It was the first play of the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field. The Patriots led the Steelers 31-17, but Pittsburgh had a first-and-goal at the New England four-yard line. On three occasions earlier in the game, Jerome Bettis, the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history, had met Patriots linebacker and leader extraordinaire Tedy Bruschi mano a mano, with Bruschi stopping Bettis after gains of just three, one and two yards.
Bettis, at 5'11" and 255 pounds, is the best jumbo back in NFL history; Bruschi, at 6'1" and 245, is smallish for an inside linebacker. This time Bettis, the centerpiece of the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack, tried to power behind Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca, and you-know-who was there to meet him. Bruschi stopped Bettis for a one-yard gain, and three plays later the Steelers settled for a field goal. New England went on to win 41-27.
"What I recall about that day is that Tedy made some pretty big plays throughout the game," Bettis said last Saturday from his Pittsburgh home. "He's incredible. As much as you might say he's this or that, or he's too small, he's the kind of guy who's always in the right place, who makes plays that help his team win every game. Selfishly, I hope I get another chance to compete against him this year."
Achy knees and all, Bettis, 33, will be back for a 13th and final NFL season. He decided recently that he felt good enough to play this fall, as long as he could split the rushing job with Duce Staley and not be relied on to carry the ball 300 times (including the playoffs he had 294 rushing attempts last season), and his decision was cemented when he didn't get a firm offer to work as a TV analyst. That's where the glib Bettis hopes his future lies. But now the question is, Will he get his wish and collide with Bruschi on Sept. 25 when the two teams meet in Pittsburgh for the third time in 11 months?
Bruschi suffered a mild stroke on Feb. 16, two days after a 13-hour flight home from the Pro Bowl. Though they can't be sure, doctors think that dehydration, brought on in part by the long flight, in addition to head trauma from his job, may have played a part in the stroke. In March he also underwent a procedure to close a hole in his heart. Bruschi, who turns 32 on June 9, has said he is undecided about his football future and noted in a public appearance on May 21 in Boston that he wasn't sure when he would make his decision whether to play.
But those who saw him at that appearance were encouraged about how good and football-fit he looked. "I'm feeling great," he told reporters. Bruschi's primary neurologist has reportedly cleared him to play. Now, after he appeared to be leaning toward retirement early in the off-season, Bruschi seems to be thinking hard about playing again.
Though the Patriots stocked their roster in the off-season with veteran free-agent linebackers Monty Beisel, Chad Brown and Wesly Mallard, they didn't do it to push Bruschi into retirement, but as an insurance policy. Expect the mystery to last until close to the start of New England's training camp, in late July. Bruschi, who, following his stroke, hired an agent after previously handling his own contract negotiations, is in no hurry to make his decision, and the Patriots aren't pushing. Bruschi probably could have a job in the team's front office if he decides to retire. And owner Bob Kraft has even brought up the case of Panthers linebacker Mark Fields when discussing Bruschi's situation. Fields was stricken with Hodgkin's disease in 2003, missed the season while recovering, then earned Pro Bowl honors last fall. So another possibility would have Bruschi recuperating this year with an eye toward playing in 2006.