Jerome Bettis, the NFL’s King of Pain
The snaps, groans and creaks sound more like a log in a fire than the knees of an NFL tailback.
But Jerome Abram Bettis is beginning the slow, tortured climb up a flight of stairs the morning after his Steelers thumped Cleveland.
He’s already harvested a few shards of Cinnamon Toast Crunch from his cereal bowl, his finger joints twisted around the spoon. He’s blinked through 20 minutes of “SportsCenter” on ESPN, eyeing the punishment the other premier backfields took Sunday.
Now, his last Monday morning mission is to heave his 255-pound body up to a steamy shower. He’s repeated this ritual more than 180 times since he joined the Los Angeles Rams as a third-string rookie in 1993. But today he’s no longer the big, brash kid out of Notre Dame. He’s the aging veteran toeing his way into a tub and, eventually, maybe, into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
“The next house is going to be a ranch-style,” says Bettis, who will turn 33 next month. “It’s so hard to get up and down the stairs. I can just imagine when I’m 50 years old. It’s going to be difficult.”
A dozen years of pounding have turned his body into a map of the National Football League. There are the scars from the three major knee surgeries — courtesy, he says, of the AstroTurf at Three Rivers — the scoping of his ankles, the time when his groin muscles sheared off the bone and curled inside like rolls of bark on a tree.
When he holds up his fists, you can just make out the torn ligaments and ruptured muscles. There are the three ribs he broke, once against a linebacker’s helmet, another time when he fell hard on a football. The cracked breastbone from his first year in LA. The shoulder he separated twice. The never-ending back and neck aches. The bruises to his brain. And a nose that seems to be permanently smeared east.
“We were playing Jacksonville. And this guy came and stuck his thumb inside, and the thumb went and hit me right on the side. Bang! My nose ended up over here,” he says, his finger tracing a line God never intended nostrils to follow.
“The problem was, I had to continue in the game with these cotton swabs in my nose. I can’t breathe through my nose, and I’m asthmatic to start with. So I go out there and, you wouldn’t believe this, I take a big shot. And I swallowed the cotton.”
The average career of an NFL back is 2.6 years and falling, according to the National Football League Players’ Association. Players, coaches and historians interviewed by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review blamed the mayfly careers of rushers on the brutally high number of carries they get in an age of free agency.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, teams rarely asked their backs to touch the ball more than 230 times in a season.
Historically, every time a player gets more than that many touches in a season, his production declines the following year by 50 fewer carries and 1.2 fewer games. Nearly three out of every five of these backs are out of the league within four years.
Rushers had longer careers before the late 1970s largely because they rotated in and out to share the carries.
The 1972 Miami Dolphins went undefeated featuring a balanced three-headed rushing attack led by Hall of Fame fullback Larry Csonka and running backs Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris.
The Steelers dynasty employed a similar system under coach Chuck Noll. Fullback Franco Harris dashed behind the bruising blocks of halfback Rocky Bleier, who also carried the ball a lot. In fact, Harris had more than half the team’s total touches only once, in 1977.
By sharing the load, they cut down on injuries.
“Coach Noll’s system worked out well for both Franco and me,” Bleier said. “I blocked, but I also got the ball. We worked as a team and the only goal was to win. The key was balance. Balanced running. Balanced passing.”
That began to change in the 1980s. With the game focused increasingly on passing and with free agency offering incentives for individual rushers to carry more, teams began emphasizing a “feature back” set alone in the backfield.
In 1960, only two future Hall of Famers — Cleveland’s Jim Brown and Green Bay’s Jim Taylor — got more than 230 touches. Last year, 28 running backs did, including Anthony Thomas and Michael Pittman, men barely known outside their home stadiums in Chicago and Tampa Bay.
All those carries lead to high injury rates. Over the past four years, injuries claimed nearly three out of five backs, the highest tolls on the offense, according to weekly NFL reports. In the Steelers’ backfield, Bettis, Verron Haynes and Duce Staley have all missed games due to injuries this season.
Running backs take the most physical punishment in the offense, but that hasn’t made them any more valuable to their teams. The top rusher in the NFL in 2003-04 was Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis , who missed setting the single-season rushing record by 12 yards. Averaging 5.3 yards per carry, he put up Jim Brown-type numbers. But Brown won championships. The Ravens barely made the playoffs and lost their first round game.
Over the last quarter-century, four backs have led the NFL in rushing for at least three seasons. Only one, Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys, won a Super Bowl.
King of Pain
More than 200 pros interviewed by the Trib said they weren’t impressed by individual stats at the back of the sports section. Instead, they value a player’s ability to gut out excruciating injuries. And maybe, they say, that should be the yardstick for Hall of Famers in this era of the diminished back — their ability to stomach the hurt and keep running.
Their King of Painâ¢ Bettis.
“For a guy to be his size and to physically put the punishment he does on defensive backs and linebackers, I mean, he gives blows as much as he takes blows,” said Steelers wideout Hines Ward. “For a guy to rush for 13,000 yards and he can still go out today and be productive — that speaks volumes about his career. He’s a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, in my opinion.
“I mean, he wakes up every day sore. Trust me.”
This season marked the 10th time Bettis got more than 230 touches. In the history of the NFL, only Smith, Chicago legend Walter Payton and Allderdice High School grad Curtis Martin of the Jets have more combined carries and receptions.
Of the 18 running backs drafted in 1993, only Bettis remains. He arrived after a fad for beefy backs and stayed as a nimble throwback to men like Csonka, whom Bettis considers a role model.
The admiration is mutual.
“I like to watch The Bus,” said Csonka. “I like the way he lowers his shoulders. I like the fact that everyone wrote him off, and there he is, picking up the load and running for his team, like I did with the Dolphins in ’79.”
When Csonka picks apart the way Bettis mastered the game, he points to how he wiggles to take a “glancing” blow instead of a head-on hit, or how he ducks low when a linebacker comes high. Csonka admires Bettis so much, he’ll be in Canton the day The Bus parks in the Hall.
Bettis says he’ll quit when his body tells him it’s time to go and he can’t help Pittsburgh. Over the last three years, he’s suffered excruciating injuries to the hip, groin, knee and shoulder. Perhaps half a dozen concussions every year. He’s not sure.
He estimates the grind has shaved five years off of his life. Maybe 10. In his mind, every hit brings him a little closer to death, but he’s going to keep driving because that’s what The Bus does.
“Your ego and your pride don’t let you struggle,” he said. “You’re a big hitter, but it hurts you the same way. I mean, mentally, you’re able to get over it because you get used to it. You get used to the feeling of Monday. Struggling.
“But hey, I’m going to hurt Monday. I’m probably going to hurt Tuesday. You know whatâ¢ Wednesday, I’m probably not going to feel great. But Thursday, I’m going to feel fine. Friday, I’ll be OK. Saturday, I get to rest.
“And Sunday, I’m going to beat your head in again.”