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Bettis's Career in the End Zone

Jerome makes a graceful exit

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OK, everybody who is sick of the ubiquitous Jerome Bettis references in every sport, raise your hand. It doesn't seem to be going away — apparently every athlete wants to be like Jerome. And I'm not talking about the millions in his bank account, or even his new TV deal.

If I didn't hear the Pitt men talking about wanting to win for Carl Krauser in his final year, then it was the Pitt women wanting to win the NIT for senior Cheron Taylor in hers. In neither case did the teams succeed, but the Bus sentiment played well in Pittsburgh.

Just when I thought it was safe to flip on ESPN again, there it was in the women's NCAA tournament: another team wanting to help a departing senior win the big one. UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said shooting guard Jessica Sell was "their Jerome Bettis."

Grab the women and children — it's an epidemic. I loved Jerome so much that during the playoffs I got misty, but can we please put it to rest?

It's natural to want to go out on top, but there's a reason it doesn't happen very often. For starters, it's hard to get to the top in the first place. Did Karl Malone hang on a year too long, moving to L.A. to try to win a title with the Lakers? Probably — just trying to be like Bussie, before Jerome even pulled it off.

Even for those who have made it to the top, it's hard to say goodbye. The great Michael Jordan just couldn't resist coming back to play for the Wizards, a fact I kinda like to forget most days. Brett Favre? 'Nuff said. Not to mention Mario Lemieux's multiple comebacks.

In sports, as in the entertainment industry, it's hard to leave them wanting more. Rock legend Grace Slick got out just a tetch too late, after Starship released the music industry's gold standard of crap, "We Built This City." The Rolling Stones continue to tour, Cher continues to have surgery and, inexplicably, somebody in Hollywood keeps green-lighting the Farrelly Brothers movies. I guess it really is hard to know when to hang 'em up.

Nobody wants to end up like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman — still out there, working hard in a profession that's passed him by. But most of us mere mortals end up that way, simply because we have to. Miller's play has universal appeal precisely because everybody can relate to it.

So why are athletes (and rock stars) held to a different standard? Why were people so damn displeased with Michael Jordan for his return with the Wizards? Or Mario's repeated returns to the ice? Did they honestly think that Lemieux or Jordan could have tarnished their legacies by playing past their primes? Did they really think hockey fans would forget Mario scoring five goals against the vile New Jersey Devils in 1988, or his majesty in the 1991 Stanley Cup run? Would we all collectively block out Jordan's pull-up jumper to win it all with the Bulls — just because he donned a Wizards uniform for a short period? Sports fans may be junkies for immediate gratification, but we're not all stupid.

Conversely, "pulling a Bettis" is appealing to athletes, coaches, sports fans and music-lovers alike. They could just as easily refer to the departure of John Elway, who topped his spectacular career by winning two Super Bowls and going quietly into that good night. But that was, gosh, eight years ago. We couldn't possibly be expected to remember anything that far back. Well, maybe in Denver they still do.

The memory of Bettis' final run won't last long either. At least, not any longer than it takes the draftnicks to dissect the NFL picks at the end of this month. The Bettis talk will die down, simply because somebody else will come along. It might be some older baseball pitcher chasing a pennant, or maybe even Peyton Manning at the terminus of his career.

Just like that, "pulling a Bettis" may be replaced by "pulling a Manning" — just as the memory of Elway's departure was replaced by that of Bettis. We want newer and bigger heroes, season after season. And then we want them to go away.

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