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."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press