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Jerry Dipaola

The people at Heinz Field will roar their approval and clap their hands for several minutes when Jerome Bettis is announced tonight as the Steelers’ starting running back for the exhibition game against the Houston Texans.

His face will break into a huge grin, and he’ll run onto the field, his legs pumping like two industrial-strength pistons. If others want to think it’s his last start as a Steelers player — considering the dynamic emergence of Duce Staley — Bettis doesn’t believe it.

Steelers coach Bill Cowher hasn’t named a starter for the regular season, but it’s getting close to the time when last year — after the second preseason game — he put Amos Zereoue on the first team and shoved Bettis aside.

Eventually, Bettis won back his job and ended up leading the Steelers in rushing for the seventh time. That’s why not even Staley’s strong training camp that included a 45-yard effort Saturday on only 11 carries in Detroit has dampened Bettis’ insistence that he can retake the position.

“I bet you 95 percent (of the people) didn’t figure, one, I’d be here, and two, there would be any competition,” Bettis said.

He said even the people who have confidence in him think Staley winning the job “is an open and shut book.”

“I think (the job) is (open). When you have a chance to compete, it’s open.”

The competition resumes tonight in earnest with Bettis starting, but eventually giving way to Staley, Verron Haynes and Dante Brown before the end of the night.

It appears as if Bettis, 32, is getting squeezed, but he said, “I don’t feel like I’m in a sandwich.”

“That’s like asking a guy who has been doing it for so long, ‘Are you worried about those guys?’ I’m truly not, because I know I am capable of doing it.

“I’ve done it for years and years and years and years and years and years and years, so the moment that I am concerned about somebody else, that’s a waste of everyone’s time.”

He said an enthusiastic reception from the fans tonight will be nice, “but I’m not caught up in that.”

“That’s not why I am still playing (after 11 seasons). I’m not playing to get the accolades. I’ve been king of the hill. That’s not the goal.”

Also, after taking a pay cut from about $3.7 million in base salary to $1 million, Bettis said, “Obviously, it’s not the money.”

“It’s to go out there and win. That’s the one thing that will make myself complete.

“If you can put a championship ring on, you can point to that and say that’s what it was all for. That’s why I’m struggling now and my back is hurting and my legs are hurting and my hips are hurting. But that’s why I play the game.”

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