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The End Of The Line?

If 'The Bus' really is about to stop, he can be glad his stunning fumble wasn't his last play. Gladys Bettis is glad too.

January 18, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH — After seeing her son, Jerome, fumble near the Indianapolis goal line Sunday -- a turnover that nearly cost the Pittsburgh Steelers a chance at the Super Bowl -- Gladys Bettis left her seat and headed for a less-than-immaculate reception area.

The women's room at the RCA Dome.

"When it happened, my daughter and I left our seats," she said in a phone interview Tuesday from her Detroit home. "I said, 'I can't sit here. I can't watch this.' The last thing I saw was [Steeler quarterback Ben] Roethlisberger making a tackle. When I saw that, I got up and left. I thought, 'Well, they've got a chance.'

"I was in the bathroom just leaning against the wall. I was praying and I said, 'Lord, please help my son. This is not the way for him to end his career. If it's to be his last game, please don't let that be his last play.' "

The Bettis fumble was an error that almost ended an era -- depending on whether he decides to come back for a 14th season. It happened just after the Steelers, leading by three points, had sacked Peyton Manning at the Colt two-yard line. Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher sent in Bettis to deliver the knockout punch, a touchdown over right guard.

But when Indianapolis linebacker Gary Brackett stone-walled Bettis and put a helmet on the football, the Steelers' stunning upset was in serious jeopardy. The ball popped backward and was scooped up by cornerback Nick Harper, who had 93 yards of open field in front of him.

Except for Roethlisberger.

The second-year quarterback made the biggest -- and first -- tackle of his NFL career, grabbing Harper by the foot and hanging on just long enough for tight end Jerame Tuman to finish him off. It turned out to be a game-saver, but not before Indianapolis' Mike Vanderjagt, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, flubbed a 46-yard field-goal attempt with 17 seconds left.

"It's one of those things that once in a blue moon Jerome fumbles, and once in a blue moon I'm going to make that tackle," Roethlisberger told reporters.

Meanwhile, an in-the-dark Gladys Bettis was still searching for the strength to return to her seat.

"I came out of the bathroom and I was just listening for the noise," she said. "I didn't hear any. I heard just one person screaming and it was a Steeler person running down, and they let me know what happened."

She rushed back to see the Steelers taking a knee to run out the clock, then surging onto the field in jubilant chaos, their Super Bowl hopes still alive.

The Steelers will play at Denver on Sunday in their sixth AFC championship game under Cowher, and they're the first sixth-seeded team in NFL history to get this far. Of their previous five conference-title games, the Steelers played host to four -- all of which they lost. So, in a way, being road warriors is a welcome change. That's how Bettis sees it, at least.

"For us, we've used it to our advantage because we came out very loose and very aggressive," he said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "That's given us the ability to put pressure on the home team and force them into that panic. That's been a good thing for us."

With Willie Parker running for more than 1,200 yards, Bettis has been used mostly in short-yardage situations this season and responded with 368 yards in 110 carries. But with five touchdowns in the last three weeks, he is yet again disproving the notion that a running back's career takes a dramatic turn for the worse after his 30th birthday. He'll turn 34 on Feb. 16. Thirty-three, he admits, feels a lot different than 23.

"It's a whole lot tougher," he said, getting his regular Tuesday massage as he spoke. "I'm to the point now where I have to be very conscious of everything I'm doing. If I'm up too much during the day I tell myself, 'I need to sit down more.' You're very conscious of that the older you get, because your body doesn't respond like it used to."

Bettis, whose 13,662 rushing yards are fifth-best in NFL history, won't say whether he plans to retire after this season -- people close to him say he hasn't made up his mind -- but there was finality to his words after the Steelers' regular-season finale against Detroit, a home game in which he scored three touchdowns. He talked to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the thrill of walking onto Heinz Field for perhaps the last time as a player.

"You take it for granted so many times being in that tunnel," he told the newspaper. "I was really concentrating, looking at the cracks, the way the lights look from there, looking at everything, just taking kind of a snapshot of it. Because when it's over, the only way you see the tunnel is from the outside looking in."

Now, however, those are all thoughts for some future date. The Steelers are alive and one victory removed from the Super Bowl -- a Super Bowl to be played in Bettis' hometown of Detroit.

"It's a fairy tale," said his mother, who spoke to him three times Monday just to make sure he was OK. "It's just the best ending. I don't know if he wants it to end this year, but it could be a fantastic ending to a beautiful story."

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