The Bust of the Bus will be unveiled this weekend and he approves of the likeness, sculpted by Blair Buswell of Provo, Utah, where Bettis went for the process.
"Having to sit with [the artist] so long, I saw the actual bust come to life. He did some specific things, like my mustache, my beard, and then the bust started to take on my image ... the more and more it started to look like me."
ATLANTA – White flowers bloom on magnolias nestled under stately oaks and Southern pines, creating a forest canopy that covers the lush Buckhead section of town where the Jerome Bettis family resides.
Inside their home, a painting dominates a wood-paneled office where trophies, helmets from Notre Dame and the Steelers and other treasured memorabilia rest. The large work of art on the wall depicts a mural of the life of Jerome Bettis. There are sketches of him with his parents, with his wife Trameka and two children, the skyline from his hometown of Detroit, as a running back at Notre Dame and with the Steelers, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and showing off his Super Bowl ring.
The piece is unfinished, yet scheduled for completion soon.
“Right here,” Bettis said, pointing to an unoccupied spot in the lower center of the painting, “is where the bust will go.”
The bust. It is the final piece for the artist and the exclamation point to the football career of Jerome Bettis, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday night.
Not long after he was elected in February, Bettis took Trameka, son Jerome Jr. and daughter Jada to Canton, Ohio, to tour the Hall of Fame “so they could understand what dad had just been elected to.”
“We just wanted to come in look at everything and let my kids get a grasp of what a group of men I’m going into,” Bettis said. “It was amazing. They got an opportunity to really see it and understand that Daddy’s going into a very, very elite group of men that is very, very special.”
That group will be enhanced by its new member, a kid from a tough section of West Detroit who went from Mackenzie High School honor student and hot-shot 10-pin bowler to NFL Pro Bowler. He did not let asthma hold him back from becoming the sixth leading rusher in NFL history with 13,662 yards. His eight 1,000-yard seasons are tied for fifth all-time. He played in 192 games, more than all but two backs ever. Only two Hall of Fame backs fumbled less.
Bettis did things the right way, too, becoming the leader, the heart and soul of a team that produced one of the best eras in Steelers football. He won the NFL’s 2001 Walter Payton Award that honors a player’s performance and community service.
Bettis also went out on top as many others only dream of doing, hoisting that Lombardi Trophy delivered after the final game of his magnificent 13-year career following the Steelers Super Bowl XL victory in his hometown of Detroit.
Bill Cowher, his coach for the entire decade he spent with the Steelers, cannot make it for the induction ceremony, for good reason. His daughter Lauren will be married Saturday in Ireland.
Said Cowher, "There's only one thing that could keep me from there — because I watched this and was part of it and was so blessed — a family member to get married and it just happened to be that. On this day, I will be in Ireland."
The biggest running back to enter the Hall of Fame will enter a little lighter. Bettis rarely played in the NFL under 255 pounds but he may be closer to the 240 pounds in which the Hall lists him. Since his election, he still looks like The Bus but has been dieting and working out to fit into a smaller size Gold Jacket that will be presented to him at ceremonies Thursday night in Canton.
“In his last year,” said Bill Cowher, his coach all 10 years with the Steelers, “he not only inspired those around him, he put a sense of purpose and resolve into our championship run. I know others have been flashier, but no one had more substance, heart and the spirit of a champion than Jerome Bettis. He was a joy to coach, he was a joy to watch play, he was a joy to be around.”
The real storybook ending comes in Canton on Saturday, 10 years after he entered his final training camp. He was elected in his fifth year of eligibility, a wait that at times frustrated him.
“Now that I’m in, it kind of just blew away immediately, all the heartache and pain, it disappeared once I got the call that I was in,” Bettis said, relaxing in the living room of his house in his adopted hometown, where Trameka’s family lives. “The first year is the hardest because you don’t know the process. Also, I could not be upset because of the names that were going in.
“When the call came it was really that euphoria you get right when Christmas comes: ‘Wow, it actually happened.’ It’s excitement but it’s also relief, in that OK, I finally got in. And you don’t have to get that question or statement – ‘Hey man, you’re a Hall of Famer in my book.’ It’s like yeah, I know, but your book does not count.”
“While you’re playing football, it’s never a thought,” Bettis said of the Hall of Fame. “Because there are times in there you can make decisions that will maybe help you in the quest to get into the Hall of Fame.”
One of those times came at the end the 1997 season. He had not missed a game in his first two seasons with the Steelers and he had 1,665 yards rushing heading into the ’97 season finale. He needed 26 to break Barry Foster’s team record.
But the Steelers already had clinched a playoff seed and their finale in Memphis against the newly-moved Tennessee Oilers was meaningless in the standings. Cowher wanted to rest him for the playoffs.
“It was a decision not to play,” said Bettis, who concurred with his coach’s reasoning. “As it turns out, that could have helped or bolstered my resume for the Hall of Fame. Things like that, you don’t really think about or factor in because you want to win. I wanted to be healthy for the playoffs, ready to go for the playoffs.
“I make that decision because that’s in the best interests of me and the team.”
He was unselfish in his play and as a teammate, prompting Hines Ward — another potential Steelers Hall of Famer — to publicly break down crying because he thought their loss in the 2004 AFC championship game at home was the end for Bettis. It wasn’t. For the second straight season, Bettis took a salary pay cut in order to return for one more year.
What a year it was, a fairy-tale ending to a glorious career that culminates with the gold jacket and the bust Saturday in Canton.
“It’s been nothing but a blessing,” The Bus said.