Exclusive with former Steelers Running Back Jerome Bettis, 1996-2005

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First, can you let readers know what you’re doing now – what foundations or work we should be paying attention to?

Well, I’m living in Atlanta with my beautiful wife and two great ids. That’s about it for me. My foundation is The Bus Stops Here . It’s for underprivileged, at-risk kids. I’ve been involved with that for over twenty years.

The whole idea is to impact change in the community where I grew up. I benefited from that when I was a kid and my goal now is to help other at-risk kids now in Detroit. I got help from Reggie McKenzie when I was a kid and it hanged my life. I wanted to do the same thing for others now that I can.

Let’s start from the start – how you got to Pittsburgh. Tell me about what prompted the trade and how you it brought you to the Steelers.

Prior to the trade I met with the VP and GM of the Rams and received permission to seek a trade. Once I got that my agent did due diligence on teams and it came down to two teams – the Steelers and the Houston Oilers. It was up to me to make the decision on where to go – both teams were willing to give up the same draft picks. I chose Pittsburgh because they just came off of a Super Bowl. I knew the had a championship caliber football team and liked big power backs.

Did you have a chance to talk with the Steelers first before agreeing to the trade?

No, I didn’t have the chance to talk with them first. I was willing to bet on myself. I knew I was a feature back caliber player. I wasn’t worried about not being the guy. I knew Pittsburgh liked big backs and liked running the ball, so I knew I could be that guy.

Who helped you to adjust to the team and city? You weren’t a rookie but you were new to the city and team?

I was familiar with Woodson and Lloyd – I played with them in Pro Bowls so had some familiarity with them. But I am most grateful for Kordell Stewart. He and I developed a good relationship and he helped me there.

I also had the benefit of having my fullback who was with me with the Rams now play for Pittsburgh too. Tim Lester. That made it easy for me – he and I were already close. He took me in and showed me the city.

What made you so successful in Pittsburgh after modest success with the Rams?

That was all because of Bill Cowher’s philosophy. It was all about running the ball and playing great defense. If you play great defense the ball goes back to the offense more and that means more opportunities for me to carry the ball. We weren’t the kind of team that was going to throw the ball 50-to-60 times a game. I got the bulk of the workload. So, it all boiled down to his philosophy.

You had a bruising running style. I spoke some time ago with Lee Flowers who talked about how inspiring it was to see how beat up you were on Monday’s but still practicing hard. How did you manage that style for almost 10 years?

It was due to Cowher’s understanding of my physical limitations. During the week I’d practice but wouldn’t do certain things. I’d do nine on sevens but would slow down and maybe not practice on Thursday or Wednesday. Cowher did a great job managing my physical health.

There is so much talk of your role as a mentor for players. Hines Ward said you were key t helping him deal with fame. Why was that a role you excelled at so well and took on so passionately? 

For me it was easy, When I came into the NFL I never got that. No one helped me out or reached out to me. I had to learn on my own. So I told myself that if I could help someone else I would. I knew what it was like not to have that. Regardless of whether it was a player who was trying to take my job or not, at the end of the day he didn’t decide to come here. He was drafted or brought in so I couldn’t hold a grudge against him. I wanted to help him.

I tried to be the first guy to get with the rookies. I gave them all my cell phone number and told them that if they needed something to give me a call. The last thing I wanted was for them to be in a new city and not know anybody.  I knew how that felt when I was in L.A. I didn’t want that for anyone. I said I’d never let that happen.

You have any fun training camp stories or memories you can share?

When anyone came to our dorm in camp, we were always pitching quarters. It got to be a big thing with the running backs. We were always competitive. We’d play in our down time and half of the team would be in the lobby cheering us on, rooting us on as we pitched quarters.

Who was the top guy?

Oh I was the leader! I was the man of course! Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Amos Zeroue would always give me fit. Willie Parker later too – he’d try to get after it, but he wasn’t as good as those guys,

You played on teams with two feature backs and just you. What are your thoughts on using a running back rotation versus just one back?

I think you should go with one back. One horse you can feed. That gives the opportunity for the running back t be most successful. I don’t think the two-back platoon is as effective.

When you have one running back, you are relying on a special back, and that’s the kind of guy you want to give the opportunity to win a game.  When you don’t have a special back, that’s when you platoon. But when you have a workhorse like Bell, you need to feed him. A special back like that, that’s who you want to win with. A guy like Bell will give you a greater impact. It’s important to get a guy like that the ball and as many opportunities as you can.

Lastly, what are your thoughts on this Steelers team? What does it need to do to take that next step and win a Super Bowl?

I think they only step they need to take it to stop the run. Pittsburgh’s defense was sporadic last year. It couldn’t stop the run, and when that happens you allow teams to have their way with you.  Then play action works and you can throw deep more. The defense bends to your will.

It’s too early to tell if the team has done what it needs to do to improve. Losing your best linebacker is difficult. It’s not easy to replace a guy like Shazier.

Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades To order, just click on the book:

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