One prize eludes Bettis

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis (36) fumbles early in the fourth quarter of the AFC divisional playoff game against the New York Jets Saturday in Pittsburgh. New York recovered, killing a Pittsburgh drive.

AP Photo/Tom Puskar
Published: Thursday, January 20, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 20, 2005 at 2:05 a.m.
Detroit native Jerome Bettis, the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history, learned something watching Barry Sanders play for the Lions.
He discovered he did not want to achieve the dubious distinction that befell Sanders in his 10 seasons with Detroit. He does not want to become a great runner who never reached the Super Bowl.
''I saw the damage and frustration that it caused,'' Bettis said with a pained expression. ''It made the guy walk away from the game. No question, no doubt about it. He was tired of being mediocre, and he aspired to be great. Although individually he was great, he was tired of being mediocre, middle of the road, was tired of it.''
Sanders abruptly retired in 1998 at age 30, two years younger than Bettis is now. He finished with 15,269 yards rushing, No. 3 on the all-time list, made 10 Pro Bowls and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer. No manner of pleading by the Lions could tempt Sanders to return.
Bettis appears headed for Canton, but he'd like to stop off at a Super Bowl first. It is one more reason he's consumed with beating the New England Patriots Sunday night in the AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field.
''It is the most urgent thing possible,'' Bettis said. ''When you get up there in terms of age and experience, every opportunity could be your last. I'm treating this as if it is my last opportunity to reach the pinnacle. So it is that much more important and it is that much scarier in the same breath.''
Bettis cannot say whether he will play next season, with the Steelers or anywhere. He proved there's life left in those 32-year-old legs, more so than at any time since 2001. There's one thing left for him to achieve in his distinguished 12-year NFL career, to win a Super Bowl.
''What it says is you were able to help lead your team to the ultimate championship, the ultimate goal,'' Bettis said. ''Whenever you fall short of that, it's as though it wasn't a job completed.
''The chance at greatness. Some people want to be great, I live to be great. I mean, this is what I play for. I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of individual success. The one thing that's always eluded me is the Super Bowl. I guess this is why I still have the same drive and determination.
''I want to win, I want the opportunity to be great; it's pretty simple, I'm a competitor.''
That quality allowed him to take a pay cut from the nearly $3.7 million called for in his contract to $1 million in salary and a bonus this season, even though coach Bill Cowher told him beforehand that the Steelers would acquire another top running back. That back was Duce Staley, signed as a free agent from Philadelphia for five years, $14 million with a $4 million bonus, and installed as the starter at the end of the preseason.
Staley ran for 707 yards in the first seven games while Bettis played almost exclusively in goal-line situations. Bettis responded with a career-high 13 regular-season touchdowns. But many Steelers fans acted in a way that surprised the Bus.
As he replaced Staley on the goal line, he heard chants of ''Duuuuuce'' ringing from Heinz Field and admits it bothered him.
''It was tough, because the fans assume that was something I asked for. I didn't ask for that. That was something that was asked of me.
''To get that type of ridicule for being a team guy, for the very reason I stayed, it was disturbing because of everything I tried to do here.''
Things changed at midseason. Staley's hamstring was injured, and he did not play in six of the final nine regular-season games. Bettis rushed for more than 100 yards in each of his six starts and finished as the team leader with 941 yards. He started the playoff game Saturday against the New York Jets and ran 27 times for 101 yards and a touchdown before leaving in the fourth quarter with leg cramps. Staley replaced him and ran 11 times for 54 yards.
Cowher said Tuesday he will ''probably'' start Bettis against New England, and that there's a good chance Staley will play more Sunday than he did against the Jets.
Bettis said he's OK with however they use him and Staley. He also persistently endorsed Staley inside the locker room and feels the fans that once questioned him understand the dynamics of the circumstances in the first half of the season.
''I think it was a situation where I was able to prove that it was still there, that the juices were still there, and they approved that,'' Bettis said. ''It was especially gratifying because what I did, the sacrifices I made, I think it really showed people it was genuine.
''I think people assumed that it was a charity situation where people said, 'Oh, they're just taking care of him for what he's done in the past.' After seeing me, people really respected the fact it wasn't a charity situation.
''I could have decided to go somewhere else because (my salary) is a lot less, so people understand the decision that I made a little more, it's a little clearer; I did sacrifice a lot. It's because I wanted to be here, I wanted a chance to win a championship.''
This could be the last chance for Jerome Bettis to do just that.

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