After a 13-year NFL career that earned him six Pro Bowl appearances, two first-team All-Pro selections, a Super Bowl ring, and over 13,000 rushing yards (fifth all-time), Jerome Bettis still finds a way to keep the wheels on the bus going round and round.
Whether it’s running his restaurant in Pittsburgh, working as an NFL analyst, or making a difference in the community through his many philanthropic efforts, “The Bus” rarely sits idle. I caught up with JB this week to take a look back on a storied career and what life holds after the NFL.
JB: (laughs) You gotta admit, it’s good.
JC: (Laughing) Ok, fine. It’s my favorite dish at your restaurant. But you have to admit a deep-fried Italian hoagie is like a heart attack on a plate.
JB: (Still laughing)
JC: But anyway JB, before we get into what’s really on your plate these days I want to take a look at your past. Let's talk about what brought you to the place to have success not only in the NFL, but outside of football as well. Tell me briefly about growing up in Detroit, and how that molded you as a young man.
What would you say made the biggest impact on you as a person growing up, and how did that translate onto the football field?
JB: The biggest impact on me was seeing how hard my father worked. He had two jobs, got up at the crack of dawn, came home at nine or ten o’clock at night a few nights a week. I saw how hard he worked, so the hard work aspect of life was not new to me, and that translated onto to the football field.
It wasn’t foreign, and I was comfortable with a blue-collar type of work ethic, and I think that’s what carried me all through my career. Because I wasn’t the fastest, I wasn’t the most athletic, I obviously wasn’t the smallest (laughs), it was the work ethic that really got me through in terms of being as good as I was able to become.
JC: You went on from Detroit to play at Notre Dame under Lou Holtz. Talk about the impact he had on you as a person and a football player. Does anything specific stick out during your time at Notre Dame?
JB: He was the kind of guy that demanded that you play up to your capabilities. He wouldn’t let you settle for being a good player. If you had the potential to be great, he wanted to see it, and so he challenged me to be a great football player. You know I accepted that challenge, and had it not been for a coach like that maybe I would have only been a good player, but he wanted more from me and he expected to see it. That really pushed me to get better every day.
JC: You were drafted by the Rams in the first round of the 1993 draft. You had immediate success as a rookie. You made the Pro Bowl, you were Co-Rookie of the Year, on and on. But then at some point within the first couple of years, something is said to you by an assistant coach that nearly made you quit?
JB: Yeah. The running backs coach came to me and told me they wanted to move me to fullback because they were going to get Lawrence Phillips. I was just like I’ll play fullback, but not for you. At that point I was thinking to myself if they decide to keep me here there is no way I am playing fullback. They don’t use the fullback to run the ball in this offense. I will retire before I do that, and that’s how I went about it.
JC: So draft day '96 comes rolling around and lo and behold the Rams trade you for two second-round picks to the Pittsburgh Steelers. What was your initial reaction after hearing you weren't going to have to move to fullback with the Rams?
JB: I was so happy. You gotta understand, the Steelers had just come off losing in the Super Bowl, so this is a Super Bowl caliber football team I am going to. I’m going from a team that in my first three years we were never even close, well only one time, were close to .500 at seven and nine.
The other two years we lost 10 games plus. So for me to go to a team that was a Super Bowl contender it was a dream come true, coupled with the fact that the Steelers loved big running backs. I thought I was going to heaven.
JC: Did the little bit the Rams traded you for motivate you at all after having such success in the first couple years of your career?
JB: It wasn’t really the draft picks, it was the fact that they didn’t want me.
JB: I think that was the biggest issue for me. It’s like OK here’s a team that didn’t want me. So hey, I gotta go out there and prove that I am a commodity worth having, and that’s what I set out to do.
JC: Well obviously your career went very well in Pittsburgh after that. You went on to make five more Pro Bowls, you finished up as the fifth all-time leading rusher in NFL history, but what would you say was your defining moment in Pittsburgh?
JB: I think my defining moment was when we played the Chicago Bears my last year. I wasn’t starting anymore, and it was a snowy game. Coach Cowher called on me and said, “Look, this is why we kept you here. For this moment.”
It was a situation where they couldn’t get any kind of good field position and no one could seem to get their footing. So they put me in, and I went from one yard in the first half to over a hundred yards in the second half, and one of the defining moments of that half was me running over Brian Urlacher.
So I think that was my defining moment because we ended up winning that game and went on to win quite a few in a row after that and we ended up winning the Super Bowl.
JC: Now later on that season, everyone asks you this question in some fashion or another, and you know I can’t escape without asking. What went through your mind in Indianapolis when that ball popped out?
JB: (laughing) Honestly? Oh, bleep, bleep, bleep! (Laughs) It was one of those things where I was just sick. I was distraught because I thought that I had lost the game for my teammates. It was a sick feeling. I was literally sick on the sidelines. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me.
JC: Now tell me this and this might be the most serious question I ask you. Looking back on a great career, you have to be honest now, what was the hardest hit you ever took? (Laughing) Fess up JB.
JB: (laughing) It was from my mother! (laughing) No, but seriously, as far as the NFL goes I think it was from Sam Adams.
He was a defensive lineman that played for the Ravens at the time. It was a screen pass, and I jumped up on the screen pass, and he just cracked me so hard I didn’t remember where I was for a second. I jumped up in the air to make the catch and he caught me while I was in the air and man that was the biggest hit I ever took.
JC: Are you a Hall of Famer JB? By your estimation?
JB: Unfortunately it’s not my decision to make.
JB: I wish I could. I mean who wouldn’t want to be a Hall of Famer? Unfortunately, there are other people in charge of that. I mean, do my numbers stack up? I think that’s…
JC: Well, they certainly don’t lie.
JB: Yeah exactly. They don’t lie. They tell you what it is. So I mean we’ll see what happens in a couple of years.
JC: So talk to me about the situation in Pittsburgh since you left. New coach, new system—It has really been a roller coaster of sorts. Obviously the high point was winning the Super Bowl, the low point coming directly after when they didn’t even make the playoffs in '09. What do you think needs to change in order for the team to be successful next season?
JB: I think the entire philosophy needs to change. They’ve got to address the philosophy of running. They’ve got to run the football in order to take time off the clock, shorten the game, give their defense some rest out there, and control the time of possession. I think if they can do that, then that’s when they get back to where they left off in terms of being in position to win a championship.
JC: A lot has been said specifically about the coaching situation. Many were calling for Bruce Arians’ head on a platter. A lot of drama went down over "he’s fired, he’s not fired." Some even went as far as to say Ben Roethlisberger saved his job, and that the Rooneys lobbied for Arians in order to keep Ben happy. Having played in Pittsburgh for as long as you did shed some light on the validity of some of these remarks.
Have you ever seen the Rooneys do something like that to keep one player happy?
JB: No. I definitely have not seen anything like that, and wouldn’t believe that that would happen. If they are going to let somebody go, they are going to let somebody go. I don’t think Ben or anyone else is going to influence that decision.
I think you have to look at that situation for what it was. I think it was more of a situation of where you don’t want to get rid of a guy that just won you a Super Bowl. All that needs to happen is that he needs to be told, hey, you need to run the ball more.
It wasn’t a situation where the offense wasn’t productive. It was a situation where they became more one-dimensional than they should have. So, I don’t see the need to fire him. I think all that came out of nowhere. I think the criticism is justified, but I think firing him would have been stupid at this point.
JC: Ok, so then tell me in changing the philosophy and the system do you think that a lot of this has come from taking away the lead fullback? Danny Krieder was great blocking in front of you, before that it was Tim Lester, and Arians kind of did away with that whole thing. Do you think that had something to do with it?
JB: I think that had something to do with it once the inability to run the football reared its ugly head. You go back to the year they won the Super Bowl they still didn’t have a traditional fullback, but I will say this, they had much more of an urgency to run the football.
If they can get that sense of urgency back, then I think that’s all they really need to do. I don’t think they have to have a fullback back there per se, as much as they have to have a determination in their mind that says hey, we are going to run the football.
JC: Before we get into the rest of the things you are doing nowadays, tell me about what you are doing with the NFL and Monster.com.
JB: I’m working with monster.com, and we’ve got a big push going to find the next “Director of Fandemonium.”
We are down to the two finalists, and this is the final week to vote if you go to www.nfl.monster.com you can vote between those two finalists. The job is out of this world. $100 thousand signing bonus, they announce things at the draft, NFL Kickoff, the Thanksgiving Day Game, the Pro Bowl, and next year's Super Bowl.
It’s just an incredible job to have. The decision is going to be made on Super Bowl Sunday, so I just want to encourage people to get out there and vote.
JC: Tell me about what you are doing now. I know you are doing a lot for the community both in Pittsburgh and in your hometown of Detroit with your foundations and things. Tell me some of the things keeping you busy right now.
JB: In terms of my foundation I am doing a lot more because I have the time to do it. We’ve got a program called Cyber Bus Program where we take kids from the inner city and take them on to a college campus. We teach them computer literacy, and how to build their own computer, and at the end of the program we give them the computers to take home. It’s a program that I am very, very proud of.
JC: I also heard a bit about the SAT program that you are running for high school athletes, and now have begun to open it up to non-athletes as well. Tell me about that.
JB: It’s a program I started to give kids a hand in order to get the information they need, that knowledge they need in order to pass the SAT’s so they can get to college, and so they don’t become a statistic.
So that was a very important project to me that we started. It has gone so well that now we wanted to open it up to all kids so that if they want to get some tutoring and mentoring then it’s available to them. It’s a really great program.
JC: OK so I will let you skate out of here on this one. Are you enjoying the new phase of life, or do you still get the itch to strap it up every once in a while?
JB: (laughing) No, no. No itch to play. Not at all. This is the first year I haven’t done anything with NBC, so this is the first year that I didn’t have to do the NBC show and so it put a lot of time back in my pocket so to speak.
I’ve just been enjoying life after football, and I’m just taking my time to enjoy life and help other people. It has been great so far.