Of all the impressive moves running back Jerome Bettis has made—contorting his 255-pound body to fit through tight holes, dancing around would-be tacklers diving at his thick thighs, bouncing off linebackers before galloping into the secondary—none has impressed his teammates as much as when he strode into training camp this summer in peak condition. His bearded face was lean, and his normally tight T-shirt hung loosely on his stout frame. Safety Lee Flowers even joked that for the first time in seven seasons with Pittsburgh, Bettis seemed to be proud of his biceps and triceps.
Only a month earlier Bettis's girth (he was easily 20 pounds heavier) made it appear that he had been making round-the-clock visits to Pizza Hut. "In June, Jerome wouldn't even tell us what he weighed," Flowers says. "Now he's changing his shirt in meetings to show off his muscle definition. We thought that if he has that kind of work ethic, so should we."
Coming off a 13-3 season and expected to be a Super Bowl contender this year, the Steelers are reassured by the sight of a healthy Bettis. A severely pulled groin parked the Bus for the final five regular-season games last year and limited him to nine carries in a 24-17 loss to New England in the AFC title game. Before the injury Bettis had put together his best season in three years, running for a league-best 1,072 yards in 11 games.
Healthy and determined to regain that form, Bettis was miffed by the looks he got from teammates at the start of training camp. "The guys kept saying how good I looked, and I started to get a little upset," Bettis says. "I thought to myself, What did they expect? I'm one of the most committed guys on this team. We have a special group of guys. I'm not going to be the one to let them down."
The road to recovery took Bettis to St. Louis, where he trained for four weeks with renowned track and field coach Bob Kersee. Though Bettis normally trains twice daily in the summer, he spent his mornings in St. Louis on the track doing distance and speed work, his afternoons in the weight room and his evenings on a stationary bike or treadmill. He was driven as much by reality as by necessity. At 30 Bettis has banged for 10,876 career rushing yards (12th in the NFL alltime), leaving his body as battered as those of his tacklers. In fact, before last season critics pointed to his declining production and gimpy left knee, wondering if he was finished. He isn't, not by a long shot, but he realizes that his chances of reaching the Super Bowl are dwindling fast.
Even though this season's Pittsburgh squad returns a supremely confident Kordell Stewart at quarterback and a highly rated defense that lost only inside linebacker Earl Holmes in the off-season, Bettis isn't about to let his teammates think another postseason is guaranteed. "I've seen us go from the AFC Championship Game to 7-9 the next year," he says. "That's why I'm more scared than excited about this season. I don't want to see that happen again, not on my watch. Besides, four years passed [between playoff appearances], and if we have to wait four more years for another shot at the Super Bowl, I might not be around for it."
To help keep Bettis fresh this season, the Steelers will spell him with fifth-year backup Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala and shifty scatback Amos Zereoue, both of whom helped Pittsburgh lead the NFL in rushing (173.4 yards a game) last season. "I've already told Fu and Amos to get ready," says coach Bill Cowher. "Jerome still needs his touches to wear down a defense, but we're going to need all three of those guys."
The Steelers also are going to need the intangibles that Bettis offers. His emotion. His pride. His passion. "He's our rock," says guard Alan Faneca.
Adds Flowers, "There's a reason why he has a $36 million contract. He's a great player, and every time he breaks a long run and does his little dance, it hypes us up. It's big to have him back at 100 percent. We have all our bullets now."
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