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The Bus might make his last stop where it all began

Associated Press

Detroit — Before Jerome Bettis was The Bus, he was Roney.

To those in his hometown, the Pittsburgh Steelers running back still is.

"That's what we call him now to this day," his mother, Gladys Bettis, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I never call him Jerome."

The NFL's fifth-leading career rusher will be among the brightest stars in the days leading up to Sunday's Super Bowl because the charismatic, 13-year veteran likely will end his career at Ford Field, eight miles from his childhood home.

Sitting in a beautiful house Bettis bought for his parents on Detroit's west side — with a golf course in the backyard and limos in a neighbor's driveway — Gladys Bettis shared stories and showed pictures of the youngest of her three children.

The new house looks far better than the place where those childhood scenes took place — that old house now sits abandoned and charred.

While Jerome Bettis is the face of this year's Super Bowl, his mother still can envision him scurrying off to school with glasses, a white dress shirt and a broken briefcase his dad discarded. When he was picked up for school, papers would fly out of the briefcase with broken clasps.

Was he a nerd? Yes, she says.

"He wanted to be like his dad, who did electrical work for the city of Detroit," she said.

Ethel Session-Burton was Bettis' fourth-grade teacher at Detroit Urban Lutheran School, and her first impression is the one many have 24 years later.

"He always had a big grin on his face," said Session-Burton, who was invited to attend Bettis' NFL draft and 30th birthday parties. "He would even smile when he started to help the janitor clean up before school — every day — when he was in the seventh or eighth grade."

After school during the winter, Bettis would put on double-blade skates — this is Hockeytown, after all — and head to the backyard.

"My husband would get the hose out to make that rink every year — it even had nice banks made of snow," Gladys Bettis recalled.

On other days throughout the year, Bettis would go bowling — a sport he still loves.

Unlike many of the children in the neighborhood, Bettis didn't play little league football. He began what is likely a Hall of Fame career in the ninth grade at Detroit Henry Ford High School. After a semester, he transferred to Detroit Mackenzie.

"I was sitting in my office doing paperwork and I heard this voice behind me, saying, 'Coach, my name is Jerome Bettis. Can I play football for you?"' former Mackenzie coach Bob Dozier said. "I turned around and saw a 5-foot-11, 199-pound Superman-like kid and said, 'Hell yes, you can play for me."'

As a sophomore, Bettis played on the defensive line and was a fullback who didn't carry the ball.

Bettis wanted to play linebacker, and he did as a junior, when Dozier went against Bettis' wishes and put the ball in his hands out of the backfield.

"In his first game, he ran 120 yards and two touchdowns, and 180 yards and two touchdowns in the next game," Dozier said. "Then, he said, 'Coach, I like this."

Opponents did not like lining up against Bettis on either side of the ball.

Former Ann Arbor Pioneer High School defensive tackle George Michos remembers his coach taking their top running back out of the game because Bettis hit so hard.

"As a running back, I tackled him, but never by myself. We didn't have one solo tackle on him," Michos said. "We really didn't know who he was before the game, but we did after it."

Bettis' family always was startled to see the transformation Roney made once he stepped on a football field. He got his childhood nickname because, when his mother says his name, it sounds like "Jerone."

"As a kid, Jerome was the quiet grandchild," his cousin, Lewanda Franklyn, said. "He has some of the people skills of his mother, and a lot of his father's mild-mannered ways."

His parents pushed him to earn an academic scholarship before it was clear football would pay for his education, and he excelled in the classroom.

Bettis was a member of the National Honor Society, and his mother bemoans that his grade point average slipped to about 3.6 by the time he graduated from high school in 1990. He fielded scholarship offers from top programs all over the country, including a powerhouse just 40 miles away.

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