On the day of the NFL Hall of Fame induction ceremony, it’s a time for reflection, where a select few athletes will join an elite fraternity that will immortalize them forever to the NFL faithful and that ,off the top of my head, can only be rivaled by the Heisman Trophy winners. Saturday night, one of the black and gold’s very own will be donning a gold jacket, and deservedly so. Jerome Bettis, the Steelers’ iconic running back, began his illustrious career as a member of the Los Angeles Rams, but there is no question as to which team he buttered his bread with, capping his Steelers career with an ending fitting for a storybook in the team’s Super Bowl XL victory.
Bettis was acquired in 1996 for a second and fourth-round pick, and basically, it could be labeled as highway robbery. In each of his first six seasons in Pittsburgh, Bettis rumbled for over 1,000 yards and from 1996 through 2005, he helped the team advance to the postseason on six occasions. A sledgehammer back with the shiftiness and quick feet of one much smaller, his battering ram style was a perfect fit for the cold weather brand of power football adored by the city, and fans fell in love with his enthusiastic and charismatic nature, both on and off the field.
The team of the present is a high-flying offensive juggernaut that starkly contrasts what the team was during Bettis’ heyday. He was the straw that stirred the drink of coach Bill Cowher’s methodical attack that was predicated on hard-nosed defense and a ball-control ground scheme. If the team had a lead and got the ball back with about 7 minutes to play, you could basically chalk it into the books. Bettis wasn’t the fastest player but he was the perfect “closer” with his thunderous running style, often barreling through multiple defenders before being brought down.
Coming off injury-plagued 2002 and ’03 seasons, it appeared his career was coming to a close, with his YPC dipping to only 3.3 in ’03. After signing Duce Staley in the offseason of ’04 to be the feature back, he ultimately went down with an injury and none other filled in than the ageless wonder Bettis, who rushed for 941 yards and 13 scores while carrying the offense on his burly shoulders after starting QB Tommy Maddox went down in week 2, giving way for rookie phenom Ben Roethlisberger as the team advanced all the way to the AFC Championship. Despite losing to the Patriots, the team had unfinished business and sealed the deal the following season, in Bettis’ hometown of Detroit, MI.
Despite being eligible for induction since 2011, Bettis had to wait a few years until receiving the nod this year, and for some like fellow RB and 2012 inductee Curtis Martin, the wait was a head-scratcher.
“For him to be somewhat of a pioneer in my opinion, as far as a big guy who moved the way that he did, I don’t know that we really have ever seen it,” Martin said, according to Teresa Varley of Steelers.com. “The only person that I can think of that is even close to Jerome is Earl Campbell. I would tell them to look at his full body of work, where he is right now, at No. 6 on the NFL’s all-time rushing list. I don’t know how he is not in the Hall of Fame. I thought the guy would be in the Hall of Fame before I was.”
At 5-foot-11 and a “conservatively” listed 255 pounds, he was a game-changer and he was so much more than a large back who most generally pigeon-hole into goal line or short yardage situations. He was elusive, possessed quick feet, could run between the tackles like a back half his size, and could run away from defenders at the second level.
Unlike home run hitters at running back like Gale Sayers or Barry Sanders, Bettis amassed his 13,662 yards and 91 touchdowns the hard way, arguably none of which occurring without him bulldozing for every last yard, sometimes with two or three defenders draped on him. Although my memories of Bettis scan far and wide, there is one of “The Bus” that I can recall vividly, as if it was just yesterday. In his swan-song season of ’05, at 7-5 with their season in the balance versus the 9-3 Chicago Bears, Bettis ran for 101 yards and 2 scores, with the second being the exclamation point on the day. Fighting his way across the goal line, Bettis train wrecked Defensive Player of the Year and All-Pro middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.
Questioned after the game if he knew who he had dismantled, Bettis nodded. “I knew it was him,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a big hit. I just tried to play off of it and keep those legs churning. He didn’t let go, but I’ve made a living off of carrying people – that’s why they call me The Bus.”
The HOF is filled with bigger backs like John Riggins, Larry Csonka and Earl Campbell but none of which had the intangibles of Bettis. He played the game with a burning desire to leave it all on the field every single time he set foot on it, with his last moments on it leaving him a world champion. And tomorrow evening, for his warrior-like efforts, he’ll be recognized as undeniably one of the best running backs to ever put on a helmet when he’s enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.