Bettis driving 'Bus' toward Super Bowl Dispirited in St. Louis, big back revives career, Steelers' title prospects

November 29, 1996|By Chuck Finder | Chuck Finder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PITTSBURGH -- Hawaii looks good. Tim Lester, the blocking back and personal off-tackle escort for the NFL's second-leading rusher, already has received assurances about that February trip. Jerome Bettis brought his buddy to the Pro Bowl in 1994, when both toiled for the Los Angeles Rams. If Bettis makes the Pro Bowl this season as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he promises to carry along Lester again.

"But I'm looking for some bigger things," Lester said with a grin.

Rings. Jewelry. The Super Bowl kind. That is what Bettis' longtime fullback covets.

So does Bettis.

He has rushed for 1,236 yards, 41 fewer than only Denver's Terrell Davis and 36 more than Bettis needed to fulfill a contract clause and become a free agent at season's end. He has turned the five-receiver Steelers into the NFL's No. 2 rushing offense. He has put Pittsburgh (9-3) into a three-game AFC Central lead heading into Sunday's date with the Ravens at Memorial Stadium. And he has made the Steelers a prime candidate to return to the Super Bowl.

That is what drives Lester to block. That is what drives the tailback affectionately known as "The Bus" to rumble.

"You're part of something that's better than just you getting 100 yards," Bettis said. "You count on one another, and you have that type of relationship with all these guys. You don't want to let these guys down."

He hasn't yet. And, he added: "I'm having the time of my life right now."

OK, so it drives him even more whenever Lester waves that 1995 AFC Championship ring in his face.

"He's hungry now," Lester said of Bettis. "He wants to get to play in the Super Bowl, 'cause I tease him about how it was last year. I'm always wearing my ring, flashing it. He never won a conference championship or anything."

Bettis is hungry indeed, and a 5-foot-11, 243-pound fellow with a rumbling tummy is nothing to be trifled with. This, after all, is the guy who carries snacks in his pockets to team meetings. Two bags of chips, usually with a side order of candy. "It keeps me awake," Bettis said. "Gives me something to nibble on."

Much the same happens on the field. The Steelers feed him a steady diet of footballs, and Bettis nibbles away, keeping their Super Bowl dreams going.

You may remember Bettis' L.A. story: Bulled for 100-plus yards in 11 of his first 21 games. Became a Pro Bowl selection as a rookie and a second-time 1,000-yard rusher the next season. Destined for Hollywood stardom as the Battering Ram.

But Bettis was destroyed by the time the club told him to meet it in St. Louis. He was a contract holdout for two weeks, fell into disfavor with coach Rich Brooks and St. Louis fans, got injured and benched. He rushed for 637 yards, the lowest of his three-year career. No one mentioned the lousy offensive line in St. Louis. They just talked about heading in a new direction, and Bettis was sent out the door. A Battered Ram.

"He called me a couple weeks before he got traded," said Lester, a Rams fullback from 1992-94 and a Steelers regular since the middle of last season. "I told him, 'Man, if you can, get traded to Pittsburgh.' We talked about how great it would be to get back together."

On draft day in April, the Steelers shipped the NFL version of trinkets and beads to the Rams for Bettis. Bam Morris, after pleading guilty to marijuana possession, was released. The Steelers were retooling their offense because of the free-agent departure of quarterback Neil O'Donnell. They climbed aboard The Bus, and he has carried them this far.

It was an inauspicious start, though. In the season opener, the Steelers gave him just 14 carries, and he gathered just 57 yards -- his 27th consecutive game below 100. Then he began to roll.

Bettis, in fact, began that roll against the Ravens. He had 21 carries for 116 yards and a touchdown in a 31-17 victory during the season's second week. He followed with 133 yards and two touchdowns against Buffalo, 115 yards against Houston, 103 against Kansas City, 109 against Cincinnati. He gained just 65 at Houston, then rebounded with 126 against Atlanta, 129 and two touchdowns against -- ahem -- St. Louis and 111 against Cincinnati. His new team is 8-1 when he tops 100 yards. It is 1-2 when he doesn't.

Monday night in Miami, he carried the load 27 times for 119 yards, churning up all those chunks of turf despite never gaining more than 14 yards at a time. Time and again, Dolphins defenders rose from the turf rather slowly, gingerly by the fourth quarter.

"As the game goes on, guys start slowing down," Lester said. "When you get a big back coming through, they don't want to hit him. I like to watch film on Monday: You can see DBs cringing. We're always seeing who can deliver the bigger blow."

The hardest Bettis was ever hit, college or pro, came last year in St. Louis.

He was blindsided by the Rams.

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