It took him five tries, but iconic former-Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis finally got the call he’d been waiting for Saturday night-his election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The sixth-leading rusher in NFL history, Bettis ran for 13,662 and 91 scores over his illustrious 13-year career, capping it with an exclamation point in the team’s Super Bowl XL victory over Seattle in his hometown of Detroit. For the majority of those yards, he can thank a special someone up front , someone who helped pave the “road” for “The Bus”, blowing open holes and allowing Bettis to use his size to barrel over tacklers.
In his first year of eligibility in 2016, former-Steelers standout guard Alan Faneca may for once get to follow Bettis somewhere, much like Bettis followed him into canyon-sized running lanes for much of his career. That somewhere is being immortalized in Canton, OH. Faneca’s resume includes nine trips to the Pro Bowl, as well as being named AP first-team All-Pro six times in 13 seasons. Only Randall McDaniel, Will Shields, Larry Allen and Bruce Matthews have more Pro Bowl Selections at the position, and five of Matthews’ were at center. Fittingly, Shields will be enshrined along with Bettis this year.
Faneca was the heart and soul of Bill Cowher’s punishing ground game, with Bettis the centerpiece. He possessed a tough, blue-collar attitude that epitomized the Steel City and endeared him in the hearts of Steelers fans, nationwide. He made a huge impact upon being drafted in the first round in 1998 out of LSU. He was the first Steelers’ rookie offensive lineman to start 12+ games since the merger. Aside from one game the following season, he played in every single game but one over the final eleven and a half seasons of his career.
Considered the best left guard of his era, the toughness and grit he exhibited on a weekly basis left no doubt he would’ve flourished in any NFL era. After stints with the New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals, as many ex-Steelers do, he decided it was time to hang up his cleats. At the end of the 2010 season, he was tied with Terrell Owens for the most career starts among active players, with 201 games. Preceding him on the list? Tony Gonzalez, Peyton Manning, Ray Lewis, Brian Dawkins, Lawyer Milloy and Brett Favre. That’s some elite company.
Now in retirement, upon first glance, Faneca says even some of his former teammates fail to recognize him. In his playing days, he was a 6-foot-5, 320-pound guard, but over the course of several months following his retirement, his weight had dwindled down to 210 pounds. It was all by design of course, as he went on a strict regimen of 1,800 calories per day and an hour of cardio, six days a week. When the pounds came falling off, he started going on runs of a few miles, and when his wife Julie, was participating in a half-marathon, Faneca began wondering. Just last year at this time, he finished the New Orleans Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, just before kickoff of Super Bowl XLVIII. He now says a number of former players continually ask him for advice on how he changed his lifestyle, and looks so drastically different.
“They keep eating the way they did when they were playing football, but they aren’t doing the same level of activity and not doing all the weightlifting,” Faneca said. “It starts snowballing on them and next thing they know they put on 50 or 75 pounds.”
One of the highlight moments in a career filled with them came on the grandest stage in sports, Super Bowl XL. Right after halftime, on one of the very first plays of the drive, Faneca pulled to the right and absolutely demolished a Seattle defender, leaving a hole large enough for a dump truck to clear through. Running back Willie Parker didn’t need that much space though, as he hit the hole, turned on the jets and raced 75 yards to paydirt for the longest rushing touchdown in Super Bowl history. Faneca’s Steelers won 21-10, capturing a ring for himself and sending Bettis off into the sunset with a storybook ending.
As most offensive lineman go, being totally absent from notoriety is the finest form of compliment.
“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,” former Steeler Hines Ward said about Bettis being enshrined. “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.”
Without Faneca clearing those holes and doing the dirty work, Bettis’ entrance as the Steelers’ 23rd electee into the HOF this August may not be. It’s safe to say he’s been out in front of countless great plays over his career, and come Bettis’ acceptance speech, Faneca will most likely be one of the first names out of his mouth. He paved the way for a Hall of Famer, and if the Hall’s board of selectors make the right choice, Bettis can be out in front this time, leading the way for the franchises’ 24th inductee next year.