PITTSBURGH -- Now that he's passed 10,000 yards before his 30th birthday, it is becoming apparent there never has been an NFL running back like Jerome Bettis.
There are big backs who gained tens of thousands of yards -- Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, Franco Harris, John Riggins -- but none weighed as much as the 5-foot-11, 255-pound Bettis. All were taller. Most were faster.
Bettis combines the assets of the great smaller running backs -- quickness and elusiveness -- with the strength and durability of the big backs into a hybrid package that makes him difficult to describe and more difficult to bring down.
Some say he is reminiscent of Earl Campbell, but Campbell's head-on, avoid-no-contact style probably cut years off his career. Bettis does everything he can to extend his Pittsburgh Steelers career.
''I'll take a guy on and hit him a few times and hit him, but then when he's getting tired, I'll give him a little move and get some big yards on him,'' Bettis said.
Before he's done, Bettis could wind up with more yards than all but a handful of backs in NFL history -- big or little, fast or sort-of-slow, short or tall. Coming into this season, he had to average 973 yards in the 2001-03 seasons to overtake childhood idol Tony Dorsett and move into fifth place on the all-time list.
What's remarkable is the Rams drafted him out of Notre Dame as a fullback in 1993 and moved him to tailback only because of injuries.
''I thought I'd play five, six years at fullback and that would be that,'' the 29-year-old Bettis said. ''I didn't know if I would gain a yard.''
Bettis' steady, almost speedy climb up the all-time rushing list -- he has 10,099 yards and needs 175 to overtake Ottis Anderson for 13th place -- has occurred even as the Steelers missed the playoffs the last three seasons.
Since being traded to Pittsburgh in 1996 for a couple of draft picks -- the deal couldn't have been much worse for St. Louis unless it had thrown in the Gateway Arch -- Bettis has had five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Plus a good start on his sixth.
With 295 yards in three games, 153 against Cincinnati on Sunday, Bettis is on pace for a 1,573-yard season that would be the second best of his career. He has missed gaining 1,000 yards only once, in 1995 with the Rams.
And this guy was going to be a fullback?
''There was one play late in the (Cincinnati) game where a safety or a cornerback tried to tackle him at his knees,'' said Steelers guard Alan Faneca, smiling at the memory. ''Jerome just ran right through him. You can check his stride, it didn't even slow him down. The guy rolled off him, flipped and did a spin and was looking up, and Jerome was 10 yards more down the field.''
Bengals defensive lineman Oliver Gibson, a former teammate, said young defensive players often don't understand how strong Bettis is before they tackle him, or try to.
''You have to realize he can run through anybody on the field,'' Gibson said. ''When he gets started, as big as he is, he just starts rolling downhill.''
That is the physical side of Bettis the fans most often see. What is often overlooked are his trickiness and durability.
He is not as fast as Dorsett or Barry Sanders, but he has extremely quick feet. Just as Franco Harris lured tacklers to the sidelines, then ran them out of bounds without absorbing the punishment that can shorten a career, Bettis doesn't always rely on his size.
He probably gains as many yards sidestepping tacklers as he does bulldozing them. His backup, Amos Zereoue, marvels, ''He is a big guy, but a big guy with shifty feet.''
Dependable feet, too. Bettis has missed only three games to injury in his eight-plus seasons, one a meaningless game when the Steelers wanted to keep him healthy for the playoffs.
It is a work ethic he learned as a fullback and didn't lose after being moved to tailback.
''I think he'd have to get hit by a bus to hurt him and keep him out of the lineup,'' said tackle Wayne Gandy, making a reference to Bettis' nickname of The Bus. ''You don't see that too much anymore. It's almost a lost art.''
Bettis' refusal to leave the lineup for minor injuries has contributed to his celebrity status in Pittsburgh, where he ranks behind only Mario Lemieux in popularity.
With an engaging personality and the most visible sense of humor in Pittsburgh's locker room, he is one of the few Steelers players ever with weekly TV and radio shows. His TV show encompasses more than the usual mind-numbing, cliche-spewing jock talk; he tells jokes and engages in banter with a smoothness that might someday land him a network job.
Steelers coach Bill Cowher compares Bettis to Franco Harris, and not just because they are 10,000-yard runners who played in Pittsburgh. Both are active in the community and rarely turn down appearances that involve working with kids.
The two might have something else in common someday: a bust in Canton. Of the 14 to rush for 10,000 yards, the only one eligible who is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is Anderson.
With three or four more years left in his career, as long as he stays healthy, Bettis seems certain to pile up enough yards to make the Hall of Fame, too, if he hasn't already.
''I mean, the guy is a joy,'' Cowher said. ''He is one of those guys who, someday, you will be glad to say you coached. He means an awful lot to this team and this city.''
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