Around noon one day last week, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis strolled into his team's practice facility and approached the locked double doors that guard the locker room. Just as he'd done so many times this season, Bettis paused and punched in his code to unlock the doors.
The password failed.
Running back Jerome Bettis has meant as much to Pittsburgh's success as any player this season.
(Gene J. Puskar - AP)
Bettis stood there for a second, looking spurned, and then punched in the code again. Still no luck.
"They're trying to send me a message," said Bettis, who finally hit the password on his third try. "They're trying to tell me: 'Bus, we don't want you.' They must really want me out of here."
Luckily for the Steelers, Bettis has become adept at ignoring such hints. When NFL insiders suggested after last season that Bettis retire, he vowed to return stronger. When the Steelers signed Duce Staley in March and boasted about their new prized ballcarrier, Bettis declared he, too, was a "damn good running back."
And when the Steelers gave Bettis a short-yardage-only role to start the season, he smiled, gutted his pride and then, after Staley hurt his hamstring Oct. 31, reeled off one of his most productive seasons. Starting only six games, Bettis had a team-high 941 yards and a career-high 14 touchdowns for the 15-1 Steelers. Staley is healthy again, which raises the question of which running back will start in the Steelers' first playoff game Saturday at Heinz Field against the New York Jets. For his part, Coach Bill Cowher isn't tipping his hand.
"We'll see," Cowher said Monday. "They're both going to play. I can't make any predictions right now."
He may not decide until Saturday. And that's fine with Bettis, who is again prepared to play his role.
"Part of being successful is having a thick skull," said Bettis, who missed the regular season finale in Buffalo with a sprained ankle but has recovered. "Sometimes you've got to ignore what people are telling you. You've got to block out the negativity and get to work. That's the only way to get things done."
It's a tenet that has worked well for Bettis throughout a 12-year career in which he has gained 13,294 yards and climbed to fourth place on the league's all-time rushing list. But never has the 255-pound running back condensed so much resiliency into one season.
After Bettis averaged a career-low 3.3 yards per carry and anchored the league's worst running offense last season, Cowher promised to reinvigorate his team's offense. Pittsburgh, Cowher said, would have a more productive, more lively running game. He left fans to deduce the obvious: The Bettis era had ended.
But it restarted seven weeks into the season when Staley injured his hamstring. Bettis started the next four games and rushed for at least 100 yards in each. "We all had faith in him," Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward said. "But deep down, you still had to ask, 'Shouldn't he have slowed by now?' "
A powerful, heavyset running back in a game built for speed, Bettis has heard that question plenty -- sometimes in his own locker room.
Even while Bettis constructed his legend in Pittsburgh by rushing for six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons from 1996 to 2001, teammates sometimes joked about his weight. Bettis, 5 feet 11, typically plays between 250 and 260 pounds, and he looks every bit of it. His hefty midsection gives way to a large backside. Sitting by his locker in a shirt and a tie, he resembles a player who retired a few seasons ago only to put on 30 pounds thanks to decadent eating.