“I remember meeting up with him one time and I gave him a hug and I was like ‘Oh my gosh,’” said Hoge, who played for the Steelers from 1987-93 and is now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “To get your arms around this dude was not easy. And him running with a full head of steam…oh my gosh what a defender had to deal with. He was a unique beast. To get your arms around him would be a large task and with a full head of steam, it would be so much harder.
“I feel bad for the defenders. You have to be a big man to take him on and win and get back up and talk about it. To wrap up on him, wow. His quickness and size made it tough. People couldn’t get their arms around him. You can’t wrap him up. You had to get around his legs. If you dealt with his shoulder area, you could forget it.”
While Hoge never had to worry about trying to stop Bettis, former Steelers’ linebacker Jerry Olsavsky was faced with that task at times in practice. And he can tell you, it wasn’t easy.
“When you are six inches away from the guy and you say I got him and you don’t hit him, you wonder how did that happen,” said Olsavsky, now a defensive assistant with the team. “People talk about how he was a good bowler and I think that helped him because his feet were so good.
“I loved him because he had two options, he could beat you outside or he could run you over. I remember him playing here in the first Monday Night game he ever played in. He wasn’t starting for us and we rolled him out and it was like the brand new Corvette comes out with the big rammer on the front. He made a couple of guys miss and he gave the shake and ran them over. I liked watching that as a defensive player. He was good. He made you better.”
Hoge never played with Bettis, his career ending prior to Bettis arriving in Pittsburgh. But he played against Bettis’ Los Angeles Rams team in 1993, watching the rookie running back rush for a 29-yard touchdown in his second NFL game in a 27-0 Rams win. He also watched Bettis as his career developed, particularly during his Steelers’ years, and has always marveled at what he could do.
“He had tremendous feet,” said Hoge. “His lateral movement was great for any size. He could play between the tackles, which in the NFL is the majority of where you play. The combination of his size, power and quickness allowed him to be extremely unique and rare.”
While Hoge loved what Bettis did on the field, he also has the utmost respect for him off the field. Just like anyone who has met Bettis, Hoge glowingly talks about the type of person he is and the type of leader he was for the team, particularly being the driving force behind the team’s run to becoming Super Bowl XL champions.
“Jerome wasn’t much of a talker,” said Hoge. “You can talk all of you want, but you can’t pronounce leadership. People will be motivated maybe for a moment by words, but they are sustained by action, how a person prepared, the things he did. Those are the things that I am sure resonated with that team. All of the things that he had done, that people witnessed him doing to get ready every Sunday is what was impactful to them and what meant the most. If someone was a phony and just got up and gave a speech, players aren’t fools. They think whatever.
“Players respected Jerome. He set that standard. He didn’t have to say anything, people watching him and witnessing him, that inspired them.”
Hoge hopes now that the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters are equally inspired and they will give Bettis his just due when the Class of 2013 is announced this Saturday in New Orleans.
“Jerome did it at a high level for a long time in a physical nature which is rare,” said Hoge. “That style fades fast, but he didn’t. His brutal and punishing style of running, guys like that usually only play seven or eight years. That stands out as a unique and rare quality he had. And some of his most signature runs came in his last years. Running over guys is one thing, but when you run over a guy like (Bears linebacker) Brian Urlacher, that’s another story.
“His style, how he did it, and how long he did it are the things that stand out the most. He was as rare as they come.”
Tags: Hall of Fame, Jerome Bettis, Jerry Olsavsky, Merril Hoge
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