Bettis close friend, mentor to Roethlisberger

The woman and her husband sitting at the next table were from out of town, you see, just passing through, and admittedly only casual football fans, so they could be forgiven for not recognizing the king and prince of Pittsburgh. Not that it stopped the comedy duo of Ben and Bussie, with some help from their mini-entourage, from having a little fun at the couple's expense, going along with it when the woman asked Ben how his injured hand was feeling.

And when Ben and his boy barely got a smile out of the gentleman when they rather enthusiastically informed him that they, too, were Miami (Ohio) RedHawks, well, that was just the perfect ending to Bussie's day. Earlier, he had received a game ball after running for 101 hard-earned yards in a Week 14 win over Chicago, though he nearly lost his 100-yard game late, meaning Ben had no choice but to give him grief for that -- and for, of course, getting tackled from behind on a 39-yard run -- the rest of the night. But now, thanks to the priceless look of disappointment Ben wore when his fellow alumnus didn't respond to "You're from Miami of Ohio?! We're from Miami of Ohio?!" a fresh inside joke had fallen into Bussie's lap.

The king of the city looked to the heavens and says with that famous broad smile of his, "Thank you, God." Guess you had to be there.

Then there was Wednesday. Bussie is leaving a television interview, Ben is on his way in. Ben sees it as another opportunity to tease Bussie about his ugly halfback option pass against the Bengals that Sunday. Ben tells Bussie that he owes him money, it was such a bad throw. Bussie pays him back all right -- with a smile and a shot to the chops. It's probably the hardest hit Ben would take that week.

That's pretty much what it's like when Ben (Roethlisberger, the Steelers' star quarterback) and Bussie (The Bus, future Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis) get together. They've got jokes.

"We're always laughing," Roethlisberger says. "Anyone that sees us together says we should have our own TV show. It's like when we get together, something just clicks."

Talk about your odd couples. It doesn't get much better than Findlay, Ohio (Roethlisberger's hometown), and Detroit (Bettis'), than the age of 33 with 13 years in the league, and 23 with two.

"What I think it is," Roethlisberger says, "we're almost so different that we get along so well. We've got similarities. We get around each other and it's always nonstop laughter. There are times that we're very serious, but most of the time, when we're together, we're laughing about something. A lot of times we're laughing at each other."

On the serious tip, though, these two are tight. They're both among the other's best friends on the team. To Roethlisberger, who has only a younger sister, Bettis is "a big brother. He's a fatherly figure. A mentor. A coach. A teacher. And a role model."

"There's many times, and I know this sounds crazy, people wear those bracelets that say, 'What Would Jesus Do?'" Roethlisberger says. "There's times when I think, 'How would Jerome handle this?'"

Bettis, naturally, has handled Roethlisberger's arrival and rapid rise to stardom with class and grace. You see, Bettis is the Steelers, a role player now but still one of the most popular figures in team history. Roethlisberger came along last year and took the city by storm. More passes are made at him by adoring female fans than he throws on most Sundays. Some stars might have been resentful or even envious of a young player who's achieved as much (first QB to take his team to the conference title game in each of his first two seasons) and gained as much popularity as quickly as Roethlisberger has.

"He's been nothing but amazing with that," Roethlisberger says. "He knows that he doesn't have much left and he's passing the torch on to me. He's accepted that. It's not like I'm forcing him out, it's more like he's passing it along to me."

Roethlisberger recalls his first day with the team in 2004, after the Steelers drafted him with the 11th pick of the first round. He was carrying his playbook and a notebook. Bettis walked up to him and grabbed the notebook.

"He writes 'Jerome,'" Roethlisberger says. "He writes 'home number' and 'cell number.' And he goes, 'Anything you need, I have. Anything you want, I have. If you ever want to go out. Anything you ever need, just give me a call. Don't hesitate to call me.'"

Roethlisberger called, and the first time they hung out, at Ben's crib, they talked for hours.

"We talked about everything from how to deal with people, the media, how to equal out your time between your teammates, don't show favoritism one way or another," Roethlisberger says.

"I know that he's always there. No matter what it is, if I need to call him, I can call him."

Bettis nearly called it a career after last season, which ended for the Steelers with another home loss in the AFC Championship Game. But after thinking it over in the offseason, he decided to come back and give getting to his first Super Bowl one more shot. Super Bowl XL happens to be in Detroit on Feb. 5, and so one of the subplots of the season has been the Steelers' trying to get the Bus to the big game. The team pretty much has dedicated this season to him.

Bettis told Roethlisberger that he also came back so he could play with him one more time. With Roethlisberger, Bettis believed, the Steelers had a good chance to not only deliver Bettis his first championship, but the franchise that long-elusive "one for the thumb."

"That was unbelievable for him to say something like that to me," Roethlisberger says, "the confidence he instilled in me with that."

Roethlisberger had to pick up Bettis on Sunday. On his way into the end zone for a touchdown that would have put the game out of reach, Bettis fumbled for the first time all season. The Colts' Nick Harper recovered, and if not for Roethlisberger's tackle, Indianapolis would have taken the lead and the Steelers' dream would be over. Likely, so would Bettis' illustrious career. It would have been a shame for him to go on such a low note.

Instead, the Steelers travel to Denver, one more road upset away from getting the Bus to Detroit.

When this is all over, Ben and Bussie, probably at Bussie's wedding this offseason (the one Ben said he'd "consider" attending), the two friends will look back on the play and laugh.

"Things happen for a reason," Roethlisberger says. "I told him that after he fumbled, 'There's a reason that you fumbled.' We were supposed to win the game the way we did, I guess. No matter how ugly it was, we still got the win for Jerome."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.