He had spent three hours scattering bodies for one of the hottest running backs in pro football, and now Pittsburgh Steelers fullback Tim Lester was getting ready to clear yet another path for his buddy Jerome Bettis, this time from the locker room to a Three Rivers Stadium parking lot. While Bettis is boisterous—"You can almost hear him yell on film," says Houston Oilers coach Jeff Fisher—Lester is the tight-lipped type. Turning in his usual understated performance on Sunday, he helped the Steelers to a 30-16 victory over the Oilers in a game that included more trash talking than an East Coast versus West Coast rap summit. Now even the blocking back was talking back.
"They were doing all sorts of idiotic stuff out there, and it took them out of their game," Lester said of the Oilers. "They still don't know what it takes to win. They're into talking trash. We're into playing football."
It wasn't quite that simple. Pittsburgh played trash-mouth football as well, and Houston's five turnovers had a lot to do with the outcome. But this battle for AFC Central supremacy—the Steelers (3-1) lead the Oilers and the Baltimore Ravens (both 2-2)—was a big game by September standards, and the players with the cooler heads prevailed. "We've just got to grow up as a team," said 11th-year running back Ronnie Harmon, who signed with Houston in May. "Any NFL team can be physical, but we lost our composure and they didn't, and that was the difference."
Under Fisher's adroit guidance, the Oilers are emerging as a threat to join the upper echelon of the AFC. But the Steelers, who lost Super Bowl quarterback Neil O'Donnell to free agency and All-Pro linebacker Greg Lloyd to a season-ending knee injury in their frightful 24-9 opening-game defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars, suddenly look capable of repeating as conference champions. The key to their speedy recovery has been the 245-pound Bettis.
While Houston's defenders were running their mouths, Bettis was running past them for 115 yards on 29 carries—his third consecutive 100-yard game. The last time that happened was at the end of his rookie season, in 1993, with the Los Angeles Rams. He made the Pro Bowl in his first two years, but when the Rams moved east to St. Louis, Bettis's career went south. After a training-camp holdout in '95, he ran for just 637 yards behind a weak line and was deemed expendable. Bettis says Rams coaches and executives trashed him in league circles, saying he was a bad locker room influence whose career was in decline. Then St. Louis drafted former Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips (page 44) and shipped Bettis to the Steelers for a second-round pick in '96 and a fourth-round pick in '97. "I'll never forgive the Rams for the way they treated me, especially [vice president of football operations] Steve Ortmayer and [coach] Rich Brooks," Bettis says. "They had to justify getting rid of me when they knew I could still play, so they labeled me as a bad apple."
Bad apple? This guy is more like apple pie. Blessed with an ebullient personality, Bettis lives in the off-season with his parents, Johnnie and Gladys, in their Detroit home. His prime off-field hangout is the bowling alley, and with good reason. In 1995 Bettis bowled a perfect game at a celebrity pro-am tournament in Muskegon, Mich., wowing an audience that included his mother, his girlfriend and one of his bowling idols, Mark Roth. The Steelers are as straitlaced as any NFL team, and their background check on Bettis revealed no dirt. Now he's the steal of Steeltown.
Bettis's average gain, which was 3.2 yards in '94 and 3.5 last season, has risen to 5.0. That's testament to an outstanding offensive line and to Lester, who came to the Steelers in '95 after three seasons with the Rams. With 421 yards after one quarter of the NFL season, Bettis is well on his way to the 1,200 yards that, according to terms of his contract, will make him an unrestricted free agent after this year and, presumably, a very rich man.
He's already a marked man. Only two years removed from a 2-14 season, the Oilers wanted to prove their toughness to the Steelers, and they knew the best way was to mess with Bettis. Last Thursday night Oilers linebacker Micheal Barrow said, " Bettis is an emotional player, and the key to this game is whether we can rattle him early. If we can smack him right away, maybe make him fumble, we can demoralize him because he's not mature enough yet to shake that stuff off."
On the first play from scrimmage Bettis took a body shot from cornerback Darryll Lewis after a 10-yard run. Bettis fumbled but crawled forward to recover the ball. On Pittsburgh's next series linebacker Joe Bow-den slammed into Bettis so violently on a screen pass that Bowden's helmet popped loose. But Houston was the team that flinched. Return man Mel Gray fumbled a Steelers punt, setting up a 16-yard touchdown pass from current quarterback Mike Tomczak to future quarterback Kordell Stewart. Rookie halfback Eddie George fumbled on the second play of the Oilers' first possession, leading to Norm Johnson's 33-yard field goal. Houston was down 10-0 before quarterback Chris Chandler had thrown his first pass and trailed 17-0 midway through the first quarter. A Chandler fumble late in the first half led to another Johnson field goal and a 20-0 lead.
The Oilers struck back with two quick third-quarter scores and kept fighting to the end. "This game was more physical than any I've played in in a long time, including the Super Bowl," said Steelers tackle John Jackson. That figures, since even Fisher and Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher had had a run-in back in their playing days. In 1983 Fisher was returning a punt for the Chicago Bears when he was tackled by Cowher, a Philadelphia Eagles linebacker, and suffered a broken leg. Fisher spent the rest of '83 on injured reserve, serving as an unofficial assistant to Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. A coaching career was launched. "If it weren't for me," Cowher says jokingly, "he wouldn't be where he is today."