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Must sign pal Lester, Bettis says

Tuesday, February 16, 1999

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Jerome Bettis lowered his shoulder and drove as hard as if it were third-and-goal at the 2. The Bus was trying to bowl people over yesterday and he had several targets, including his own employers, the Steelers.

  Jerome Bettis wants to keep running behind Tim Lester, who takes out Chiefs linebacker Wayne Simons during a Steelers' victory last October. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Bettis lobbied for two things:

He wanted the Steelers to know he has not been happy with their efforts - or lack of them - to re-sign fullback Tim Lester, his longtime friend and blocker. He offered to give some of his salary to help sign him, but if they do not want Lester back, Bettis will be "disgruntled."

He pushed free-agent tackle Wayne Gandy, his former teammate with the St. Louis Rams who paid a visit here, to sign with the Steelers.

"I'm terrified at the thought of losing Tim Lester," said Bettis, who first played with the fullback as a rookie with the Los Angeles Rams in 1993. "He's the No. 1 run blocker in terms of fullbacks in the league. For us to lose him, we lose a lot of our tenacity on offense in terms of running the football."

Bettis and Lester share the same agents, and Bettis said they have kept him informed of talks with the Steelers. One of them, Peter Schaffer, declined comment on the progress of the Lester negotiations. Bettis has the impression they are not going well.

"I think it's important for the organization to make some type of commitment to him, that they appreciate his work," Bettis said. "That's important; I don't know if that's been done, and I don't know why, if it hasn't. That's a big problem and that's something I may need to talk to some people about because I can't stand that . . .

"To not even get an offer, that's really upsetting. That's what's upsetting me."

Bettis, who averages $3.65 million a year, told Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher he would put some of that toward helping to sign Lester if they would let him. "I told them I would rework my contract. We would rework my contract to help compensate him if money is the issue. That's what I told them, if money is the issue let's work it out. They appreciated it. They said we'll see what happens."

And what if they no longer want Lester, their starting fullback the past three seasons?

"That's a question I have to ask, that's a question I'm going to ask," Bettis said.

If not, "then my hands are tied at that point and you have a very, very disgruntled employee."

Lester, who turns 31 in June, earned $500,000 last season. He is used primarily as a blocker, rarely as a receiver or runner.

"In terms of the numbers, the numbers he even asked for are not out of the range of possibility," Bettis said, declining to elaborate. "That's the point I'm making. The guy doesn't want $50 million.

"I definitely don't think it's because of his play. He's the No. 1 guy on everybody else's charts in terms of talking to other teams. He's the No. 1 fullback out there right now. Behind him is William Henderson of Green Bay and they're light years apart in terms of experience and things like that."

Lester is an unrestricted free agent, and Jon Witman, the team's other fullback, is a restricted free agent. Cleveland is making arrangements to bring Lester in and Tennessee also may do so.

"It's important because of the philosophy we employ," Bettis said of the fullback position. "We're a running football team. If we don't have the key components in place it's like going out to play without a center."

To that end, Bettis talked to Gandy about signing with the Steelers. With Will Wolford's expected retirement, the Steelers don't have an established left tackle.

Gandy played there with the Rams before he moved to right tackle in 1997 to make room for Orlando Pace at left tackle. Gandy is 6-5, 310 and has started 80 straight games since his rookie season in 1994.

Bettis said finding a left tackle is "critical, critical, critical."

"Probably on offense, that's one of the most important signings that we would have to have. That's definitely high on the list. It would solidify everything [in the line]. It would put us on the right track in terms of running the football and being a good pass-protecting offense."

Bettis rated Gandy highly and spent time with him yesterday as the Steelers ushered him around. "I got my salesman's hat on today," Bettis said. "I'm trying to sell him on the team, on the community and on the city. It's important that I be here to just kind of let him know that this isn't a deal that you [just] get paid to play, there's a lot of things that come to being a Pittsburgh Steeler and the community's part of it."

Gandy said he was impressed with the Steelers' dedication to running and that they are one of five teams he has on his list. He said he and Bettis talked eight months ago about the two playing together again.

"Hopefully," he said, "there's a good chance I'll block for him here."

Bettis said the Steelers walk a fine line between a team that can contend for a Super Bowl next season or one that will enter a rebuilding stage.

He said the distinction will be made this off-season. "If we can fill the right voids with quality players, we're still a contender. But if we say 'we got to let this kid get some work,' yeah, we're rebuilding.

"I think it's important defensively. Offensively, if we can get a few key areas it will take care of itself. But defense is the area that's so concerning because there are so many gaps."

NOTES - Steelers wide receiver Charles Johnson is close to signing a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. Johnson arrived in Philadelphia last night and his agent, Joel Segal, will join him today . . . The Steelers also entertained free agent safeties Chris Hudson (Jacksonville) and Devin Bush (Atlanta) yesterday. They plan to have safety Travis Davis (Jacksonville) here this week and may talk to offensive tackle Blake Brockermeyer (Carolina) . . . Safety Lee Flowers visited the Eagles yesterday, the first of six visits scheduled for him. He is on his way to San Diego next . . . Bettis said off-season arthroscopic surgery on his left knee showed the medial collateral ligament had healed. They also removed part of his meniscus because, according to Bettis, he was born with too much of the cartilage and it was causing him some pain . . . Bettis, who tends to put on a lot of weight in the off-season, looked relatively trim and said he felt good. He said he will work with a speed coach in California this spring. "I'm comfortable with my speed, I just want to get a little bit quicker and turn some of those 20-yard runs into 50-yard runs."

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