a guy that inspires so many people on the team and you admire him, it's going to work. You have to have a close team, and we were close, to fight for Jerome you didn't have to ask guys to fight harder, you knew they were going to."
Sure, every player wanted to win a Super Bowl ring for themselves, but this team put their own individual success aside and put Bettis first because he earned that respect. They wanted Bettis' career to end in fairytale fashion, with him hoisting the Lombardi Trophy as the final credits to his career rolled.
"I remember that's all we used to talk about near the end of the season," said Parker. "We buckled our belts up and went for it. We knew we had a chance and we just kept it moving and didn't look back.
"That's all we talked about leading up to the Super Bowl, taking it home for Jerome. Ben (Roethlisberger) used to reiterate it in the huddle. We would talk about it in practices. That put the team on one goal. We had blinders on. We were going to send him out right. No matter what it took we were going to get the job done for Jerome. Everyone bought into that."
Throughout Super Bowl week the talk was all about Bettis, and the players enjoyed every minute of it. They sang his praises to the national media and shared stories of their love for him.
"Jerome was everybody's guy," said Porter. "When he said something, it carried weight with everyone. When Bus talked, everybody listened. I did a lot of rah-rah talking, but when Jerome spoke the room got quiet. He had the same respect we had for Cowher. When he said something, you really did listen."
On Super Bowl Sunday, as the team was ready to take the field for introductions before facing the Seattle Seahawks, Porter stepped in front of the team, and pulled Bettis right up there with them. As the Steelers were introduced Porter held out his arms, holding back the rest of the players, while Bettis headed out onto the field, his familiar side-step in full effect.
"It was the last chance for the fans and us to give him a tribute," said Porter. "Jerome had been the face of the Steelers. What better way to let our team leader, our guy, do what he did best. People loved seeing him come out of the tunnel. He always got the loudest cheer in Pittsburgh. To let him have that one more time in front of his hometown crowd and all the Steelers' fans, it was nothing for us to do.
"We said we were going to let him lead us to battle. It was something I said this was how it was going to be. I wanted him to feel the love his team had for him."
A few hours later, Bettis was once again center stage, living out the dream as he held the Lombardi Trophy in victory. He let everyone know what his teammates had already known, that this was it, that his career had come to the perfect close.
"It's been an incredible ride," said Bettis from the podium in the middle of Ford Field, trophy in hand. "There is always a time you have to call it quits. I played this game to win a championship. I am a champion and I think the Bus' last stop is here in Detroit."
There is one more stop, though, that Porter, Parker and everyone that knows Bettis' wants for him. And that is the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Bettis is a finalist for the third straight year, and the feeling is he should definitely be a member of the Class of 2013.
"He definitely belongs in the Hall of Fame," said Parker. "He did the stuff like Michael Jordan did, guys who did things to make their team better, he did that. He put the team first and himself second. He is a true MVP.
"I am privileged I shared a part of my career with a guy of his stature. He belongs in the Hall of Fame. That is how it's meant to be. That needs to be his final stop. It's where he belongs."
Photos: Steelers wear Bettis' Notre Dame jersey