Jerome Bettis may be the Pittsburgh Steelers' super-size running back nicknamed after a mass-transit vehicle, but his high school coach can still remember the day a quiet young freshman walked into his office and asked him about coming out for the football team the following fall.
"I was at my desk and he said, 'Coach, can I play for you?' " Bob Dozier, Bettis's coach at Detroit's Mackenzie High School, recalled. "He was speaking so softly you would have thought he was 5-foot-4. . . Then I looked up and down at him and I saw this solid kid, 5-11 and 195 pounds — that's right, Jerome was under 200 back then — and I said, 'Hell, yes, you can play for me.'
"By the time he came out for the team, he'd put on 35 pounds. It wasn't fat. It was all muscle. I guarantee you that. He lifted weights, he did everything you could ask of a kid. He was the best, the complete package. In 10th grade, I used him at middle guard. He was raw, real raw, but he was unblockable, unstoppable. Played him at blocking back, too. He blew people up. I see him now, and he's still killing people. Oh, yeah, he got bigger. I don't even want to ask him what he weighs now."
The Steelers officially list Bettis at 255 pounds. But when he lines up in the backfield Sunday in Super Bowl XL in what could be the final game of his 13-year career, the Seattle Seahawks will have to deal with a man who tips the scales between 275 and 280 pounds, according to several people with the Steelers organization.
"I can't put a number on his weight," said 268-pound Seattle defensive end Bryce Fisher. "I just know he is a big man who carries a big load and a big punch. He's like a train. You've got to stop him before he really gets going. You don't want him coming downhill on you, I can tell you that."
Told Monday that several Seahawks have said publicly they don't believe his published weight, Bettis, 33, smiled and said, "They don't believe we're a good football team either. They can weigh me on Sunday."
Bettis, the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history, may well be the most durable and one of largest backs ever. There have been other 250-pound-plus power backs in the league — Hall of Famer Marion Motley, Cincinnati's Pete Johnson, Kansas City's Christian Okoye, New Orleans's Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, among others. But none of their careers lasted more than nine seasons, and none could approach Bettis's eight 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
"When I look at my career, I think it's pretty unique in a sense that I'm the only guy who kind of looks like me," Bettis said. Asked what he was proudest of, he said, "The yards and everything, but it's still not complete. Having the opportunity to play in this game and have one more opportunity to make it complete is pretty special."
Despite his weight, and a lifelong battle with exercise-induced asthma, Bettis has never suffered a serious football injury. While his body mass index would place him well into the obese range on medical charts, people in the Steelers organization say he is diligent about lifting weights and working out and is still more muscle than blubber.
They also say that, early in his career, Bettis several times neared the 300-pound mark in the offseason but managed to take the weight off by training camp. The team has had him consult with nutritionists and weight-control experts, and several sources said now that he is living with his fiancé, his fast-food habits have been replaced by healthier meals.
Bettis trained for this season by going to St. Louis in the spring and working with track coach Bob Kersee, a trainer and husband of Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee. "There were times when I said to myself, 'I don't know if I want to keep doing this,' " he said. "The love of the game pushed me around that track."
Bettis's biggest asset may be his quick feet, according to opponents.
"I have a hard time believing his feet," said Seattle rookie linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who weighs 238 pounds. "For a man that size, if you line him up and have him go 40 yards, I don't think anybody is going to catch him from behind. We know we have our hands full."
"He's got dancer's feet," said Steelers radio analyst Tunch Ilkin, a former Pittsburgh offensive lineman. "The guy hasn't seen 255 pounds in a long time. He's way beyond that. But he's so compact, when guys hit him, it hurts them."
His high school coach remembers him the same way.
"He was a legitimate 4.5 [seconds] guy in the 40," Dozier said in a telephone interview last week. "He got those quick feet from his mother. She's a great dancer. You ought to see her, and I know he picked it up from her."
Dozier switched Bettis from middle guard to linebacker his junior year, and started giving him the football at fullback. Bettis, whose first sports love was bowling, initially preferred playing defense. But his coach told him he thought he'd have a better chance at a scholarship as a running back and, in his senior season, Bettis gained more than 1,300 yards, averaged 11 yards a carry and scored 14 touchdowns. A decent student, he was widely recruited before deciding to play at Notre Dame, where Vinny Cerrato, the Washington Redskins' vice-president for football operations, was the recruiting coordinator under former Irish coach Lou Holtz.
"He was a stud both ways in high school," Cerrato said. "He probably weighed 240 when he came to [Notre Dame]. He was always in great shape; we never had to put him on a diet or anything. I don't know that he loved working out, but he had to do it. We had the kids do a lot of running, too. He's not as fast now as he was in college, when he was a 4.6 guy. He was a great player for us. I loved the guy."
Bettis was a first-round pick of the Rams in 1993 and gained 1,429 yards his rookie season. In his third year with the Rams, he reported late for training camp in a contract dispute that landed him in the doghouse of coach Rich Brooks.
In an interview last week, Brooks, now the coach at Kentucky, insisted it was an organizational decision to trade Bettis to the Steelers. In a steal, Pittsburgh gave up a fourth-round pick in 1997 and a second-round choice in 1996 for the Rams' third-round pick in '96 and Bettis. Bettis has always described the trade as "a match made in heaven."
"When he was with us, I would never term him as being fat," Brooks said. "I'd say he was solid. When he held out that year, he definitely had conditioning issues, especially after not coming in for our offseason workouts. I look at him now and I know he's much heavier than when we had him, probably the heaviest he's ever been. But he's still got those quick feet and those defensive backs still want no part of him.
"It was a management decision more than anything. He and his agent wanted to renegotiate the contract, and our people didn't want to do it. We all just decided rather than have an unhappy guy around, we'd trade him and get something in return. It's pretty obvious he's been happy in Pittsburgh."
This week, he's the biggest story in the biggest game in sports. The mayor has considered declaring this "Jerome Bettis Week" and will present Bettis with the key to the city Tuesday. In his honor, the Steelers all wore green Notre Dame throwback No. 6 jerseys on their flight Monday to Detroit. Bettis showed up for his first news conference in a Detroit Tigers jacket and cap and said just driving into the city gave him a tingle.
"I'm living a dream right now," he said. "We got on the Southfield Freeway and I'm saying, 'Man, this is my old neighborhood, this is where I'm from.' I'm just enjoying the moment and trying to take a snapshot of every moment."