DETROIT -- By now most of us know how the story began: Amid tears of disappointment over the Steelers' magic carpet ride through the 2004 season concluding a game short of the Super Bowl, then-rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger makes an impromptu promise to beloved teammate Jerome Bettis. If the 32-going-on-33-year-old running back returned for just one more "final" season, Roethlisberger would lead Pittsburgh to that elusive Super Bowl berth -- in, of all places, Detroit, Bettis' birthplace.
And, win or lose Sunday in Super Bowl XL, Pittsburgh's being here with Bettis at the center of attention should go in the books as a happy ending.
But, as for the middle of this fairy tale, well, there were times when Bettis just didn't know.
"Even after I told Coach [Bill Cowher, Steelers] that I wanted to come back, it was tough for me," Bettis said Monday upon arriving in Detroit, several of his teammates having donned his throwback Notre Dame No. 6 jersey for the trip. "I went out to St. Louis and was training with [renowned track coach] Bob Kersee and there were some days I said to myself, 'What am I doing out here? I don't know if I want to keep doing this.' The love of the game kept pushing me around the track."
And then, of course, the Steelers had to make a late regular-season push and knock off the AFC's top three seeds, all on the road, en route to the Super Bowl.
"There were a couple of points in the season where I thought it didn't look like it was going to happen," Bettis said. "We were struggling [7-5, losers of three straight at one point] and that doubt crept in and said, 'here we go again,' unfortunately we might not be able to get to Detroit."
Bettis made a great call coming back for a 13th season. (Ya think?!) Could you imagine Bettis doing network color commentary this week while his teammates were here for this game, the game? Not that the Steelers would be here without him; after all, it was Bettis' second-half performance (100 yards) versus Chicago in Week 14 that started Pittsburgh's run. Had he retired and the Steelers gotten here anyway, Bettis still would be the story, only a sad one.
"I still had football in me, and if I would have walked away that would have been the biggest mistake of my life," he said. "And not to mention the fact that we're here."
Meanwhile, Packers quarterback Brett Favre is at home in Mississippi, mulling retirement. Leaning toward it, in fact, as he told ESPN on Sunday night. Bettis might be the story of Super Bowl week, but Favre's future definitely was the league's top story Monday.
It made for a fascinating juxtaposition. On the one hand, Bettis is thankful that he didn't make the wrong decision, and he's facing the choice after Sunday's game of whether to call it quits for real this time. On the other, Favre, 36, is sounding like he's all but settled on the biggest decision of his career, maybe of his life.
Sure, the circumstances of Favre's and Bettis' situations differ. Returning in a slightly reduced role to a 16-2 team that has a legit shot to get you "home" for the Super Bowl isn't the same as going back to quarterback a team coming off a 4-12 season. Even more, it's a franchise that has a new coach and your replacement in waiting, and that clearly is headed in a direction that doesn't include you, plus there's the fact you've already captured a championship. But still, in both cases it breaks down to this: A future Pro Football Hall of Fame player who can still play at a fairly high level contemplates the question all the great ones have to answer at some point.
What time is the right time to leave?
Favre, in his latest interview, did not sound like a man capable of conjuring up the commitment it takes to get around the track, so to speak. Plain and simple, the body won't do what the mind won't allow. Even with Duce Staley on the roster, Bettis, who carried the Steelers down the stretch of the '04 campaign, had to train in the offseason as if he were going to shoulder the load again and not carry seven times per game. Those shoulders of his, they were so beat up after last season that Bettis didn't swing a golf club until April.
Favre's most revealing statement was that he was unsure at this point whether he wanted the ball in crunch time, a signal that perhaps the desire to compete just isn't there. It would be great if Favre or Bettis, or Jerry Rice or Emmitt Smith before them, could just show up on Sundays and do their thing. But there's so much more to it in terms of preparation that you have to be into it or else it doesn't make sense to continue. Surely Favre is as unsure about going through another offseason, another training camp and another 17 grueling weeks, especially given the kind of punishment he endured last season.
As early as the preseason last year, Favre privately was telling friends that he didn't think the Packers would be very good in 2005. The outlook is worse for 2006.
At least Bettis, who for the second year in a row took a substantial pay cut to return, went back to a loaded team. But when it gets down to it, they both are asking themselves the question, as Favre said in the interview and ex-Viking Robert Smith did before him, "Should I walk away now or limp away later?"
"I can definitely relate to [Favre's dilemma]," Bettis said, "because there are points of the season where you say to yourself, 'Man, I'm tired. I don't feel like it. I don't want to do it anymore. I'm done.' Then there are times you go out there and have success and say, 'You know what? I can see myself doing it again.' So you fight with those thoughts, and it's just something where you have to find a place, because you can't go out there and not be committed to it.
"I think that's what he's struggling with right now, his commitment to next year. Physically, I don't think it's an issue of whether or not he can play. The question is, in his quiet moments when you have to get up and go work out, is it still there? Does he want to get up, does he want to do that, does he want to make that type of commitment? That's a tough one to answer. I think when you stop getting up, you've answered it without even having to say it."
For what it's worth (not much), I say Favre should return for another year. Hopefully this is just a case of his having not yet cleared his head of the painful memories of this season, the hardest of his career. Perhaps he'll experience a change of heart the way Bettis did last year. It's still January. Thankfully he doesn't have to make that decision right now.
All these guys are living the dream, and when you're Favre's age or Bettis' age and you've taken the pounding they have, once you walk away or wake up from it, there's no going back. You can't experience the camaraderie characteristic of team-sport competition playing golf. You just can't. So I've never been one of those "you're tarnishing your legacy" people. Never had a problem with Rice's hopping from team to team in his later years. Play as long as you can. Let them carry you off on your shield.
But -- and this is the issue with Favre -- the fight still has to be in you.
Bettis was in Favre's shoes, or a similar pair, this time last year.
"After the AFC Championship Game, I addressed my teammates because I really thought that last year was probably the end of the road," he said. "I gave it a little time."
Favre should take all the time he needs, or as much as Green Bay will allow him. As for Bettis, in the coming weeks he'll have to sit down and again grapple with a complex set of issues and emotions included in a choice that, really, is exclusive to professional athletes: when to give up what's been your life's joy when you've still got so much life left to live. In some cases it isn't a choice. When the choice is retirement, usually that's the final answer.
"It's always tough when you can still get it done," Bettis said. "That's what I was looking at last year. I knew that I could get it done I know when push comes to shove, I can still go out and get it done. The question is the desire to get it done."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.