In his first training camp with the Steelers, Jerome Bettis knew right away he was in an offense where he could flourish. The Steelers and Coach Bill Cowher loved the power running game and Bettis’ eyes lit up every day in practice when he saw the potential that existed.
“I know what a back would be capable of doing in an offense like this,” said Bettis in August, 1996, just months after being traded to the Steelers from the St. Louis Rams on draft day and before he ever stepped foot on the field in the black and gold.
He wasted no time making good on those words. In his first season in Pittsburgh Bettis led the Steelers in rushing with 1,431 yards on 320 carries and 11 touchdowns while winning the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award.
Out of the gate Bettis appeared to be just a classic big back, but beneath the surface he was far more. For a player of his size and style, he was fleet of foot and had the agility running backs covet.
“I have never seen a power back that was as light on their feet as he was,” said Cowher. “He would make jump cuts in the hole and his shoulders were never anything but parallel to the line of scrimmage. He could see things and get there on his feet. He had the lightest feet for a big back I have ever seen playing the game.”
Bettis managed to use those light feet to rush for 10,571 yards with the Steelers, bringing his 13 year career total to 13,662, which ranks sixth overall in NFL history. He had eight 1,000 yard seasons in his career, leading the Rams in rushing all three of his seasons there and the Steelers in rushing eight times. In a day and age when a bruising back doesn’t last long, he was able to sustain a successful 13-year career because of the way he played the game, delivering the pounding more often than taking it.
“The great thing about Jerome was you rarely saw him take a hit,” said Cowher. “He was always the one who initiated the hit. He had a great sense of balance, a great sense of forward lean. Most of the time he was the one that was able to initiate hits. There were times in the fourth quarter when all he had to do was make a little snip step and he could make people miss because they had to brace for him. I have never seen a guy who could make people miss in a hole better than him. He could go sideways when he needed to. But the biggest thing he had was his sense of balance and his forward lean.”
Cowher will be among those keeping a close eye on what happens in New Orleans this Saturday, when the Hall of Fame voters will decide if this is finally Bettis’ turn. He has been a finalist each of the three years he has been eligible, and Cowher thinks it’s his time and that Bettis should be a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2013.
“I think it’s three years overdue so it would be a travesty if he doesn’t get in because he is one of the great running backs that has played in the National Football League,” said Cowher. “There is not a stat that you can produce that doesn’t back that up.”
But Cowher thinks there are reasons far beyond the impressive numbers that should land Bettis on the steps of the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio late this summer. While Bettis put up the numbers of a superstar, he never had the attitude of one. He was a blue-collar worker, a team-first guy all the way.
“If I had 53 guys like him I could coach for 30 years,” said Cowher. “He was a joy to be around. He was the voice of the team. He set the tone. When your leader is one of your best workers, and he was that, it makes coaching easy. He was very dependable, reliable and obviously very productive. The way he led, he was a worker on the field. He had very natural leadership abilities and it was infectious on the field. He was a mentor when he needed to be, he inspired when he needed to.”
Never was that inspiration more noticeable than during the Steelers run in the 2005 season, which culminated in winning Super Bowl XL. Bettis’ teammates knew it was going to be his last year playing, and they wanted nothing more than to win the Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, allowing him to go out on top.
Bettis wasn’t a starter that year, instead giving way to a younger, speedier Willie Parker, but he accepted his role of coming in and getting the short yardage, scoring when they had the ball close to the goal line, and thriving in the role. And despite all of the other talent on offense, he was still the identity the identity of it.
“It made it very easy as a coach to ask people to accept roles when you had one of the greatest running backs to play the game do the same,” said Cowher. “Jerome Bettis was taking the back seat and playing a specific role. How he led by example, the way he accepted his position on the team, was who he was. I have never been a part of a team where one of your biggest leaders didn’t start and that was the case with Jerome that particular year. He was our finisher, our closer. It was a role not only he embraced, but our team embraced. He became an inspiring presence on our team. We all wanted him to finish his career on top. When you saw his humility, the sacrifices he made at times in his role, sacrifices he made to make sure he would stay with the Steelers. This guy’s middle name was team. He was a team player who played at a high level, but did what he had to do as his career went on. It’s so refreshing in today’s game to see a guy put his own self interest on the back burner for what’s in the best interest of the team.
“His teammates not only recognized that, but appreciated it. The drive we had to win that championship was inspired by Jerome Bettis.”
And now Cowher feels the same as all of those that were a part of the Super Bowl XL team, all who played with Bettis during his career, and a lot that played against him. They feel like Jerome Bettis should be in the Hall of Fame.
“I have never seen a big man, a power back who can run light on his feet like this guy,” said Cowher. “He was special, he was durable, he was dependable, and he was selfless.
“When you look at today’s game you look at great players, and great players do it over a period of time. He did that. Great players have a way of inspiring those around him. He did that. Great players produce numbers that put them in the elite. He did that. How can you ask any player to do more than that?”
Tags: Bill Cowher, Jerome Bettis
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