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Exit, Biggest Stage Left
Peter King
February 13, 2006
In front of fans from both of his hometowns, Jerome Bettis closed out his career as a champion
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February 13, 2006

Exit, Biggest Stage Left

In front of fans from both of his hometowns, Jerome Bettis closed out his career as a champion

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TWO HOURS after Super Bowl XL had ended, Jerome Bettis, the last member of the victorious Steelers to leave the locker room at Ford Field, paused at the door and asked a few friends to wait a second. Then the 13-year NFL veteran took out a thin digital camera and switched to video. Panning the empty room slowly, he said, as if to himself, "This is what it's all about. Super Bowl. Last time in a locker room." Then he blew a kiss to the empty room and walked out into the Detroit night.

The wind was biting and the temperature well below freezing, but the few members of Steeler Nation who had stuck around the stadium didn't care. "Jerome! Jerome!" several of them shouted. Bettis detoured from the open door of a warm stretch limo to walk over, sign autographs and pose for a picture. It was a night fit for neither man nor polar bear, but to these Pittsburgh fans, a final Bettis sighting was worth it.

They called after him to stay, to sign more, but Bettis was done. So as he hopped into the limo, the hearty souls started chanting, "Here we go, Steelers, here we go!"

Bettis's two hometowns-- Detroit, where he grew up, and Pittsburgh, where he became a football icon--came through for him big-time in the biggest week of his life. Citizens of Motown feted him for days leading up to the Super Bowl and afterward threw him a massive party, hosted by Lansing's Magic Johnson, on Detroit's West Side. At the same time, Steelers fans, with and without game tickets, arrived by the thousands, vastly outnumbering Seahawks supporters and transforming Detroit into Pittsburgh's Far North Side. On Sunday the Terrible Towel--waving fans at Ford Field gave their team a decided--and deafening--home field advantage. As early as warmups, Seahawks players emerging from the tunnel onto the turf were greeted with a cascade of boos; the Steelers got heroes' welcomes. Said Pittsburgh linebacker James Farrior, whose team had to win three playoff games on the road just to get to Detroit, "We felt like it was a home game for us."

Outside the stadium a crowd of Steelers fans, reportedly exceeding 20,000, partied on with no hope of getting inside. "We'd heard they were coming, just to be around us," Bettis said. "It was heartwarming. The fans in Pittsburgh--how can anyone dispute they're the best in the world? Everywhere we've been in the playoffs, they give us an edge. Especially today."

The Steelers' 26-year Super Bowl victory drought lent an air of desperation to the fans who made the four-hour drive to Detroit and to those who watched the game at home in western Pennsylvania. "If we'd lost this game, the cops would have had to guard the bridges," said 35-year-old Phil Gennaro in Pittsburgh on Monday. "People would have been jumping. You can't believe the total joy in this town, and that extends to all over the country. It's a national holiday for us."

Bettis carried 14 times for 43 yards against the Seahawks and didn't get one of his signature touchdowns, twice failing to punch into the end zone in the first half. But when the Steelers got the ball with just over six minutes left to play and nursing a 21--10 lead, they called Bettis's number seven times, grinding down the clock to the two-minute warning and effectively sealing the win.

The Bus retires in fifth place on the alltime rushing list with 13,662 yards, making him a solid Hall of Fame candidate. On the field after the Super Bowl he told coach Bill Cowher, "That's it. I'm done," and shortly thereafter announced his retirement to the rest of the world. "I am the luckiest football player ever to play the game," he said. "I've been waiting for this day for 13 years, and for it to come in my hometown, with the team I love, in front of so many of the fans I love.... You send this script to Hollywood, they'd say, 'This is too fake.'"

After his press conference Bettis was walking back to the locker room when someone likened the end of his career to that of John Elway, one of the very few stars who retired directly after winning a Super Bowl. "Elway?" he said, with a wide smile. "It's time for someone else to join the club."

Asked about a future in broadcasting, he laughed and said, "You think this [win] might enhance the opportunities?" Whatever the future holds for Jerome Bettis, it most likely will never match the euphoria of a winter night in Detroit with tens of thousands of his closest friends on hand to share in his joy.