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The morning after: A Monday with Steelers running back Jerome Bettis

Sunday, December 23, 2001

By Peter Diana, Post-Gazette Staff Photographer

A day earlier, 62,661 people had paid to watch Jerome Bettis put a hurt on the Minnesota Vikings. He gained 81 yards on the ground and 16 yards through the air in a hard-fought 21-16 Steelers victory.

That was Dec. 2. Then came wake-up the next day -- MRI Monday, some call it -- and Post-Gazette photographer Peter Diana was the only spectator as Bettis, 29, grappled with a different sort of weekly struggle:

Getting out of bed.

Just putting on his socks is a struggle for Bettis the morning after he suffered his injury. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

A spokesman for the National Football League Players Association said no statistics are kept on position players' missed games due to injury. But the pounding taken by grind-out-the-yardage guys such as Bettis is obvious.

He has surprising quickness for such a bulky back -- 5 feet 11, 255 pounds -- and that has saved him some wear and tear: "Because I'm so big, everybody tries to load up and hit me," he says. "Having quick feet gives me an opportunity to make them miss and set guys up because they don't think I'm as quick as I am."

Eventually, though, what runs, catches or blocks in the NFL must get hit and go down. The man called "The Bus" is no exception.

Before he was injured against the Vikings, Bettis had run with the ball 225 times this season, and that means an almost equal number of times he was pounded into the turf by 300-pound linemen.

 
 
Photojournal

Jerome Bettis Monday Morning

   
 

When the Bus wakes up the morning after a game, the popular running back with the usually beatific smile is all grimaces and groans. And after the game against the Vikings, there was an ominous limp as well.

7:20 a.m.

The Bus is in pain. He says it's always hardest getting out of bed the morning after a game, but this day it's worse than usual. The alarm goes off in his Hampton home, and Bettis tries to roll out of bed. But it is obvious that the hip injury he suffered in the Vikings game might be serious. He moves to a sitting position in stages, first perched on his elbows, then leaning on his hands, then pulling his left leg -- as if it were dead weight -- over the side of the bed.

Gingerly, Bettis tries standing on his right foot. With some help from the wall, he hobbles for the bathroom.

7:30 a.m.

Bettis brushes his teeth and hits his face with a cold washcloth.

The injury came late in the third quarter. He aggravated a hip injury from the previous week after hauling in a 16-yard screen pass and being tackled by Vikings defensive backs Eric Kelly and Tyrone Carter. Bettis was able to limp off the field. The hip was iced, and he was told to get an MRI today.

7:40 a.m.

He is still moving slowly as he enters his large L-shaped walk-in closet. It is filled with baseball caps, shoes, workout pants and hundreds of "Bus" T-shirts.

He grimaces as he tries to lift his left leg to get dressed.

7:50 a.m.

Just 15 hours ago, Bettis was sprinting through the Vikings defense. Now, it looks doubtful that he's going to be able to make it downstairs to the kitchen. Leaning heavily on the banister with his right hand and pushing off from the wall with his left, Bettis lowers himself one step at a time.

7:55 a.m.

Bettis' personal assistant, Larry Parker, is waiting in the kitchen to go over the day's schedule and catch up on autograph-signing. As they talk, The Bus has breakfast. Propping himself up against the counter, he grabs a large Tupperware bowl, a spoon and Sugar Pops. He grimaces occasionally between spoonfuls.

8:20 a.m.

Bettis begins the day with a Sugar Pops breakfast. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Bettis get ready to drive himself to UPMC Shadyside to get the MRI examination of his hip injury. He limps from the kitchen to the hall, picks up his shoes and sits in the dining room. Even slipping on his shoes is a struggle.

The process continues as Bettis slowly lifts one leg, then the other, into his silver Mercedes.

Driving through Pittsburgh is not an anonymous prospect. At every red light or stop sign, people do double takes. They move their cars up or lean into the street just to make sure it is he, then motion to Bettis with a thumbs-up or a wave, or they shout out a Steelers chant. Some even reach out of their cars to shake his hand.

As he tries to enter a parking garage, the woman working the booth runs in front of his car. Bettis slams on the brakes. She scurries to the driver's side window, unbuttons her shirt and insists Bettis sign her chest. He finally obliges.

In the hospital elevator, an elderly woman asks if she can shake his hand. She tells him what a fine job he's doing, and as he exits the elevators, she mutters, "I hope you can play Sunday."

He is limping so badly at this point that a nurse asks him if he needs a wheelchair.

Bettis declines and slowly makes his way down a hallway, stopping to smile, sign autographs and shake hands with fans eager to meet him.

9 a.m.

Alone at last in a waiting room, Bettis slips into a hospital gown and sits with his head down and his hands folded until he is summoned to begin the MRI -- one of the few times since he's left the house that he's without his ever-present cell phone.

He's been here before. All the nurses seem to know him. They joke and laugh, but there is concern in their eyes.

A nurse asks him to scoot up a little as he positions himself on the table that will slide inside the huge magnet of the MRI unit. Bettis grimaces but doesn't complain as he slides up and smiles at the nurse.

After the examination, Bettis meets with his doctor, James Bradley. They decide that Bettis should see another specialist to make sure that his injury is not similar to the hip joint injury that ended running back Bo Jackson's career.

12:50 p.m.

A neck treatment designed to improve Bettis' range of motion is part of the running back's weekly sessions with chiropractor Geno Pisciottano of McMurray. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

It is a short drive from Shadyside to the Steelers' South Side practice complex. As Bettis walks slowly to an appointment with Steelers trainer John Norwig, a constant stream of security guards, maintenance workers and painters ask how he feels. Bettis nods and says he is OK, but the limp says otherwise.

In the locker room, Bettis is greeted by injured tight end Mark Bruener, who is waiting to see Norwig to assess the rehabilitation of a season-ending shoulder injury. Bettis struggles to change clothes as Bruener reassures him there is plenty of time left in the season for the running back to heal.

Bettis hobbles into the training room, where Norwig, hands on hips, greets him, carefully watching him walk, before beginning treatment.

Later, Norwig gives Bettis detailed instructions on how to ice his leg at home and asks to see him again the next morning. They will assess the injury each day before deciding whether he can practice or play by the end of the week.

Bettis checks in with Coach Bill Cowher, then dresses and heads to the dining hall for lunch.

4 p.m.

Football can also be a pain in the neck. Bettis has his weekly session with his chiropractor, Dr. Geno Pisciottano, at Progressive Health Care in McMurray.

Bettis sits in a chair with his head pulled back as Pisciottano moves a pen-like instrument called a Pro Adjuster across Bettis' neck, visibly increasing the range of motion of his neck.

5 p.m.

Bettis returns home for a nap.

6:30 p.m.

Hundreds of fans pack the Dick's Sporting Goods store in the North Hills. It is time for "Inside the Red Zone," a KDKA radio talk show that features Bettis for a half-hour on Monday evenings. Wearing a headset and microphone, Bettis is seated with as much weight as possible off his left side. He beams as he chats with host Thor Tolo and jokes with the fans.

Although his radio contract says he can leave as soon as the show is over, Bettis stays late for a long line of fans. He signs football helmets, pennants, ticket stubs and, of course, Bettis jerseys and Bus T-shirts.

After the last fan thanks him, he tries to stand. His hip is stiff, and he has to balance himself by grabbing the edge of a table.

At the loading dock are more mini-helmets, pennants and photos for Bettis to sign. He stands, favoring his right foot, signs them all, and then spins on the good leg to say goodbye to store employees.

The limp is worse as Bettis walks to his Mercedes.

8:30 p.m.

Back in his home, Bettis slides off his shoes and sits sideways on the couch to watch "Sports Center"on ESPN. Minutes later, he is asleep.

Postscript: The MRI and further checkups showed no serious injury, but Jerome Bettis has not played in the two games since Dec. 2, marking the first time he has missed consecutive games and only the fifth he has sat out in his nine-year career. Bettis, bothered by pain in his hip and groin, says he and the Steelers won't take any chances with his availability for the playoffs. He is listed as doubtful for today's Steelers game vs. the Detroit Lions.


Peter Diana is a Post-Gazette staff photographer.

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