American Football: Steelers' iron man ready for a dream finish

Jerome Bettis, the super-sized running back the fans call 'The Bus', returns to his home town for Sunday's Super Bowl XL
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It seems entirely appropriate that the first sporting passion of Jerome Bettis was bowling. The running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers once dreamed of sporting glory as a professional tenpin bowler, before discovering that his true vocation was knocking over people rather than pins.

On Sunday, the veteran of 13 gruelling campaigns in the most physically demanding playing position in the gridiron game will go bowling again, possibly for the last time. Only now, his target is the biggest prize in American sport: the Super Bowl.

Such a story of one man's meeting with destiny has threatened to overwhelm the build-up to Super Bowl XL here this week. Officially, the contest on Sunday is between the Steelers and the Seattle Seahawks, but as far as the city of Detroit is concerned this is the tale of the triumphal homecoming of one of their most beloved sporting sons.

Bettis may be a Steeler, but he is also a product of this town's unforgiving neighbourhoods. His success, his status as one of the game's greats and the quality of his life beyond the playing field reflect positive virtues on a city that is looking for excuses to feel good about itself.

Now here comes this engaging 19-stone behemoth, with his deceptively quick feet, these days resembling one of those balls he used to bowl down the Citrus City bowling lanes, looking for the fairy-tale finish. His final game is in his own backyard, with the biggest prize his chosen profession has to offer on the line. If, on Sunday night, Bettis has his hands on the Vince Lombardi trophy, it will not only be the Seahawks shedding tears.

That dream seemed dead a year ago. The Steelers, the side with the best record in the National Football League, had fallen at the final hurdle once more, for the third time in Bettis' career. The sport's fifth all-time leading rusher seemed destined never to crown a magnificent career with an appearance in the championship game.

Emotions ran high on the Pittsburgh sidelines as the New England Patriots, not the Steelers, progressed to the Super Bowl. As the clock wound down, the Steelers' impressive young quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, approached his side's elder statesman. "He was boo-hooing, and he turned to me and said, 'Come back, I'll get you to the Super Bowl, just give me one more year'," Bettis recalled this week.

The old warrior, nicknamed "The Bus" for his prodigious size, weighed up his options while training with the athletics coach Bob Kersee during the summer. "The love of the game kept pushing me round the track," he said. There was still some fuel left in The Bus's tank. His role, however, was much reduced. A younger, sleeker back had now established himself, but while Willie Parker shouldered the bulk of the running burden, Bettis was frequently brought in to grind out the tough yards near the goal-line, where games are won and lost.

The legend, far from being diminished, seems to have grown. When Pittsburgh wobbled in mid-season Bettis, their talisman, urged them on. With Parker injured and the Steelers facing the meanest defence in the NFL, the Chicago Bears, Bettis pounded out 101 yards, the only player to top a century against the Bears all season. As his team-mate, the receiver Hines Ward, said simply: "Jerome Bettis is the Pittsburgh Steelers."

As they embarked on an unlikely play-off run, the possibility of Bettis ending his career in his home city began to grip the nation. Given little hope of victory in Indianapolis against the powerful Colts, Pittsburgh were on the threshold of a thrilling 21-18 win when Bettis was given the ball at the Colts' two-yard line with only 80 seconds remaining. Amazingly, he fumbled, and only a last-ditch tackle from Roethlisberger kept the Steelers alive.

"You can say what you like but we are looking at sporting destiny," said Bob Dozier, his old coach from Mackenzie High School in suburban Detroit. "Here is a young man for whom it all started in Detroit, and now he's coming home to play in the greatest sporting event of all."

Officially, Bettis has refused to confirm that he will retire after Sunday's game, although following victory against Denver two weeks ago, which booked the Steelers their Super Bowl place, he was seen wearing a T-shirt bearing the legend: "Detroit. Last Stop for The Bus." He said: "I'm proud because of what I have been able to accomplish, but it's still not complete. Having an opportunity to play in this game takes me one step closer to it being complete."

The extra-large running back, competing in Super Bowl XL, in his home town, in the twilight of his years - the plot is simply compelling. The script has been written. All that remains is for Bettis to put his signature to it, and one of the gridiron game's greats can sign off with a flourish.