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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 6, 2006

Bus takes ride into retirement a champion



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DETROIT As grand exits go, it wasn't much.

The Bus didn't win the Super Bowl for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the final game of his career. Didn't even have a lot to do with it, until he was given the ball to grind up some yards and run down the clock toward the end.

Don't believe for a minute, though, that this wasn't Jerome Bettis' game.

He ran onto the field alone because his teammates wanted to give him one final tribute. He walked off it for the last time as a champion, beloved in two cities.

And he did what most athletes never can walk away on top.

"I think the Bus' last stop is here in Detroit," Bettis said.

It was quite a ride. Bettis wasn't the same back who punished defenders in the NFL for 13 years, but he didn't need to be on this team.

His role wasn't so much to run as it was to lead. He came back for another year because quarterback Ben Roethlisberger promised him a trip to Detroit, and once he got here he made them all feel at home.

His teammates wanted to win one for Pittsburgh, one for Bill Cowher, one for the thumb and one for themselves.

They never lost sight, though, of the one they wanted to win so badly for: big No. 36.

The night between the end zones was largely forgettable, though Bettis helped Roethlisberger score the Steelers' first touchdown with a block late in the second quarter. He wasn't the best running back on the field, not even the second best.

Bettis didn't even play during the first quarter, and ended the game with just 43 yards on 14 carries. He wasn't a starter, but he was the only Steeler on the field for a few moments as his teammates let him savor his final run out of the tunnel by himself.

"Joey Porter told me, 'It's only right that you lead us out there. It's your home. You need to bring us in,' " Bettis said. "I was in awe. They wanted me to bring them in and I brought them in. It was incredible. It gave me a moment I'll never forget."

Bettis responded by trying to give the Steelers something they would never forget. He rooted teammates on, sprinting onto the field to congratulate them after big plays and giving them words of encouragement when things went bad.

When it was over, Bettis finally had his Super Bowl championship, the only thing missing from what will surely be a Hall of Fame resume. He celebrated on the field, while his mother who had never missed a game since Bettis began playing football cried and his dad celebrated in a luxury suite above.

Detroit celebrated with them, perhaps hopeful that this was a good omen of things to come in a city that so desperately wants to improve itself. It was almost as if a city whose own team is woeful had somehow claimed a title of sorts of its own.

Bettis made his retirement official even before he left the field. He held the Super Bowl trophy aloft, said he was through, and then went to have some fun in the lockerroom.

"It's official, like the referee whistle," Bettis said.

Assuming it is official, Bettis leaves after rushing for the fifth-most yards in the history of the NFL. He leaves much like John Elway left on his own terms and with a glitzy new ring on his finger.

Not many athletes do that. They hang on believing they can recapture their glory days, afraid that if they leave, the fans who adore them will leave as well.

Remember the images of Joe Namath hanging on until the bitter end? Johnny Unitas did the same, and you can fill a league with running backs who believe they haven't lost a step and still have the moves that matter.

That won't happen with Bettis. He's claimed now by two cities with big Bus stops.

This Bus wasn't only bruising, he was considerate. Running backs don't last long in the NFL, especially those who plow into defenders without any thought to their own health.

Bettis knew his body was breaking down, knew his career was coming to a close. But he didn't want to tell his teammates that because he didn't want to put the extra burden on them when they were trying to win a Super Bowl.

He talked to Steelers owner Dan Rooney last week before the team came to Detroit and said this would be the end. He didn't tell coach Bill Cowher, but Cowher had seen the effects of the poundings Bettis had taken and knew anyway.

So this was it, win or lose. And what better place for it to happen than the town he grew up in, the town where his parents still live.

The Bus really did stop here.

"The script right now, if you took it to Hollywood they'd turn it down, saying it couldn't happen," Bettis said.

Bettis was right. Hollywood didn't need this script.

Pittsburgh and Detroit sure did, though.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for the Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org.

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