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Bettis Makes a Smooth Transition From Football

September 07, 2006|Larry Stewart | Times Staff Writer

As Jerome Bettis walked out of the NBC studios in Burbank where Jay Leno tapes his show, four youngsters thrust football cards at the former Pittsburgh Steelers running back, begging for his autograph. The youngest, about 6 years old, was holding four Bettis cards.

"Pick one," Bettis said.

It was nearly a minute before the small hand gave one to the imposing 5-foot-11, 255-pound Bettis, who signed, paused, then grabbed the other three cards and signed them as well. He signed the rest of the cards too.

There were two dozen more autograph seekers on the sidewalk waiting for him. Bettis again obliged -- but only one item per person this time, and this time he meant it.

After the Steelers' 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, Bettis, 34, retired from the NFL. In so doing, he closed out 13 seasons -- the last 10 in Pittsburgh after starting out with the then-Los Angeles Rams -- in which the former Notre Dame star rushed for a total of 13,662 yards to become the NFL's No. 5 all-time rusher and a popular star.

Bettis now turns that star power toward his new career. Tonight, he makes his regular-season debut as a studio analyst when NBC televises the Steelers playing host to the Miami Dolphins, even though there won't be the normal pregame show because of a music special that kicks off the season. Of his new career, Bettis said, "Everybody tells me, just be myself. And that's what I'm going to do.

"I'll tell you what the hardest part is going to be. It's going to be saying anything critical about the Steelers. I could say the Chicago Bears' running game could have been sharper, and no one will notice. If I say something like that about the Steelers, it will be headlines in Pittsburgh.

"But it comes with the territory, and I'll just have to learn to deal with it."

Bettis found that out when, during NBC's second exhibition telecast, he speculated that Steelers Coach Bill Cowher might retire after this season. It caused quite a stir in Pittsburgh, and Cowher had to explain his frame of mind was different now than it was at the end of last season.

"I just expressed an opinion, and it got blown out of proportion," Bettis said.

On Friday, the day of his Leno appearance, wherever Bettis went, people wanted to shake his hand, offer congratulations, gush about his on-field exploits. And always more autograph seekers.

It began with the waitress at lunch -- "I'm from Pittsburgh and am one of your biggest fans. I couldn't believe it when I saw you walk in here." It continued with an anonymous fan at NBC who left a Bettis jersey in the dressing room. On it was a note: "To Beau." Bettis signed it.

Bettis has been on the Leno show three times this year. But it is a post-Super Bowl appearance that he remembers best. On that show, the man nicknamed "The Bus" told Leno he was now unemployed and joked, "I should have thought about having a job before I retired."

Two weeks later, he did.

NBC, during its Winter Olympics coverage, flew Bettis and his parents to Turin, Italy, to announce his hiring for "Sunday Night Football."

"I owe Jay for getting me the job," Bettis now quips.

Actually, NBC was already interested in Bettis, having brought him in for an audition last October, the day after the Steelers played the Baltimore Ravens in a Monday night game.

NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol said Bettis proved to be a natural.

"Jerome simply blew us away during his audition," Ebersol said. "Seeing him on the 'Tonight Show' after his Super Bowl win reaffirmed what I thought -- that he's the kind of guy that people want to invite into their living rooms every week."

Bettis is not new to television work, having done some local sportscasting in Pittsburgh along with a couple of guest appearances on CBS' "The NFL Today."

"He'll do a great job because he's a natural," said Steelers running back Verron Haynes. "He was a presence on and off the field. When he was in a room, you knew he was there. He lit the room."

One of Bettis' NBC teammates, John Madden, agreed.

"Jerome has an infectious personality. You see Jerome and you smile. He's a good guy, and people gravitate toward him."

Madden said he was just talking to Charlie Batch, who will be the Steelers' starting quarterback tonight in place of the sidelined Ben Roethlisberger. And Batch talked about how his locker was next to Bettis' the last four seasons.

"He said there were always so many people around Jerome, he needed two lockers," Madden recalled. "The Steelers are going to miss Jerome both on and off the field."

Bettis, who has a 1 1/2 -year-old daughter, Jada, with his wife, Trameka, sees no sign of slowing down now that he isn't playing.

His recent visit to Los Angeles was typical. The day before his Leno appearance, he did a guest spot on NBC's Emmy Award-winning comedy series "The Office" and taped a guest appearance on Carson Daly's late-night show. Friday he was a guest at California Speedway, and Saturday he golfed at Los Angeles Country Club.

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