Bus revved for trip to hometown
DENVER — The game was over, but Jerome Bettis had one more handoff to take from Ben Roethlisberger.
It was moments after the Steelers had returned to their locker room, joyously celebrating their 34-17 AFC Championship game victory over the Denver Broncos when Roethlisberger took the game ball and stuffed it into Bettis’ hands.
“This is the third one,” Roethlisberger said, leaning in to hug the 255-pound running back. “We’ve got one more to get. One more.”
Bettis put down the Lamar Hunt Trophy he was carrying and clutched the ball like a newborn baby. Center Jeff Hartings stood a few feet away capturing the moment on his camcorder.
“Thank you,” Bettis said softly.
It was a scene that had been acted out earlier this month in Cincinnati and again in Indianapolis, Roethlisberger possessing the game ball and delivering it to Bettis. If it happens again Feb. 5 in Detroit — Bettis’ hometown — it means the Bus will park his magnificent career in the space reserved for Super Bowl champions.
Bettis, the fifth all-time rusher in NFL history, delayed retirement for one more season — a lucky 13th as it turned out — for the chance to play in Super Bowl XL at Ford Field.
Three improbable road playoff victories put Bettis one win away from having a fairytale finish to his career.
“It’s a dream come true,” Bettis said. “I came back because I knew we had a good team, and I knew the Super Bowl was in my backyard. I’m glad everything worked out.”
Win or lose, will the Super Bowl be Bettis’ final game?
“That’s a great question,” Bettis said. “I’m going to look at it. The last thing I want to do is diminish anything by even thinking about that. This is a great opportunity we have. I’m going to wait until after the Super Bowl and think about it.”
Bettis helped the Steelers reach the NFL’s pinnacle game with a game-high 39 yards on 15 carries. It included a 3-yard touchdown run late in the first half that gave the Steelers a 17-3 lead and atoned for his near-disastrous goal-line fumble in the waning moments last weekend against the Indianapolis Colts.
“I wanted to get that one behind me,” Bettis said. “To be able to come through in a critical situation was incredible.”
Bettis also made a crunching block on blitzing Broncos safety John Lynch in the third quarter to enable Roethlisberger to complete a 30-yard pass to Cedrick Wilson immediately after Denver had sliced the Steelers’ lead to 24-10.
“I’ve got so much respect for Jerome and what he’s brought to this football team,” said Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who received a Gatorade bath from Bettis as the clock wound to zero. “My relationship with him is he’s a classy guy, and he’s been such an inspiration.”
“He’s meant so much as a player, but he’s also done so much as far as motivating and showing these young people just what they should do,” Steelers chairman Dan Rooney said. “He’s been a real leader.”
Bettis showed his leadership skills on the eve of the game when he spoke up during a team meeting. He delivered an impassioned pep talk, imploring his Steelers teammates to complete two tasks.
“Give 110 percent,” Bettis said. “And get me home.”
“It’s unusual,” Bettis later said about speech. “But in a game like this, sometimes, it’s necessary. I felt like they responded to it.”
Bettis had been 0-3 in AFC Championship games since joining the Steelers in 1996. Last year, he was stopped early on a fourth-and-1 and was stuffed twice within the 5-yard line late in what turned out to be a 41-27 loss to the New England Patriots.
It was near the end of that game that Roethlisberger made a promise to Bettis.
“I was in the middle of tears,” Bettis recalled. “We were on the sidelines, the clock was winding down, and it was obvious we had lost the game. He was boohoo-ing, I was boohoo-ing. He turned to me and said, ‘Come back. I’ll get you to the Super Bowl. Just come back. Give me one more year.'”
Roethlisberger didn’t let Bettis down yesterday, throwing two touchdown passes and running for the final score.
“I would say he’s been my driving force all year,” Roethlisberger said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to cry and apologize to him that I didn’t get him there.”
Hines Ward shed tears after last year’s championship game loss because he believed it was Bettis’ final game. Yesterday, he beamed when talking about Bettis getting the chance to play in his first Super Bowl.
“What better way to go than to go the place where it all started for him,” Ward said. “But we don’t want to be content with just getting him there. We want him to win.”