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Steelers Last-minute shot snafu a bitter pill for Bettis

Monday, January 21, 2002

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

After seven weeks of inactivity, Jerome Bettis was doing more than loosening his body when he high-stepped up and down the grass surface at Heinz Field with Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, his usual warm-up partner. It was 90 minutes before the start of yesterday's AFC divisional playoff game with the Baltimore Ravens, before the Bus would make his return to competitive action. Bettis was so excited to be playing again he was likely high-stepping around the field from sheer giddiness.


 
 
Online Graphic:
Nerves in the groin area

   

 

"I had a great session," Bettis said. "I came back in the locker room, they asked me how I feel and I said I felt great. I just wanted to get a little touchup."

On the day he was scheduled to return to the Steelers' lineup, it was the last time Bettis stepped onto the playing field.

When the Steelers came back out for their pregame warm-ups, about 45 minutes later, Bettis was not running practice plays with the offense.

When Fuamatu-Ma'afala, a running back, and his teammates went back to the locker room, they knew something was wrong. There was Bettis, tears in his eyes.

Shortly thereafter, Coach Bill Cowher gathered the players and told them Bettis would not play against the Ravens. He did not tell them why: That Bettis had an adverse reaction to an injection of painkiller in the leg, near his injured groin. When Bettis received the shot, the needle struck a nerve, numbing his leg.

"I felt for him," said wide receiver Hines Ward. "Fu came over and hugged him, Amos came over and hugged him. He was crying."

"I told him it's going to be OK," Fuamatu-Ma'afala said. "I told him I'm going to take care of it for him. He's our leader and our captain."

"I was disappointed because I was looking forward to seeing Jerome back out there," said center Jeff Hartings.

But, just as they did the last time they played the Ravens, the Steelers took care of business without Bettis. They got 63 yards rushing and two touchdowns from Zereoue, another 30 yards from Fuamatu-Ma'afala, and dispatched the Ravens, 27-10, to advance to the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots.

Curiously, it was the second game in a row in which Bettis was scheduled to play, only to have his plans derailed. Two weeks ago, Bettis was going to play in the season finale against the Cleveland Browns, but Cowher scrapped the idea before the game because of the snow conditions and slippery field.

"I reminded them that Jerome also didn't play on that Sunday night game that we played in Baltimore and that Fu and Amos were going to have to pick up the slack," Cowher said. "This football team, all year, has never been about one individual. This football team has been about a bunch of guys who have taken whatever adversity that has been handed them and accepted the challenge. I thought we did that today."

Cowher said Bettis is fine, and he'll be ready to practice this week and play against the Patriots. But he couldn't play against the Ravens because the numbness takes five hours to wear off.

Nonetheless, it was the sixth consecutive game Bettis has missed since his groin was injured Dec. 2 against the Minnesota Vikings. At the time of the injury, he was leading the National Football League in rushing with 1,072 yards.

"It hit me when the team went out for introductions," Bettis said. "They called everybody up and, at that point, it was a deadening feeling in my heart because I worked real hard to get back for the game. To be ready to play and to not be able to play because your leg goes numb was a scary feeling."

Bettis said he took the injection before the game because he knew his injured groin would hurt and he didn't want to possibly take a shot during the game or at halftime.

It is not uncommon for players to take painkilling injections before a game. The injection masks the pain in a specific area, allowing the player to move or run more freely.

"I just wanted to get it out of the way," Bettis said. "In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have done it because I didn't really need it to point where it would have affected me playing. It was a situation, because of the nature of the injury, I have to deal with pain, a certain degree of pain.

"The injury, for all intents and purposes, is healed. But there's a pain threshold that I have to deal with. I didn't want to go into the game with that."

So Bettis spent the game in the training room, watching Zereoue, his replacement, score two touchdowns in the first half to help build a 20-3 lead.

"If there were 60,000 people out there screaming, there was one big guy in here going crazy," Bettis said.

Zereoue said there was an eerie buzz in the crowd when he, not Bettis, lined up at halfback to start the game. He even said the Ravens were looking around for Bettis, which might explain why Zereoue gained 12 yards around the left side on the first play from scrimmage.

"All of a sudden they realize he's not in there and they got this other guy there running all over the place," Bettis said.

That's what Bettis was hoping to be doing against the Ravens.

Now, after this setback, he has to wait yet another week to face the Patriots.

"It was a freak accident," Bettis said. "It was something that shouldn't have happened."

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