If Jerome Bettis ever ends up being the subject of his own 30 For 30, you can be all but assured the trailer for the documentary would feature the narrator saying something along the lines of, “What if I told you…a six-time Pro Bowler…was almost a different kind of pro bowler?” I, on the other hand, would never resort to low-hanging wordplay like that as an opening hook.
Many of the middle schoolers in the Detroit neighborhood where Bettis was raised played on a youth football team that took its name from the franchise in Pittsburgh where he’d one day establish himself as one of the greatest running backs in the history of the NFL. However, puberty took its sweet time checking him off its list, and when those kids were playing on the gridiron that hosted their games on Saturdays, the self-described “geek” could normally be found at the bowling alley (he was also usually too busy competing in tournaments around the Midwest on Sundays to watch any NFL action).
He eventually decided to give flag football a try as an eight-grader only to soon discover he was pretty damn good at it. This development didn’t go unnoticed by one of his uncles, a high school coach who had to convince his mother to let her son play what she was convinced was a “hateful” sport. She wasn’t the only person who needed to be swayed, as her brother also had to urge his fairly ambivalent nephew to capitalize on the potential he saw in him before Bettis agreed to give it a shot (although he was motivated less by passion and more by the possibility of easing his parents’ financial burdens by earning a scholarship).
Bettis may have been a late bloomer but it was one hell of a bloom that made him impossible to ignore. The head coach at his high school had a policy of telling freshman interested in playing for him to prove themselves on the junior varsity squad, but when Bettis knocked on the door of his office to see if he would make an exception, he took one glance at the 5’10” ninth-grader on the cusp of 200 pounds and responded “Hell yes.”
Between that moment and the end of his senior season, Bettis established himself as the highest-rated prospect in the state of Michigan and was fielding offers from some of the biggest college football programs in the country—including one located less than an hour away in Ann Arbor that seemed like a natural fit. However, he ultimately decided to take his talents to Notre Dame and left Detroit behind for the strange new world that was South Bend, Indiana.
This was the first big step in a journey that would see him spend a few years in Los Angeles after the Rams scooped him up with the 10th pick in the 1993 NFL Draft before he arrived in Pittsburgh three years later. He’d remain a Steeler for the rest of a Hall of Fame career with the storybook ending that came when Bettis won his first and only Super Bowl in the city he hailed from in front of over 30 friends and family members who were in the stands to watch him take the field for the last time.
The path the man who was eventually dubbed “The Bus” followed on his way to capping off his playing career by raising the Lombardi Trophy in Detroit was riddled with adversity that he overcame with the help of the “fighting spirit” he developed when he was growing up there, which he recently shed some light on after teaming up with Modelo to reflect on the hurdles he had to overcome en route to greatness.
I recently got the chance to chat with Bettis, who credits his parents for doing what they could to shield him from the less-than-desirable elements of living in a neighborhood that deteriorated over the course of his childhood to a point where the residences on either side of the home he grew up in had become crackhouses by the time he headed off to college along with the lessons his mother and father had instilled in him up to that point:
“The thing that stuck with me the most throughout everything was the love of my mom and dad. My dad worked two jobs and my mom was incredible. She was at every practice.
When I was in high school, there was this car parked near the field during practice and all of my coaches thought it was a spy from another team. They said, ‘We’ve got to go take care of that car!” and I’m like, ‘Oh man.’ I knew it was my mother. I finally had to say, ‘Hey guys, that’s my mom. She’s just checking in on me. I’m an asthmatic. She wants to make sure I’m okay.’
It was the most embarrassing thing in the world but she just had that much love for me. These are the things that I remember most about my time growing up. Now that I have kids myself, I can appreciate it even more.”
However, there was only so much they could do to prevent him from succumbing to the pitfalls that came with being immersed in an area teeming with negative influences, and when he was in fourth grade, he started shoplifting gum and taking it to school to sell to his fellow students. Before long, he had a competitor, which led to Bettis recruiting a larger classmate to serve as “muscle” after he hatched a plan to steal his rival’s stash only to end up in the principal’s office.
Instead of calling it quits, Bettis—who joked he “was resourceful” when I brought the story up—pivoted in pursuit of a higher profit margin and started boosting Transformers action figures and flipping them for up to $20 a pop. Unfortunately, he made the fatal error of hiding his inventory in his mom’s car and subsequently received a lesson from the belt his dad used to dole out discipline when she found out, but that wasn’t enough to deter him from making more inadvisable decisions going forward.
By the time Bettis turned sixteen, it was clear he was well on his way to securing the scholarship that had incentivized him to play football in the first place, and after attending a clinic organized by an NFL linebacker hailing from Detroit, he got some additional incentive in the form of the Jaguar the player rolled up in. However, Bettis couldn’t resist the urge to put the luxuries that potentially awaited him in jeopardy in favor of the Jordans and leather jackets he didn’t need to wait to acquire—although he did have to sell drugs in order to afford them. He frequently had a firearm within reach during his time with the crew that called themselves the “Aurora Boulevard Posse,” and while he never fired a shot, he did find himself on the receiving end of gunfire on the night he decided to leave that life behind when one of the bullets blew off the bicep of one of his fellow members.
Bettis was still accustomed to a certain brand of conflict resolution he quickly discovered was frowned upon at Notre Dame—even though it was partially responsible for making him want to go there in the first place. While he’d been fairly unimpressed by the school’s “stuffy” vibe during his first visit to campus, he warmed up to the idea of going there after a few guys on the Fighting Irish lived up to their nickname when they got into a brawl outside a club across the Michigan border, where Bettis knocked a couple of locals out cold before realizing he might feel more at home there than he initially thought.
When he arrived for his freshman year, he was forced to adjust to the reality that the methods he’d resorted to in the parking lot wouldn’t fly when it came to solving any problems he encountered on campus. After spending most of his life in a place where people wouldn’t think twice about letting their fists do the talking for them, it was a bit difficult to adjust to finding himself in a setting where actual talking was seen as the best approach when it comes to solving any issues that arise—like when Bettis discovered his roommate was a runner who preferred to dry his sweaty underwear by hanging it on a nail on the wall:
“The biggest adjustment I had to make was fitting into a different type of community where everybody was open and communicating. I had a roommate who was from a different place than I was. I didn’t know how to talk to him. He was a young white kid from outside of Chicago, and here I was, this black kid from Detroit.
We had nothing in common but were dropped into this position where you live together and you have to figure out a way to talk and to communicate. It was a huge challenge, but what gave me strength through all of that was the fighting spirit that I developed in Detroit. That’s what pushed me and got me through the whole experience at Notre Dame and then the NFL.”
Bettis joined the Fighting Irish a few years after the program had managed to turn things around after becoming a shell of the powerhouse it once was (and the one Notre Dame fans have deluded themselves into thinking it still is) under the leadership of head coach Gerry Faust, who was replaced by Lou Holtz, a man who has spent the past few months repeatedly comparing college football players to the soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy while criticizing student-athletes who’ve opted to prioritize their health by declining to play in the middle of a pandemic.
I was interested to hear what Bettis had to say about the issue and he told me that if he was at Notre Dame this year, he’d be very hesitant to participate (thanks in no small part to the condition he was diagnosed with after he was rushed to the hospital when he collapsed during his very first day of drills as a high school football player):
“Like I said, I’m an asthmatic, so it would be a very difficult decision for me. I would have to listen to the science and the different perspectives and talk to my family about it, but I’d be hard-pressed to say I would be rushing out there to play football.
It’d be a big, big decision for me. It would also depend on where I was in school. Whether I was a younger player or an older player would factor in. There’s a lot to factor in but I would be very, very concerned about stepping onto that field.”
While he didn’t address Holtz’s questionable World War II analogy directly, it’s safe to say the two don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to whether or not players have an obligation to burden the risks that come with playing this season:
“They definitely have the right to make their own decision.
You have to understand there’s a big difference between the NFL and college. The NFL has the Players Association that negotiated an agreement. They said, “Hey, if we get this kind of testing, if you give us this type of environment, if you get us all of these things, then we’re willing to play.” Anyone who decides to opt in does so knowing the risks and has all of the benefits they negotiated, like regular testing and a sterile work environment.
College players don’t have that luxury so you have to hope their university has their best interests at heart. The players don’t owe anything to anybody. They owe it to themselves to make sure they’re safe.”
It’s fairly useless to speculate about how the year will ultimately play out given all of the variables involved but that didn’t stop me from having Bettis do exactly that. He seems to think the issues that impacted teams around the country as they were gearing up over the summer will inevitably continue into the fall but he says it’s doubtful they’ll be able to derail the season entirely:
“I think it’s going to look a lot like baseball where you have some teams that’ll have some outbreaks and they’ll have to say, ‘Hey, you agreed to do this so you need to be much better in how you handle things.’
I believe they’ll continue to play and some teams may be forced to forfeit but the season is going to go on regardless because they negotiated that approach. They created more spots on the practice squad so they’ll have more players available if they need them. They put those stopgaps in place so that in the event something happens, they’ll still be able to keep playing.”
I asked Bettis to expound on the NFL’s approach after he pointed out the differences between the situation when viewed through the lens of someone playing for a scholarship and a guy who gets paid millions of dollars to play football for a living. The NCAA never seriously considered resorting to the resoundingly successful bubble strategy that allowed the NHL and NBA to salvage their seasons, and while those two organizations were forced to scramble to find a solution when everything came crashing down in March, the NFL had the luxury of having months to figure out a blueprint that other leagues did not.
As a result, I was curious if he thought the NFL failed to take advantage of the time it was given based on the comparatively bold gameplan it ultimately unveiled. In short? Not really, as Bettis suggested the emotional toll players would be subjected to inside a bubble may have presented an even bigger problem than the logistics of constructing it and has faith things will go smoothly—assuming guys can resist the urge to follow in the footsteps of the Seahawks rookie who was cut after trying to smuggle a woman into his hotel room by unsuccessfully disguising her as a player:
“I don’t think a bubble is realistic for the NFL. When you look at the NBA, they only had eight games and then they started the playoffs, and even though they eventually opened it up to families, that’s not easy.
A 16-week bubble is just unrealistic. You also can’t play all of those games in one location. That just doesn’t work. The NFL has to rely on players being smart, conscious, and safe. Hopefully that’s the case.”
Earlier this summer, Bettis sat down with NBC in the wake of the protests that saw millions of Americans spurned by an urge to address racial inequality take to the streets—including a number of athletes who took advantage of their platform to advocate for change. During the interview, he asserted sports are unique in the sense the locker room is one of the rare places where race is essentially a non-factor, but last month, it became impossible to ignore when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to emerge from theirs after deciding to boycott a playoff game following the shooting of Jacob Blake before other teams and entire leagues quickly followed suit.
That call to action occurred exactly four years after Colin Kaepernick first caught heat for attempting to call attention to police brutality when he sat on the bench during the national anthem during a preseason game, and with race and sports suddenly inextricable, I closed out our discussion by getting Bettis to address the fans who are less than thrilled with that development and had him share his thoughts on what obligations (if any) athletes have in the current climate:
“You can’t say ‘stick to sports’ because sports are only a small part of every athlete’s life. These issues are real. They’re not games. Sports are. You play a game and you go home, but if something about the world that home is in isn’t right, then you’ve got to speak up about it.
I don’t think every player has a role or a responsibility. It’s up to each individual to want to make a change. It’s not mandatory, but if you feel a sense of urgency and the need to have an impact on this moment, that is your right as an American. You have a platform to utilize, so you can utilize it if you want. I think that’s the way to approach it. I don’t think anyone should ‘have’ to do anything, but if you feel compelled to act, you should.”
Parts of this interview were edited for length and clarity./em>