He’s aggressive without being threatening, outspoken without being controversial, enthusiastic without being arrogant. He talks trash with Ray Lewis one week and jokes about it on Letterman the next. Jerome Bettis is so good at selling himself, he started a company to teach NFL players how to create their own brand equity. He’s made himself the model for how players would like to conduct their careers -- and the standard for how the league wishes its players would conduct their lives.
“Look at the nickname, the body type, that smile -- it’s a perfect mix,” says Steelers WR Troy Edwards. “He’s the best at the game, and the game outside the game.”
It takes a full palate of skills to be a model citizen in NFL Nation. It helps to have unsurpassed talent, which Bettis, who’s rushed for almost 11,000 yards in nine seasons, has. It helps to give back, which Bettis, who runs a football camp/celeb fest in his native Detroit that has raised $500,000 for charity, does. It also helps to be diplomatic, and that’s where The Bus shines.
Need a stat to prove it? How about zero? As in, over the six seasons since the Steelers traded for him in ’96, their passing game has ranked 27th, 23rd, 29th, 26th, 29th and 21st. Yet Bettis has never publicly ridiculed any of his quarterbacks. Consider that Cris Carter throws a tantrum whenever Daunte Culpepper makes a bad pass, and you’ll understand why that makes Bettis the ultimate go-to guy. He’s the player Bill Cowher calls on when the game gets too close -- and the player the NFL promotes when the police blotter gets too close for comfort.
Bettis occupies two four-foot-wide stalls in a corner of the Steelers locker room and, from there, he sets the tone for how the entire team handles itself. “If someone cost us the game,” says Edwards, “Jerome reminds him to be responsible with the media before they come in.” And when the doors swing open, Bettis shows why Steelers offensive guard Rich Tylski calls him the Pittsburgh Kid. In mid-December, after Cowher told Pittsburgh reporters that only he would be answering questions about Bettis’ injured groin, they ignored him and bolted for Bettis’ double-wide locker. Most players bristle at the cat-and-mouse game the media play after an edict like that from the coach. But Bettis flashed his runway-size smile, laughed as he answered “no comment” to the same question posed five different ways and apologized for not being more up-front as he limped off to the trainer’s room. Polite yet pointed. That’s how he walks that fine line between savvy and sellout. “I don’t play it different in front of the camera than I do when no one is around,” says Bettis.
Which is why the counselors at his three-day summer football clinic, fellow Pro Bowlers like Donovan McNabb, Eddie George and Charles Woodson, do it gratis. Players just want to be on board The Bus -- even after he’s run them over. “He always pats guys he’s knocked down on the butt,” says Steelers WR Hines Ward. “Like he’s saying, ‘Sorry, didn’t mean to embarrass you.’ Then he gives them that smile.”
A smile that says he knows how to win, without making those he’s beaten feel like they’ve lost.
This article appears in the February 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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