Niyo: Hall-bound Bettis ran on strength of his family

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Jerome Bettis attends a Steelers playoff game in January.

When he finally got the call in February, Jerome Bettis phoned his mother, Gladys, in Detroit first.

"Mom, I'm in! I'm in!" he cried, and she cried, too, celebrating the news her youngest child had just been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

A couple weeks ago, though, it was her chance to return the favor with better news.

"I'm cancer-free," Gladys told her son, the former All-Pro running back for the Steelers, and they both cried again.

"June 22 — that was the day," said Gladys, who still lives in the house Jerome bought for his parents — along the No. 2 fairway at Detroit Golf Club — when he signed his first NFL contract in 1993. "And this is truly the best present that I could ever give Jerome and the family. It meant so much to us."

It'll mean even more a month from now, when Bettis takes the stage for the Aug. 8 induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio. He'll be joined by a Hall of Fame class that includes former players Tim Brown, Charles Haley, Will Shields, Mick Tinglehoff and the late Junior Seau. Former executives Ron Wolf and Bill Polian will be enshrined as contributors.

More importantly, Bettis will be joined by scores of family, including his wife, Trameka, their two children, Jada and Jerome Jr., and his two older siblings, Kimberly and John, the latter of whom will have the honor of introducing his kid brother in Canton.

And while Bettis gets choked up even now thinking about his late father, Johnnie, who died of a heart attack less than a year after the triumphant end to his career — that memorable Super Bowl XL victory over Seattle in Detroit in 2006 — he considers it a "blessing" his 69-year-old mother will be there in the crowd once again.

"It's gonna be a special weekend for us just because of the journey that we've taken," said Bettis, who sent out 300 invitations and figures he could've mailed a few hundred more, at least. "My mother and father, they never missed a game that I played in the NFL. And for my mother to be able to continue the journey now and see it come to an end in Canton … it's just an incredible moment that we'll have to share. I'm excited about that for her as much as I am myself."

Support always there

Excited? Try ecstatic, says Gladys, who already has warned her son that in another week or so "I'll start shaking" with anticipation. By the time Aug. 8 rolls around, well, she's already talking about ordering commemorative handkerchiefs.

"I'll be crying a lot," she said. "I'm a crier."

Jerome Bettis is pictured with his mother Gladys in Detroit in 2006.

But then she laughs, realizing she's back where she started, sitting nervously in the car in the parking lot — morning and night — for all Jerome's practices at Mackenzie High. Her youngest son had asthma, so she waited with his inhaler, just in case.

Likewise, he waited for the doors to the Hall to open — this was his fifth year as a finalist — and when they finally did in February during Super Bowl weekend in Phoenix, Bettis admits it was a "bittersweet" moment. Gladys was home in Detroit, too weak to travel as she underwent chemotherapy.

"She'd been at every big moment that I ever had," Bettis said Wednesday, speaking on a conference call for this weekend's American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe. "And the biggest moment of my career, she wasn't able to be there because she was going through a battle of her own."

His father wasn't there, either, and when Bettis reached his mother that night with the news, they talked about that.

"He said, 'Mom, I miss Dad. I want to tell Dad,' " Gladys said. "I told him, 'Son, I got that. I'll take care of that for you.' Because I talk to him all the time."

Johnnie Bettis Jr., who worked 31 years as an electrical inspector for the City of Detroit, has been gone since November 2006, when he pulled over on the side of a freeway, likely suffering from chest pains. Less than 10 months earlier, he'd been there at Ford Field, beaming with pride as Bettis clutched the Lombardi Trophy and announced his retirement.

Junior didn't just travel to every game, he collected every game tape and remembered every statistic in a 13-year NFL career that ended with 13,662 rushing yards — sixth in NFL history. "That's my boy," he'd say, and in the last year of his life he'd started collecting his thoughts for his boy's enshrinement ceremony one day.

So at times like these, Gladys finds herself asking out loud, "Junior, where are you? Why aren't you here with me right now? I need you." And when she watches Junior's namesake, Johnnie Bettis III, now general manager of an upscale restaurant in Pittsburgh, introducing her baby up on that stage next month, "I know my first thought is gonna go where my husband is because we didn't do anything without him."

Strength in the blood

Her first thought when her doctor told her the diagnosis last July — Stage 2 breast cancer — was one of fear, as you'd imagine. The Bettis family hadn't dealt with the disease before, and she wasn't sure how to tell her kids. It took a sister's prodding to convince her she should, and could.

What happened next, though, surprised her, and ultimately filled her with pride.

"They came right to my rescue," said Gladys, who endured two surgeries and radiation treatments as well. "I didn't do anything without them. Jerome flew in every time I needed something. He was there right along with John and Kimberly. They took care of me, literally.

"Cancer didn't have to bring us any closer together. But it did. We understand what family means."

And that is what this Hall of Fame honor means, in the end.

"We've always been there with him, and for him, as a family," Gladys said. "But this is his day. He earned this. He got up in those trenches and fought. And off the field, all his endeavors with the (charity) foundation and everything else — I couldn't be prouder of him."

He can say the same, of course, and that's something Bettis — named the NFL's man of the year in 2001 for his charity work — has done more and more this past year as his mother dug in for her own fight.

"At the end there, Jerome told me, 'Mom, I didn't know you were that strong. I didn't know we had that kind of strength in us,' " Gladys recalled with a chuckle. "And I just told him, 'I gave it to you.' "