Every bus needs a driver, and Jerome Bettis sure had a good one.
Bettis was christened the nickname "The Bus" for his bruising running style during his time with the Steelers by the late Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope. He was paired with hard-nosed fullback Tim Lester, aka "The Bus Driver," during the most successful stretch of his career.
Born in Miami, Lester was overlooked by most big schools and attended Eastern Kentucky University. He played in 11 games as a rookie for the Los Angeles Rams in 1992 before the Rams drafted Bettis in the first round of the '93 draft.
The duo of Lester and Bettis was an instant success. A ball of muscle at 5'10, 233 pounds, Lester plowed the way for the larger Bettis to rush for 1,429 yards in '93, finishing less than 60 yards shy of the NFL rushing title. Steelers fans saw a foreshadowing of things to come with the Rams hosted Pittsburgh that season. The Rams' 27-0 win was highlighted by Bettis' 29-yard touchdown romp that was aided by Lester.
Both careers went through adversity over the next two seasons. Lester would start only four games the following year and spent most of his first season in Pittsburgh as a spectator watching the Steelers run to Super Bowl XXX. Without Lester, Bettis watched his rushing totals dip considerably in '94 and '95 before the Steelers acquired him in the spring of '96.
Bettis and Lester finally rejoined forces for the 1996 season. The Steelers offense was in transition that season after losing quarterback Neil O'Donnell and changing offensive coordinators during the off-season. Pittsburgh would also lose Pro Bowl receiver Yancy Thigpen for most of the season.
Even more pressure was added to the offence when five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Greg Lloyd was lost for the season to injury in a Week One loss to Jacksonville. The offense would have to find a way to possess the ball and to give their defense time off the field.
Unlike former offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt, new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey liked a two-man backfield as opposed to the single back formation. He also knew he needed to have a strong running game while new starting quarterback Mike Tomczak found his groove.
Gailey more than got his wish. Behind an offensive line that featured Hall-of-Fame center Dermontti Dawson, the Steelers rushing attack was among the best in the NFL. Lester paved the way for Bettis to rush for 1,431 yards in '96 that included 11 touchdowns on the ground.
Bettis and Lester extracted revenge on the Rams that season, who were drubbed 42-6 at the hands of the Steelers in Pittsburgh. With Lester leading the way, Bettis rumbled for 129 yards and two touchdowns that included a 50-yard touchdown jaunt, his longest touchdown run as a Steeler. This was just one of Bettis' 10 100 yard games that season on the way to his third Pro Bowl birth. The two were major cogs in the teams run to the AFC Central Division championship in a season where many suspected would be a rebuilding year after so much change took place the previous off season.
"The Bus" and the "Bus Driver" were even better in '97. For the second straight season, Pittsburgh started a new signal caller, this time it was Kordell "Slash" Stewart, who left his running back and receiver responsibilities to focus on playing quarterback full time.
After a slow start, the Steelers rode Lester and Bettis to another AFC Central championship and a spot in the AFC Championship Game. Bettis rushed for 1,665 yards to finish third in the NFL in rushing behind Terrell Davis and Barry Sanders. Still mostly overlooked, Lester continued to be a mainstay in the Steelers starting lineup, blocking for Kordell in pass protection while continuing to pave the way for Bettis. Lester also helped Stewart rush for an NFL record 11 rushing touchdowns in 1997. The Steelers offense led the NFL in average rush yards per game in 1997.
In Week 15 of the '97 season, two of the best running back-fullback combos in the league met when the Steelers hosted the Broncos. While Denver fullback Howard Griffith and Davis were held to under 80 yards, Lester opened gaps in the offensive line wide enough to drive a bus through. Bettis rumbled for 125 yards while Stewart ran for two touchdowns as the Pittsburgh's running game overwhelmed Denver in a 35-24 win. Lester also picked up timely blocks in pass protection as Stewart threw for three touchdowns against the eventual Super Bowl champs.
During the broadcast and again during the win at New England the following week, NBC color analyst Paul McGuire went out of his way to praise Lester and his selfless brand of football. McGuire pointed out that when asked about having only two carries that season, Lester mentioned that he is paid to block, and that takes as much pride in blocking as Bettis does carrying the football.
My indelible memory of watching Lester and Bettis was how fun it was to watch them in the fourth quarter. While some players tire in the game's final stanza, it appeared as Lester and Bettis were at their best. With two backs weighing in at about 500 pounds, the duo would impose their will on tiring defenses that wanted no part of them as the game wore on. If the Steelers had the lead entering the fourth quarter in those days, it was almost a sure bet that Lester and Bettis would close the game out.
Despite their success, Bettis and Lester were broken up after the 1998 season. Chan Gailey left to become head coach of the Dallas Cowboys following the '97 season, and fellow fullback John Wittman started to get some of Lester's minutes. Lester retired following the 1999 season after reuniting with Gailey with the Cowboys. Bettis continued on with the Steelers and eventually won a Super Bowl in 2005. But his best seasons were spent lining up behind No. 34, Tim Lester, who was Bettis' guest at each of his Pro Bowl trips in the 90s.
In the new era of shotgun offenses dominated by the passing game, a team featuring a powerful running game centered around its fullback and running back may be a thing of the past. Fans that remember football's age of two man backfields will always appreciate fullbacks like Tim Lester, ultimate team players that were center pieces to their team's success. Just any Cowboy fan what Darryl "Moose"Johnston meant to the ‘90s Cowboys. That's what Lester meant to the Steelers in 1996 and '97.
Stats don't always measure a player's value to a team. Lester had only 80 touches and one touchdown during his eight-year career. Bettis did have sterling statistics, retiring as the fifth all time leading rushing in NFL history. He is up for the Hall-of-Fame again this upcoming weekend, and whenever he is enshrined in Canton, Ohio, a piece of Tim Lester is going in, too.