First there is the sickening realization: it's gone. Where did it go? Then comes the wave of helplessness: Oh, no. How could this happen?
Those were the sensations that Steelers running back Jerome Bettis experienced--yet again--as he walked down a flight of stairs at the Firehouse Lounge in Pittsburgh's Strip District late one night in January. "I lost my phone," a grimacing Bettis announced to a group of teammates and other revelers as he rummaged through the large pockets of his black velour pants. Several well-meaning onlookers joined the search. "I don't even want to think about what numbers are in there and who might end up with it."
If only the Bus were equipped with NeverLost GPS technology. For as he rolls toward the end of a glorious 13-year career, suddenly in position for a storybook send-off in Super Bowl XL, Bettis has become the NFL's answer to Harry Potter's ham-fisted pal Neville Longbottom. Consider that the night before his trip to the Firehouse Lounge, Bettis had mishandled his other cellphone, which doubled as a PDA, and cringed as it bounced down a staircase at Morton's Steakhouse. Fumble! "I had dropped it on the cold pavement coming out of the stadium in Denver the day before, so it was already banged up, and this time the damn thing exploded--parts were flying everywhere," recalled Bettis. "But you know what? Things are about to get crazy, and I'd been thinking I should probably change my number anyway. So all that did was accelerate the process."
In other words, things worked out smashingly. Of course they did. Fate has been kind to this future Hall of Famer. "I can't think of a better ending, and there are a lot of us who feel the same way," says Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Marcellus Wiley, one of Bettis's many NFL friends and fans. "He definitely has someone smiling down on him, which makes sense because I've never seen someone who has accomplished so much and yet maintained his humble spirit."
Perhaps the most popular and respected player within NFL circles, Bettis, who turns 34 on Feb. 16, found out how much those friendships mean following his most embarrassing lost possession of the month--his fumble in the AFC divisional playoff against the Indianapolis Colts on Jan. 15, with 1:20 to play and Pittsburgh on its way to closing out a 21-18 upset. Bettis says his stomach dropped when he saw the ball bounce cleanly off the RCA Dome artificial turf and into the hands of Indy cornerback Nick Harper. As he watched Harper sprint downfield, seemingly headed for a game-turning touchdown, a resigned Bettis thought to himself, If this is the way it's supposed to end, so be it.
But that's not how it ended. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made a lunging tackle at the Indianapolis 42, the Pittsburgh defense held, and Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt badly missed a 46-yard field goal attempt that would have tied the game with 21 seconds left. After Bettis boarded the team bus for the airport, he checked his cellphone for messages and was overwhelmed by the volume of calls and the heartfelt words that awaited him. "It really touched me," he says. "One of my good friends called and said, 'I'm not a very religious person, but I got down on my hands and knees and prayed it wouldn't be the last carry of your career.'"
Why all the fuss about the Bus? Why so much hype about a role player who ran for a career-low 368 yards this season and 137 in three playoff games? Because most everyone who has come to know the 5'11", 255-pound back as he piled up 13,662 rushing yards--the NFL's fifth-best total alltime--finds that Bettis's quest for a Super Bowl championship resonates with them.
I met Bettis for the first time in the spring of 1995, following his second season with the Los Angeles Rams (who were in the process of moving to St. Louis), and was taken by how genuine, grounded and likable he was. Bettis had insisted on picking me up at the Detroit airport, and he rolled up riding shotgun in a modest sedan driven by his equally unpretentious mother, Gladys. (There was so much junk on the floor that even then Jerome couldn't find his cellphone.) We went to the house he had purchased for Gladys and his father, John Jr., after signing with L.A. and that he lived in during the off-season. Between animated conversations with his parents and his elder siblings, John III and Kim, Jerome and I discussed his NFL prospects, and he told me, "I worry because my running style is not one that's going to enable me to play in the league for 14 or 15 years. Who knows how long I'll be able to keep this up."
We sat and watched Stargate on video, and I marveled at my good fortune. Here was a star athlete who seemed neither self-absorbed nor needy; he was accommodating and engaging. After about a year I realized he was like that with everyone in the media. "He is so down-to-earth and respectful of people, regardless of who they are or what they do or how big their newspaper is," says Jarrett Bell, who has covered the NFL for USA Today since 1993. "When I visit with him, what starts as an interview inevitably becomes a conversation." Not surprisingly, Bettis, whose Bus Stops Here Foundation works to improve the quality of life for troubled and underprivileged children, last July became the first recipient of the Good Guy Award from the Pro Football Writers of America.
It's hard to believe now that in April 1996, following a contract dispute with the Rams that spurred talk in St. Louis that his career was on the downslide and he was becoming a bad influence in the locker room, Bettis, who had rushed for only 637 yards in 1995, was shipped to Pittsburgh for second- and fourth-round draft picks. (The Rams, amazingly, drafted troublesome Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips to replace him.) "Getting traded is a humbling experience," Bettis says, "because no matter what you tell yourself--'I didn't want to be there anyway'--there's a team that didn't want you. Going through that kept me from getting caught up in my early success."