<
>

Bettis headed home for first Super Bowl

DENVER -- Happy homecoming, Jerome Bettis.

The NFL's fifth-leading career rusher doesn't ask much of his
Pittsburgh teammates, but now that each game could be his last, the
senior Steeler called in a favor during an impassioned pep talk
before the AFC championship game in Denver.

"Just get me to Detroit," said Bettis, who came back this
season mostly for the chance to end his career by playing in the
Super Bowl in his hometown. "Just get me to Detroit."

Inspired by Bettis' talk, the Steelers shook off a dozen years'
worth of bad karma, bad luck and badly played AFC championship
games, beating Denver 34-17 Sunday to reach their second Super Bowl
in 26 years.

It's a first Super Bowl for Bettis, coming in what is certainly
the last season for one of the most-liked and most productive
athletes in Pittsburgh sports history. No wonder there were hugs
all around after he finally made it in his 13th season -- from team
chairman Dan Rooney, from the parents who have never missed a game
in his career, to every person in the locker room from quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger to the equipment managers.

"I can't imagine anything better," Bettis said, drenched in
Gatorade and showered with praise by his teammates. "I'm going
home."

Thus fulfilling a promise made by Roethlisberger during last
year's 41-27 AFC championship loss to New England. Then, fearful
Bettis might retire, Roethlisberger begged him to come back.

"He was boohooing, and I was boohooing, and he turned to me and
said, 'Come back next year, I will get you to the Super Bowl. Give
me one more year,'" Bettis said. "That meant a lot."

So much so, Troy Polamalu said Bettis made only two requests during his
impassioned Saturday night talk.

"He asked for something that he knew we would give -- and that's
100 percent. With that, the game came into our favor and we took
him home, which was the second request," he said.

All-Pro guard Alan Faneca said Bettis has meant so much to the
Steelers, his talk made his teammates realize they couldn't get
this far again without winning. They had lost two AFC title games
in the previous four seasons and four under coach Bill Cowher.

"He had me choked up a little bit, it means so much to him, to
be in the league this long. To give him a shot like this, it
definitely means something," Faneca said.

What a Bus ride it's been, too. Exiled to the playoff road by a
three-game midseason losing streak that sent the AFC North title to
Cincinnati, the Steelers are the first team to beat the No. 1-, 2-
and 3-seeded teams in consecutive weeks to reach a Super Bowl.

The Steelers' sixth AFC championship also is the first they've
won away from home since they upset Oakland in January 1975 --
starting them on a run of four Super Bowls in six years. What this
title does is set up Bettis for the best possible end to the career
of one of the biggest running backs in NFL history, and one of the
best.

"We want to win it for him," linebacker Joey Porter. "But we
want to win it for us, too."

Bettis' pre-game plea was reminiscent of that another by an
aging Pittsburgh superstar whose career was winding down but, in
his mind, remained unfulfilled. In 1971, with the Pirates driving
for their first NL pennant in 11 years, 37-year-old Roberto
Clemente promised his teammates, "Just get me to the World Series
and I'll win it for you."

The Pirates kept up their end and so did Clemente, putting on a
one-man show rarely rivaled in baseball's showcase event, leading
them to a seven-game upset of the Baltimore Orioles.

Just like Clemente in '71, Bettis isn't the best player on this team
or even close. Each was bypassed by a Willie -- Willie Stargell got
the Pirates into the World Series by hitting 48 homers; Willie
Parker bypassed the Bus this season by rushing for more than 1,200
yards.

But it is Bettis' stature, not his role, that matters in a town
that embraces its sports stars like few cities do, treating them as
friends or like family members. Go to a Steelers home game, and it
seems as if half are wearing a No. 36 Bettis jersey.

Hines Ward broke down in tears after last year's AFC title game
loss to New England, saying the Steelers had let Bettis down and he
couldn't bear to think he would retire without going to a Super
Bowl.

Go back to last weekend, and the feeling was the same. Bettis'
fumble at the Colts' 2-yard line in the final two minutes gave
Indianapolis the chance to stage an impossible comeback, and the
disbelieving look on Bettis' face said: "I can't possibly end my
career this way. This can't happen."

He won't, and it didn't. Because the Steelers did on the road
what they couldn't do in Pittsburgh, Bettis is going home. To the
Super Bowl. Finally.

"Yes, we're happy to get there, but we want to win it," Ward
said. "We don't want to be content with just getting there. We
want to win it for him."