Sitting in the den of his posh home in a suburb north of Pittsburgh on a late December afternoon, Bettis smiles at the size of the holes in his midst. A half-dozen workers are installing speakers into cavities in the wall, and soon Bettis will be able to enjoy the ultimate entertainment experience. "I can't wait for surround sound," Bettis says, earning a healthy smile from Lester, his close friend and a blocking back who is seated next to him. Lester remembers what it was like when both men played for the Los Angeles Rams. As a rookie in '93, Bettis rushed for 1,429 yards and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, but running behind an injury-ravaged line the following season, he gained only 1,025 yards. The walls seemed to be closing in.
Lester was cut by the Rams shortly after the franchise moved to St. Louis in '95, and signed with the Steelers less than two months later. Bettis staged a training-camp holdout that summer, agitating fans and first-year coach Rich Brooks. When the sides agreed to discuss a contract extension after the season, Bettis returned to work. But he was slowed by a foot injury for most of the year and, despite playing in 15 games, ran for only 637 yards. The low point came in the second-to-last game, a meaningless matchup in St. Louis against the Washington Redskins. Bettis had started the game, only to be benched. He later returned to the lineup for one play. "I got booed on the way to the huddle, gained four yards and got booed all the way back to the sideline," he recalls. "I was in shock."
On draft day of '96 the Rams selected Nebraska halfback Lawrence Phillips with the sixth pick and ceded Bettis to the Steelers along with a third-round selection for second-and fourth-round picks. While Phillips lived down to his troubled reputation and has since been waived, Bettis rocked from the start in Pittsburgh, where he was reunited with Lester. Most casual fans would not recognize Lester, despite the fact that the fullback sports the league's most robust Afro. "The players know how special he is," Cowher says of Lester, whose blocking duties do not end on the field. "Jerome and Timmy go everywhere together, and Timmy's always in front."
But it is the 25-year-old Bettis who best exemplifies the Steelers' physical style. "Jerome has a personality that fits our approach to the game perfectly," Cowher says. "He likes to carry the ball a lot, he works for what he gets, and he displays an enthusiasm for running the ball that you would normally see on defense. He's a great fit for this team and for this city."
MARCUS ALLEN STAYING ALIVE
When Allen finally broke free from the spiteful grip of Raiders owner Al Davis and signed with the Chiefs after the '92 season, he figured Kansas City would be a suitable, if boring, place to finish his career. Like Joe Montana, another fading star who joined the Chiefs that spring, Allen expected to play only a couple of more years. But while Montana called it quits following the '94 season, Allen has remained an integral part of the K.C. attack. After hinting earlier in the year that the '97 season would be his last, Allen has waffled; he now says there's a strong possibility that he'll return in '98.
"I always get pumped up by the naysayers and by the younger players trying to make their names off me," Allen says. "There are so many players I who get older and allow themselves to die, figuratively. It's great to see people like Earnest Byner, Herschel Walker and myself hanging in there and producing."
Though he is known to lead by example. Allen can also be vocal. Early in the season four-year veteran Greg Hill came to the sideline for a breather after breaking a long run. When the K.C. drive ended, Allen cornered I fill and barked, "What the f—- are you doing? You can never be too tired to play. I don't care if I never step on the field—you should never take yourself out of the game."
Allen has been energized by the adulation he has received in Kansas City. This year he and his wife, Kathryn, were chosen to flip the switch that illuminated the tony Country Club Plaza with Christmas lights. "It was awesome," Marcus says. "There were 250,000 people there, and it was quite an honor. The reception for me here has been overwhelming, so much so that I'm embarrassed at times. Initially, as a narrow-minded guy, I didn't realize what Kansas City had to offer. Now it's like home to me."
Lately Allen has spent a lot of time thinking about his original home, San Diego, where he hopes to return in late January. The story lines race through his mind: No AFC team has won the Super Bowl since the '83 Raiders, and Allen is the last player from that team who is still active. Super Bowl XXXII—same as Allen's uniform number—will take place at a stadium in which he first played during a Pop Warner game a quarter-century ago, when he was the star halfback for the Southeast San Diego Lions.