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Steelers Bettis, Bruener start the 'show'

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

By Ray Fittipaldo, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Steelers attendance was nearly 100 percent for the first day of voluntary sessions yesterday, and Bill Cowher said it was the first time that has happened in his 12 seasons as head coach.

Jerome Bettis: "The Bus still has a little trailer left." (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Among those who showed up for work at the team's South Side training facility were two prominent veterans who might not be with the team when the season begins in September.

Ten-year veteran running back Jerome Bettis and eight-year veteran tight end Mark Bruener, both coming off injuries, are hoping to demonstrate that they have something left in their tanks.

"I don't have anything to prove," said Bettis, who missed four games last season with a knee injury. "I think 10 years in and what I've done, that proves it all. I think sometimes you need to show people that it's still there. It's an opportunity for me to come out and show everybody that the Bus still has a little trailer left."

Coming off his training sessions with track coach Bob Kersee in California, Bettis appeared to be in good shape when the team ran sprints at the end of the workout yesterday. He was among the leaders in his running group, ahead of his competition, Amos Zereoue and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala.

Bettis has much to prove after his second-least productive season as a professional. He gained 666 yards last season and, because of a late-season injury, had only four carries in two playoff games. He has four years left on a six-year, $30-million contract that included a $6 million signing bonus. The Steelers could cut Bettis after June 1 and have only the $4 million prorated portion of the bonus count against their salary cap in 2003 and '04, and drop $5.7 million in salary obligations they would owe Bettis the next two years.

At the end of last season, Cowher hinted that Bettis might not be back. He was noncommittal yesterday.

"He's on our football team," Cowher said of Bettis. "There's no guarantees. There are going to be some very competitive situations going into camp with Amos, Fu and Jerome. ... He's here, and the way he has approached this off-season, I think it's obvious to a lot of people that he's out to remove any doubt that anyone may have."

Bettis' chances of staying with the team might have been enhanced by the Steelers not taking a running back in April's draft. Fuamatu-Ma'afala has been injury-prone his five seasons, and there has been speculation that Zereoue and Bettis might share time.

Bettis said yesterday that the coaches have not discussed his role with the team.

Bruener's status is undetermined as well. In March, the Steelers signed free agent Jay Rimersma to a three-year, $3.95 million contract. The club also signed Bruner's backup the past few seasons, Jerame Tuman, to a three-year, $3.3 million deal that included a $600,000 signing bonus.

Bruener has missed the playoffs the past two seasons because of injuries. He had knee surgery this winter after rotator cuff surgery in 2001. Because of his injuries and the evolution of the offense toward more passing last season, Bruener might not fit in.

"It's a good question," he said. "I'm approaching this off-season program as I've approached the last eight -- that's to try and find a way to help this club and organization win a championship. ... I still believe I can contribute to a football team. I hope it's here. But we'll cross that hurdle when it comes."

Bruener said his knee is feeling fine and should get the go-ahead from team trainers to commence full activities next week. The voluntary workouts run through the first week of June. If the Steelers release him after June 1, the club could clear $2,000,050 of cap room for next season.

Like Bettis, Bruener said he has not discussed his role or status with the coaches, and he does not plan to ask anytime soon.

"I don't think I need to right now," he said. "I feel this organization will be straight with me when the decision is made. I haven't had a reason to change my approach. I'm going to show up for work every day with the same attitude that I've had. If that has to change, then I'll have to adjust. But I feel that I shouldn't worry about things I can't control. I have to worry about things I can control. What I can control is my approach and how I show up for work every day."

NOTES -- The Steelers yesterday signed free-agent receiver Chris Doering, a move that could be a sign that free agent Terance Mathis won't return. Doering, a six-year veteran who played last season with the Washington Redskins, will be playing for his fifth NFL team. He also has had stints with Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Denver. ... The only player who could not attend the voluntary session was free-agent offensive lineman Jack Fadule, who is still attending classes at Harvard. "I think it's important," Cowher said. "This is the foundation for our football team. This is everybody. This is where it starts. I appreciate everyone showing up. They didn't have to be here. It was good that they were. It's important. It's us getting together for the first time and hopefully picking up where we left off."

Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.

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