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The Bus drives Steelers into the playoffs
Bettis scores 3 TDs in possible Heinz Field finale
Monday, January 02, 2006

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Jerome Bettis bursts onto Heinz Field for what may be his last home game as a Steeler.
Click photo for larger image.

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Jerome Bettis barged out of the Heinz Field tunnel for the last time at 12:57 p.m. yesterday, high-stepping, fists clenched, a joyous ball of quick-twitch muscle fiber aching to command one final standing O.

Unless, of course, he didn't.

Unless, of course, it wasn't.

Unless he has another script in development, another way he'd like to leave this stage, some incredible cadenza that eclipses the three thunderclap touchdowns that broke down the door to the playoffs for a Steelers team that might not have done it without him.

"You take it for granted so many times, being in that tunnel," he said. "I was really concentrating, looking at the cracks, the way the lights look from there, looking at everything, just taking a kind of snapshot of it. Because when it's over, the only way you see the tunnel is from the outside looking in."

The more Bettis tried to explain his emotions and his plans in the hour after he dragged Bill Cowher's walking hangover of a football team past the Detroit Lions, the more it became clear that Bettis might not be sure which way he's facing in the dark psychological tunnel leading to life after football.

He reconfigured every question, lined them up randomly, shrugged them into postponement.

"At what point does your body fail you?" he said. "At one point are you less a player? At one point do you ask yourself, 'Am I in the way of this franchise going forward?' That's the last thing I want to do."

It was a lot more satisfying, presumably, to get in the way of a team going backward so fast it was backing right out of the playoffs. That's when Bettis grabbed a fourth-and-goal handoff at the Detroit 1 and slammed into the end zone behind fullback Dan Kreider for a 14-14 tie with the dreadful Lions as the first quarter expired.

At the end of a first half that saw Ben Roethlisberger deliver a stunningly flaccid 9.3 passer rating and Hines Ward fail to catch a pass, including the one that went through his hands and hit him in the face in the end zone, Bettis slashed 5 yards to the score that put the Steelers ahead, 21-14. His personal-best-tying third touchdown made it 28-14, and his 3-yard bash on third-and-1 sustained the drive that gave the Steelers another 14-point lead after the Lions had slashed it to seven, which pretty much left players and coaches on both sides in awe.

"I thought about falling down at the 1 so he could get a fourth one," said Roethlisberger, who scrambled 7 yards for Pittsburgh's final score. "I guess I didn't think fast enough."

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Jerome Bettis gets a hug from Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers locker room after the game.
Click photo for larger image.

Roethlisberger pointedly put off any discussion of Bettis' impact on this day, perhaps saving it for a time more suitable.

"I can't talk about Jerome too much," he said. "I'll get a little too emotional."

Cowher had come into the postgame news conference intent on praising his special teams and looking toward the playoff-lurking Cincinnati Bengals, but when Bettis' name dropped, it put a severe strain on the head coach's emotions as well.

"I have so much appreciation for him; I think he's going to be one of those guys that when the day comes that he's not here, there's going to be a void there because it seems like he's always been there," Cowher said. "I have tremendous appreciation, more than I can ever express, for what he stands for as a football player but more so for what he stands for as a person. For every yard that he's gained on the field, this guy, in my mind, has exceeded that off the field, the kind of individual he is, the way he gives back. I've never been around too many guys like that."

Leave it to Bettis to bump the head coach hard toward eloquence, even toward tears.

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Fans cheer Jerome Bettis' third touchdown at Heinz Field
Click photo for larger image.

When what was still very likely the last Pittsburgh crowd to see him perform finally got its playoff tickets punched, the swell of appreciation for No. 36 took on monumental dimensions. It chanted "One more year!" It supplied a raucous, moving soundtrack to the Bettis runs lighting up the Jumbotron. It felt, and tried to fill with its collective voice, the void Cowher anticipates.

"These fans have been my biggest supporters my whole career," he said. "The love was definitely there, and I love them back."

It was, amid the raw brutality of this business, an intensely poignant scene, so genuine it avoided the game's lamest cliche. At one point, tackle Barrett Brooks went to the trainer's table and picked up the big tub of Gatorade. He turned toward Bettis.

"I saw him and said, 'No, don't even think about it,'" Bettis said. "I knew the big one might be coming. As a running back, you have eyes in the back of your head, so I was able to foil that plot. That's why coaches always get nailed with it. They never hit a hole."

Of most head coaches, that is true, and so is this. No one ever hit a hole harder than Bettis. And that will be true for a long, long time.

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Jerome Bettis grinds forward to gain 4 yards on his last carry of the game at Heinz Field.
Click photo for larger image
First published on January 2, 2006 at 12:00 am
Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette or 412-263-1283.