It always had seemed the ultimate sports fantasy because of the ending. Postgame, standing on the podium on the field in his hometown, holding a championship trophy that he was a big part of winning, and announcing his retirement to an adoring national television audience. A Hollywood script.
That was a description of Jerome Bettis' professional life, and last night the dream-come-true got even better. Last night, the ending of that Hollywood script had to be re-written, and what Bettis was holding at the end this time was a bronze bust identifying him as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jerome Bettis was the star of last night's show. You know he was the star of the 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony because that has become a television event, and television saved Bettis for last. The order was: Ron Wolf, Charles Haley, Mick Tinglehoff, Will Shields, Bill Polian, Tim Brown, Junior Seau, and then Jerome Bettis, and this wasn't a batting order. It was an awards show, where the idea is to make the people wait for what they really want.
ESPN closed the acceptance speeches with Bettis, but it featured him as a part of the opening of its broadcast, having him in the locker room at Canton McKinley High School, where he talked about the sacrifices his family made when he was the age of the boys whose equipment is stored in the metal lockers that served as the backdrop for the interview.
Steelers Nation dominated the stands surrounding the proceedings, if ESPN's camera work is any indication. As the first seven inductees were introduced to the crowd, the cameras followed the men as they walked a red carpet to a dais at the base of the stage. When Bettis was introduced, the cameras panned back where it was a sea of Terrible Towels twirled by people wearing No. 36 jerseys.
And immediately upon taking the podium, Bettis paid tribute to them.
"We've gotta get one thing understood tonight," began Bettis, "we're in Canton, Ohio, but this is Steelers Country." And then after borrowing a Terrible Towel because he had given his to someone else, Bettis stood at the podium, twirled it over his head and started the crowd on a chorus of, "Here we go, Steelers, here we go …
"Now, I'm at home."
Jerome Bettis is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In typical Bettis fashion, he began his own acceptance speech with a tribute to the late Junior Seau that ended with words of encouragement to his family. "He was a better person than he was a football player," said Bettis, "so rest in knowing his legacy will live forever in the Pro Football Hall of Fame."
Then, as Bettis put it to the crowd, he took his audience "on a bus ride that started at 10384 Aurora in Detroit, Michigan, and ended up at 2121 George Halas Drive, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But I could never stand here and accept all the credit for my success, so please understand that this night is not about me, but it's about all of those who have impacted my life."
At that point, Bettis began with an acknowledgement of "the most important person in my life right now, and that's my wife, Trameka." Then it was his daughter, Jada, and his son, Jerome Jr. Then his sister, Kimberly, and his brother and presenter, John, and then finally his mother, Gladys, and his late father, Johnnie.
"He taught me how to be a man," said Bettis about his father. "He had two jobs, worked to the bone, never complaining, never asking for a break. All that while supporting three children. He was the strongest man I will ever know, and it's because of him that I am here. When my father sent me off to college, he told me one thing. He said, 'Son, I'm sending you off to school. I don't have much to give you, but I have a good name. So don't mess it up. Dad, I hope I made you proud."
THE TURNING POINT
Bettis said the day that inspired him to be great was one he spent as a 16-year-old at the Reggie McKenzie Football Camp, where he first got the idea that he could become a professional football player. Bettis said when he asked McKenzie why he ran a free football clinic, McKenzie told him, "If I get a chance to impact one kid's life, then I've made a difference. Well, Reggie, you changed my life. So thank you. Thank you, Reggie. Reggie McKenzie was an outstanding football player who had no reason to come back to Highland Park, Michigan, but he did it for a lot for young black kids. And he made a difference to all of us."
After working chronologically through his high school and college careers, and then paying quick tribute to some people with the Los Angeles Rams, Bettis gave the crowd what it had waited more than three hours to hear.
HIS STEELERS' FAMILY
He thanked Tom Donahoe for swinging the trade that brought him to the Steelers in 1996, and then Dick Hoak for not trying to change his running style. He praised Bill Cowher for being a blue-collar coach who valued running the football and tough defense, for being "exactly the type of coach I needed to succeed."
"(Cowher) knew exactly what he was going to get from No. 36 every time he stepped on the field," said Bettis. "Coach, you are one of the biggest reasons I stand here today, and I hope someday you stand here next to me, because you deserve it. Coach, I know you're in Ireland and your daughter probably has already gotten married, but I just want you to have a pint for No. 36."
To Steelers President Art Rooney II: "To Art Rooney, I want to thank you for your friendship outside of football. Thank you for listening when I needed to talk and for talking when I needed to listen. You have and continue to be a person I can confide in and learn from. Thank you."
To Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney: "I want to thank you for believing in me and thank you for seeing the person I am first and the football player that I was second. I still remember when you stopped me in the hallway and you saw concern in my eyes because there was talk about me not being there anymore. And you told me, 'You go when I go.' And at that point I knew I was going to be there for a long time because you weren't going anywhere. Mr. Rooney, thank you for having the ultimate trust and faith in me that I would carry the banner of the Steelers organization forward. I appreciate that."
To Steelers Nation**: "I want to thank you all for appreciating a power running game – 3 yards and a cloud of dust was far better than a 40-yard bomb down the field. Thank you for embracing me and my entire family as your own. But thank you most importantly for your support not only of me but my entire team as we went out and played a game we loved and knew we had the support of the best football fans in the world."
To his Steelers teammates: "I've had the best teammates a player could ever ask for. They gave me everything they had every time we stepped onto the football field. Sometimes it wasn't wins, but we knew that we were a family and that we would get the job done. A special thanks to a couple of my teammates. Alan Faneca. Hines Ward. Troy Polamalu. Joey Porter. And Ben Roethlisberger. Brother, without you saving that tackle … I still might be on the doorstep, brother. I owe you, for life. Hopefully all of you guys will stand next to me in the Hall of Fame."
A MESSAGE TO YOUNG PEOPLE
One of the aspects of Bettis' character that made him such a special teammate was his willingness to offer support and guidance to those younger than him who were just beginning a journey he already had made. Bettis credited former Rams teammate Jackie Slater for showing him the importance of this, and the rest of his speech turned into that kind of a message.
"Greatness is not a sports term. It's a life term," said Bettis. "And I believe there are four things that get you to greatness. One, you got to have the ability to sacrifice, and a lot of times that means sacrificing the relationships that mean the most to you. The second thing is pain. You're going to have to endure some type of pain in your life, whether physical or mental. You've got to find a way to endure. The third one is failure. You've got to have the ability to understand you're going to fail. But it's how you recover that makes you a better person. The last one is love, because if you love it, then it's not a job, it's a passion. If you love it, you're willing to sacrifice for it. You're willing to go through all types of pains for it. If you go through those four things and you understand those and you can handle those, then success is in your path and greatness is available to you."
And then it was a final word to his son, Jerome Jr., delivered in the Bettis family tradition: "I wish to leave one last message to my son. Son, there's not much that I can give you that's more important than our good name. So don't screw it up."