Family ties paved way to stardom for Detroit’s Bettis

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Before Jerome Bettis became one of the top running backs in NFL history or starred at Notre Dame or was an All-America at Detroit Mackenzie High, he faced many obstacles.

Statistics would suggest that Bettis faced tough odds in making it out of his neighborhood on Detroit’s west side and an even tougher time getting to the NFL and eventually to the pinnacle, capping his career with Super Bowl title in his hometown in 2006.

Defying all those odds, Bettis will take his place among football’s greatest players with his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday in Canton, Ohio.

It will be a bittersweet moment for Bettis, a six-time Pro Bowl back who rushed for 13,662 yards and 91 touchdowns in 10 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, following three seasons with the Rams, who drafted him 10th overall in 1993.

Although Bettis’ father, Johnnie, saw Jerome win the Super Bowl in his final game, he passed away less than a year later. Johnnie won’t be there Saturday for what Bettis calls the proudest moment in his life, but he’ll have a suitable stand-in: His brother, John III, will present Bettis for induction.

“It’s going to be a special weekend for us because of the journey we’ve taken. My mother and father never missed a game I played in the NFL,” Bettis said last month via conference call.

“For them to have seen my entire career and my father is no longer with us and for my mother to be able to continue the journey and see it come to an end in Canton, Ohio, with the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is an incredible moment that we’ll have the ability to share and reminisce on.”

For Bettis, having his mother, Gladys, in Canton will add to the emotion of the weekend. After a cancer diagnosis within the past year, she was declared 100 percent cancer-free in June.

In addition to the strong relationship with his mother, the bonds with his father and brother are the foundations that helped Bettis rise above the pull of the streets in Detroit and pave his way to greatness.

That’s where John III plans to focus his introductory speech for Jerome, citing the adage, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

“I tell everyone that Jerome is the luckiest guy in the world,” John III said. “I’ve never seen anybody with this guy’s incredible luck. It’s not luck in the sense of lucky charms or finding a million dollars.

“From the time we were young, we’ve always been the do-the-right-thing guys. When we did dabble in the streets, it wasn’t who we were. We weren’t good at it.”

While Jerome recently has discussed dabbling in selling drugs while he was in high school, he also has downplayed the foray into the seedy side of growing up in his neighborhood. While John III said the two were involved in selling drugs for just a couple of weeks, there was a brighter future for both of them.

“It wasn’t a big deal to us, but it was what we lived in. Everybody was doing it. We were the only ones not doing it because we were afraid of my dad and he would walk home from work every day, so we couldn’t be out on the streets doing something,” John III said.

“We were no good (at selling). God had a plan and made sure we weren’t good.”

Before Jerome was running through defensive lines, he faced his biggest challenge — his father, who was an electrician and taught night school. Though he owned a car, Johnnie rode the bus to work.

Everybody’s mom, dad

With a two-parent household, the Bettis family was the anomaly in their neighborhood. Johnnie acted not only as the father to his two sons and daughter Kim, but he also was the de facto father for John III and Jerome’s friends.

“That’s all we saw and that’s all we knew inside our home. When we walked outside, we saw something completely different,” John III said. “We saw all of our friends who were in single-family homes, and these guys were looking up to my parents. Our dad and mom were everybody’s mom and dad. Our house was the hangout.

“We would have guys who would get in trouble and go to jail and my dad was hard-nosed, but he would go get them and cuss them out,” said John III, who runs a company, Rock Entertainment, in Pittsburgh.

Johnnie imparted a strong work ethic in his sons that helped provide a strong example of what being a father — and a man — would be like and an alternative to the street life.

“It was a very strong bond. Their dad was always there, always around. I didn’t realize what was going on and how he was teaching them how to be men and take care of their family,” Gladys said. “My husband wasn’t one to smoke or drink or hang out in the streets. He went to work and came home and did everything he was supposed to do.”

Although Jerome had a strong respect for his father, the one time he tried him, he got a rude awakening.

“Jerome was a freshman in high school and he thought he could take my dad in a wrestling match. Jerome had created a belt out of cardboard boxes and markers and drew it up as the WWF championship belt,” John III recalled. “At that point, he had taken me out, so I wasn’t a threat anymore. Now he’s the champ of the house, he thought, so he challenged my dad.”

But Johnnie, at about 5-foot-10, 250 pounds, was a formidable challenge for Jerome, who had started bulking up after hitting the weight room in high school. For Johnnie, it might not have been just a playful exchange; rather, it was a challenge to keep his son in check.

“The entire neighborhood came out and everybody was on our lawn. Jerome was out there talking a lot of smack until my dad came out. He met Jerome in the middle of the yard,” John III said. “They locked up and my dad flipped Jerome on his neck and didn’t say a word. The crowd erupted, my dad picked up the belt and walked in the house. He proved he was still the champ.

“It’s funny now because it’s like a movie playing in my head. The guys in our neighborhood saw that. They saw this was everybody’s dad and they had that respect for him.”

The Bus got trucked.

John III plans to honor Johnnie by donning the Steelers jersey that his father would wear to games. Both Gladys and John III expect an emotional time, joking that they would try to see who could hold back the tears.

“I asked John, ‘Are you going to be able to do this without tears?’ and he said, ‘No, Mom, I won’t. There will be tears, so get ready,” she said. “It’s a contest, but I know I’m going to lose.”

Hall of Fame

What: 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Canton, Ohio

Inductees: Running back Jerome Bettis, defensive lineman Charles Haley, receiver Tim Brown, the late linebacker Junior Seau, offensive lineman Will Shields, center Mick Tinglehoff and general managers Ron Wolf and Bill Polian.

TV: NFL Network