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Steelers Bettis named Steelers MVP

Running back earns award for third time

Thursday, December 21, 2000

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Since Jerome Bettis had just been voted by his teammates as their most valuable player for this season, the question was posed to Wayne Gandy as to where they might have been this season without him.

Gandy could not answer.

Steelers running back Jerome Bettis (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

"I don't know. I never thought about Jerome not being out there, so you're asking me a question I never thought about. I don't think the Steelers have ever been through a long period without Jerome, have they?"

One game without Bettis may be long enough. The Steelers have had to play without him only twice in his five seasons and one occurred when Coach Bill Cowher held him out of the meaningless final game of the 1997 season to rest him for the playoffs.

That, as much as his consistent production, is why they voted the man who began his pro career as a blocking back and now has nearly 10,000 yards rushing as their MVP for the third time in the past five seasons. Linebacker Levon Kirkland won the award the past two seasons after Bettis won it in his first two with the Steelers, 1996 and 1997.

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Bettis is having his best season in the past three. He has rushed for 1,290 yards, his fifth consecutive over 1,000 and the fourth-best in club history. He's accumulating the kind of statistics that put players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Despite injuries that seem to change each week, from bruised ribs to a bruised thumb to turf toe and a foot injury and bruised shins, he has not missed an assignment.

"Jerome's rock solid," guard Alan Faneca said. "He's in there every week. He's playing hurt. Jerome has an offensive lineman's mentality. Offensive linemen go out there and play hurt. You just play, you're out there all the time no matter what and you're playing ball. That's the same way Jerome approaches it."

Tight end Mark Bruener recognized the effort long ago by helping Bettis up after each carry.

"The Steelers' style of play is pretty much a running style," said Bruener. "We've been known for having great running backs since Franco [Harris] was here back in the '70s. Our running game sets up our passing game. Jerome consistently runs the ball hard, and he's dependable. If there's anybody you can really count on showing up on Sunday, it's Jerome. He's battled through many, many injuries and he's fought adversity. I really admire the way he plays."

Bettis has changed that style through the years in order to survive as the only 250-pound back among the top 15 rushers in NFL history. He came out of Notre Dame as a blocking fullback, and that's how his pro career started with the Los Angeles Rams in 1993.

But injuries to Cleveland Gary and other runners prompted the Rams to move Bettis to tailback, and he has run himself into NFL history.

"That," Bettis said, "was definitely the best move in my career."

The second was when Tom Donahoe, the Steelers' former director of football operations, engineered a trade the morning of the 1996 draft that sent the Rams a second-round draft choice that year and a fourth-rounder in 1997 and got a third-rounder in return in '96 and Bettis.

It likely was the best trade for a player in Steelers history.

"Change is always scary," Bettis said, "and, when I left the Rams, it was change. I was going somewhere that I didn't know a lot about. I knew about the history of running backs and that the Steelers had a long tradition of big running backs ... and I knew it was a great situation from a football standpoint.

"What I didn't understand were the opportunities off the field in the community involvement, and how the fans were going to just gravitate to me so quickly. Those are things that you can't measure and things that are really priceless. It's something that I would have never imagined in my wildest dreams."

He has three of the top four rushing seasons in franchise history and he would have claimed No. 1 if he weren't held out of the final game to rest a minor injury for the playoffs. He finished 25 yards short of Barry Foster's record 1,690 in 1992.

But this may have been his most satisfying season because many believed his career was on the downswing after two consecutive subpar seasons for him, although both were over 1,000 yards.

"To be criticized and ridiculed as much as I was and for all the preseason publications and anyone to say that I was pretty much washed up, that this was definitely my last hurrah and that my best years are behind me, it's refreshing."

When he was in Los Angeles and then St. Louis, Bettis was known as the "Battering Ram." When he was traded to the Steelers, he said he would rather be known as The Bus, a nickname he received at Notre Dame.

It did not become widely used until Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope picked up on it. Cope was in the lobby of a hotel when someone called out to Bettis by the name "Bussie."

"The next thing you know," Bettis said, "he grabbed it and he came over to me and said, 'Can I call you The Bus?' The next thing you know, it's a cult following, so to speak."

Bettis has become a cult industry here, what with all The Bus food items at Giant Eagle and the Bus Pass and the Bus bus that travels to all the road games, and all those radio and TV shows and all those yards.

It may be coming to an end. Sunday could be the final time Jerome Bettis pulls on a Steelers jersey. He becomes a free agent if he's not signed by March 2.

"I really think that I'm going to be here. I'm taking a really proactive approach about it. I want to stay here, so I feel if I can talk about it as much as I am, then hopefully it will happen.

"I would like to think that it's not going to be the last time that I have a Steelers uniform on."

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