The Steelers storied history is littered with both great players and fan favorites. To be honest, I find it difficult to whittle down either list without being left with the feeling that I am somehow cheating someone. So, I will be focusing on the player who had the biggest impact on my Steelers fanhood. That would be none other than Steelers great, Jerome Bettis.
I am certainly not alone, as The Bus is beloved by Steelers fans. Nearly two decades after his retirement, you can still spot Steelers faithful donning their 36 jerseys. I still get chills thinking about his final home game. Hearing the roaring ovation from the crowd filling the stadium. The only thing I can compare it to is the sendoff received this pass fall by Ben Roethlisberger.
It's easy to see why he is so beloved by fans. After choosing Pittsburgh over Houston as a trade destination, he quickly established himself as a dominant force in the NFL. In his first two seasons with the Steelers, he garnered MVP consideration on his way to six straight 1,000 yard rushing seasons. While Steelers fans love great players, Jerome Bettis may be just as loved for his presence off the field. Whether it was during an interview or hosting his own show, you could feel the charisma though the television screen. But there is more to it than simply production or likeability. It was the way he played the game that touched the tough, blue collar roots of the city and it's fans. And that is what resonated with me as a young boy.
He seemed like an unstoppable force. A man among boys. Hand the ball to The Bus and you were almost guaranteed at least 3 yards. He would routinely run over grown men and drag others down the field. I loved watching him, and he quickly became my sports hero. I wanted to be like The Bus. I would spend Sunday afternoons in front of the TV, watching the game. At least until the commercial break. That's when I would pretend that I was running the ball for the Steelers, like Jerome. I'd run down the hall, make a quick cut or spin to get around the end table, then dive into the couch for the touchdown, much to my mothers chagrin.
From running over HOF linebacker Brian Urlacher to score, to the infamous Thanksgiving coin toss, Jerome Bettis provided us with many memorable and cherished moments. Perhaps none more memorable than his final season.
After a disappointing end to the 2004 season, his teammates were crushed, knowing that he may retire without winning a championship. This was no more evident than during a tearful interview from Hines Ward, demonstrating just how much Jerome meant to his teammates, as a leader, mentor, and friend. That says something about the character of a man. Ultimately, Bettis returned for the 2005 season, and we all remember how that ended.
The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the odds just to make the playoffs that year, just like Bettis himself. He overcame poverty and asthma to make it to the NLF. After an improbable run at the end of the season to make the playoffs, the Steelers championship hopes were nearly derailed when Bettis fumbled near the goal line. But his teammates simply would not allow him to go out like that. Ben made the tackle and the defense held. The team went on to win one for The Bus. To make it even sweeter, they did it in his hometown. His football career had come full circle, and I can't think of a better way to cap off a HOF career. Honestly, I'm kind of shocked this hasn't been made into a movie yet.
Bettis is one of the greatest players to ever don the black and gold, and he will always hold a special place for me. Thanks for everything, Jerome.
And thank you for reading.