- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2006

DETROIT — It seems too storybook, too hackneyed a plot line: Jerome Bettis, long recognized as one of the NFL’s great players and good guys, is finishing his 13-year career in his hometown by playing in his first Super Bowl.

The Pittsburgh Steelers running back, however, is not living out some lifelong dream. He didn’t even play football until high school. He was, in fact, a bowler. Yes, the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history could have wound up on the brats and brewskis circuit instead.

“Bowling was my first love,” said Bettis, who bowled a 300 game 11 years ago. “Beating my mother for the first time when I was 13 or 14 was a major accomplishment. I had big glasses. I was a pretty smart kid, maybe nerdy, but I always had a good street sense.”

He also had the good sense to put his battering-ram physique to use on the football field when he reached McKenzie High School. He played well enough to earn a scholarship to Notre Dame and was picked 10th overall by the Los Angeles Rams in the 1993 draft.

“High school came, and I decided to play football,” said Bettis, who turns 34 next month. “I had success, and after that everything else just kind of fell into place. Football wasn’t the objective. A little fat kid from Detroit, a fullback, to be fifth all time [in rushing] with all the great running backs that have played this game. That’s a pretty big achievement.”

So is becoming one of a select few to receive the key to the city, as Bettis will today from Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Bettis said he’s honored to be Detroit’s ambassador to the world this week.

“We love Jerome Bettis,” Kilpatrick said. “Jerome will end his career seven miles from where he began his career. It’s a poetic thing for a lot of Detroiters. He has a lot of people pulling for him in the city. His father is a 34-year city employee, a building safety engineer. His mother is part of several philanthropic efforts. His family is very devoted to the city.”

Bettis not only praises Detroit every opportunity he gets, he’s also putting his money where his heart is. He’s partnering with a pal from Pittsburgh to turn a long-abandoned Uniroyal Tire plant on the Detroit River into a mixed-use residential/commercial development he hopes will be “a flagship” for a city down on its luck for decades.

“We’re trying to rebuild the city — a place for years that had been looked at as a place you didn’t want to go,” he said. “It takes an event like this to change minds. Detroit wasn’t on a lot of people’s destination list. I’m committed to this city. I’m willing to put my resources into the city.”

And when Bettis was wavering about coming back for a 13th year after the Steelers lost the 2004 AFC Championship game at home, the fact that this year’s Super Bowl was in Detroit was a factor.

“Last year after the AFC Championship game, I addressed my teammates because I thought it was probably the end of the road,” Bettis said. “[Coach Bill Cowher] told me to take some time and let my body heal up. It took me about a month. I felt good physically and wanted to take another crack at it, but I struggled with it for a while even after I told Coach I wanted to come back.

“I went to St. Louis and was training with [track coach] Bob Kersee. There were some days I said to myself, ‘What am I doing out here? I don’t know if I want to keep doing this.’ But he kept pushing me. When I realized that the Super Bowl was going to be here, it definitely affected my decision to come back.”

After splitting time with fellow veteran Duce Staley in 2004, Bettis knew he would have a reduced role behind speedy youngster Willie Parker, as well as a reduced salary.

“I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish, the [13,662] yards and everything, but I’d be lying if I said it was complete,” said Bettis, whose 110 carries this year would have been about six games’ work during his first 12 seasons. “Having the opportunity to play in this game takes me one step closer to being complete. This is why I took a pay cut. This is why I took a diminished role.”

Except when it comes to the media spotlight. Bettis’ teammates honored him by wearing replicas of his No.6 Notre Dame jersey yesterday, so everywhere there was a Steeler talking, there was a reminder of Bettis — who himself was sporting a replica of baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg’s 1945 Detroit Tigers World Series championship jacket.

Bettis said that when he boarded the team plane yesterday morning and saw linebacker Joey Porter passing out the green jerseys, the tribute almost made him cry.

“Every player on this team has been helped by Jerome,” receiver Hines Ward said. “That’s why I think we kind of rally around that. We want to cherish every moment we can if this is his last year.”

And Bettis figures that all the attention on him can only help his teammates prepare for Seattle with less media scrutiny and hype.

“After 13 years, I figure my shoulders are big enough to carry a little bit of pressure,” Bettis said.

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