Detroit Jerome Bettis returned for one more chance to make a run at a championship. Against long odds, he got it.
Many stars in all sports go entire careers without playing for a ring. A few — Bettis, Mark Grace, Oscar Robertson, Ray Bourque come to mind — finally get a shot at one as they're heading for the exit.
It doesn't happen often or easily.
“In sports, you're going to have players who are great but haven't won championships,” said Robertson, a Hall of Famer who got his NBA title with Milwaukee near the end of his career. “That's true. You only get one winner a year, and the rest of the guys don't win.”
They sure try.
Like Bettis, who decided to play another season for the Steelers in hopes of reaching the Super Bowl, athletes will push their bodies as far as they'll go — and sometimes hang on longer than they should — to get the thing that sets a winner apart.
“You look at me — I played 17 years and didn't get one,” quarterback Warren Moon said. “That had a lot to do with how long I played. I was still chasing that elusive, one last goal that I had left to accomplish in my career. Unfortunately, it never happened. But I'll tell you what: I did try.”
Pro Football Hall of Fame spokesman Joe Horrigan notes that it's commonplace for stars to miss out on a shot at a championship. Before free agency changed the dynamics of sports and gave players freedom to pick their teams, a player could be stuck on a struggling franchise for a long time.
Archie Manning is Exhibit A. He spent his first 11 years with New Orleans, becoming the face of misery for 'Aints fans who hid their own faces with paper bags. Now, it's up to sons Peyton and Eli — quarterbacks for the Colts and Giants, respectively — to do what their father never could.
“I never got close,” Archie Manning said this week at a Super Bowl function. “Everybody just wants to get here, and I hope both of my boys get to do it.”
Folks around these parts know that greatness doesn't translate into glory. Running back Barry Sanders spent 10 years with the Lions, but had only one playoff victory to show for it.
“It's a reality of the game,” Sanders said. “Coming into the NFL, my assumption was that this is the NFL and, naturally, I'll get to the Super Bowl because all you have to do is win three games in the playoffs. That was a mistake I made, because I later found out how tough it was.”
Robertson was already a superstar — the only player to average a triple-double for a season — during his 10 seasons with the Cincinnati Royals when the struggling franchise traded him. With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — then Lew Alcindor — as his teammate, he got an NBA championship in his first season with Milwaukee.
“It meant that the critics who needed something negative to say about my career couldn't say something negative about it,” Robertson said.
Grace spent the first 13 years of his career with the Chicago Cubs — enough said — before heading to Arizona and getting his long-awaited chance. He was 37 years old when it finally came.
Grace's single started a ninth-inning rally that swept the Diamondbacks a 3-2 victory in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against the Yankees.
That same year, Bourque got his last-chance Stanley Cup title with Colorado. The Hall of Fame defenceman spent the first 21 years of his career with the Boston Bruins, never getting to hoist the Cup over his head.
For each of these late-in-life success stories, there's dozens who fail.
Again, the Cubs provide a benchmark. Ernie Banks put together a Hall-of-Fame career during 19 years in Chicago, but never even came close to the ultimate prize.
“Some guys are more fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, part of that right chemistry on that right team,” Moon said. “And other guys aren't. You look at Ernie Banks in baseball — he never even played in a playoff game his whole career.”
Even in the era of free agency, going to a winner doesn't guarantee getting a shot at becoming the ultimate winner.
“Look at A-Rod with the Yankees,” Robertson said, referring to Alex Rodriguez. “It doesn't mean that you're going to win. I'm sure he thought when he went to the Yankees that they were going to walk through the World Series.”
Now, it's Bettis' turn to make that one, final stab at a title. He considered retiring after the Steelers lost in the AFC title game last season, but came back in part because this year's Super Bowl is in his hometown of Detroit.
It looked like he'd frittered the chance away when he fumbled near the Colts' goal line with 1:20 left in a second-round playoff game, and Nick Harper scooped up the ball and headed downfield.
If quarterback Ben Roethlisberger doesn't double back and make a lunging ankle tackle on Harper, Bettis doesn't get his chance.
And if Mike Vanderjagt doesn't miss badly on a 46-yard attempt, the game might go to overtime and a different outcome. It took all of those quirky things to get the Steelers a 21-18 win and get Bettis to his Bowl.
That's how fine the line is between getting a shot and being shut out.
“Jerome Bettis had 13 years to prove how great he is,” said the Hall of Fame's Horrigan. “If he wouldn't have made the decision to play this year, we would be talking about 'poor Jerome.”'