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Enjoy Bettis' brilliance while you can

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Did you ever have one of those moments you wanted to remember forever; a moment so special you wished your brain were a digital camera? Maybe it was hitting a game-winning home run or kissing your first love.

 

I had one of those moments when the Chicago Bears were in town and Jerome Bettis' determination and brilliance carried him through Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher on the way to the endzone.

 

I would like it to be the way I always remember Jerome.

 

Urlacher shouldn't beat himself up too much about being steamrolled. On that play, on that day, nobody, not Urlacher, not Singletary, not even Butkus, could have stopped Jerome from reaching the end zone.

 

It's not the first time Jerome Bettis has taken over a game, but it may be the last in what are likely the waning days of a spectacular Hall of Fame career. Don't blink in the next few weeks or you might miss it.

 

When Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher acquired Bettis from the Rams in 1996, they suspected he was the perfect fit for the offense they ran. Turns out he was also the perfect fit for Pittsburgh.

 

Pittsburghers pride themselves on being blue collar, despite the fact that most of us are a generation or two removed from the mines and the mills. Pittsburgh's industrial background still defines the city's ethos, perhaps more than it should. Fans here always respond to athletes who embody blue-collar values. They love tough and hard-working players; they respond in a Pavlovian way to grit and humility.

 

While much of the punditry in Pittsburgh laments the loss of Plaxico Burress to free agency, opining that the Steelers' offense lacks the ability to stretch the field with a proper deep threat, the fans don't seem to care. It's not that Plax didn't work hard; it's just that he created the appearance of not working hard.

 

Do Steelers fans somehow find it ostentatious to score a lot? There is something a little garish about the way the Colts and the Bengals pile up points on teams. Better to embarrass your opponents by shoving the ball down their throats for 35 minutes a game. Jerome Bettis has always provided that kind of brutal simplicity.

 

Even hard work isn't enough, however. You think anybody worked harder than linebacker Gregg Lloyd? Yet when he was slowed due to age and injury, and the Steelers were raided in free agency, I didn't see many tears shed for him. Hell, Bryan Hinkle played a game or two for the Steelers with a broken shin bone. But when the Steelers let him go in favor of a younger, stronger Chad Brown, the fans were indifferent. Being hard-working isn't enough: You've got to produce.

 

Maybe Pittsburgh fans expect the impossible of their athletes. These guys are multimillionaires by the time they're 25. They are courted by media outlets and adored by millions of fans. Yet fans expect them to remain normal Joes.

 

Enter Jerome Bettis, a Detroit guy with a passion for bowling. How much more down to earth can you get? He's got a spare tire like your Uncle Stush, but he's planted his feet on the backs of more defensive players than anyone since Earl Campbell.

 

Bettis manages to provide some needed swagger, often by referring to himself in the third person. (As in, "The Bus is rolling all day, baby. All day.") Still, he manages enough self-deprecation to remain appealing. After the Bears game, Fox field reporter Tony Siragusa asked Jerome if he ran out of gas on a long run which he took out of bounds after 39 yards. Jerome joked he "didn't have much gas to begin with," and riffed on the aches and pains of playing at his age.

 

What's remarkable about Jerome is his staying power, his productivity year after year. And while I may be dressed down by a certain generation for saying this, he may even have surpassed Franco Harris as the most beloved running back in Steelers history. Whether Bettis is as unaffected as he appears is not important. Somehow, after all these years, he manages to pull off the tightrope act necessary to keep his blue-collar image intact.

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