Thirteen years in the National Football League, 13,662 rushing yards, six Pro Bowls, a Super Bowl ring and one catchy nickname.
Jovial NFL legend Jerome Bettis could’ve spent hours talking about his career as a professional football player on Wednesday at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center and the sell-out crowd gathered for the 24th annual Ben R. Giambrone Compeer Sports Luncheon would’ve listened intently.
Instead, when the Bus rolled into town, he passionately delivered a simple, powerful 25-minute message that packed as much punch as one of his 3,369 carries for the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Give back. Be a mentor to someone. Be a friend. Make a difference.
“It’s important to recognize Compeer and what they’re doing, what they provide, the opportunities for kids, for families, for veterans,” Bettis, 41, said. “It’s so important we help, do whatever we can, whether it’s time or a donation. It made a difference in my life and I know what it means.”
Compeer Rochester, celebrating 40 years, provides mental wellness services to at-risk adults, veterans and youth. Its model for success is supportive one-to-one relationships.
Bettis, who joined Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and Rocky Bleier as Steelers greats to speak at the Compeer lunch, knows all about the power of such a thing.
As a kid growing up in inner city Detroit, the youngest of three children, he said his house “was full of love but not full of cash.” His mom and dad frequently took the family bowling as a way of keeping them off the streets.
“Bowling was the outlet for the family,” Bettis said. “It was great until it was time to make a decision about high school.”
He had seen too many friends strike out. So with money tight, Bettis, who enjoyed playing pickup football in the neighborhood, thought that perhaps the sport could spare him that fate and land him a college scholarship.
Bettis benefitted from supportive coaches and teachers. But he said it was attending a free football camp each summer put on by Detroit native Reggie McKenzie, the great Buffalo Bills guard who blocked for O.J. Simpson, that truly changed his life. McKenzie, who started his camp in 1974, uses football as the vehicle to teach life skills while stressing academic achievement and self-esteem.
It was at those camps that Bettis learned how to compete, how to persevere, how to dream and how to give back.
“I was amazed at the level of competition and the NFL players who were there. All these guys you saw on television,” he said, naming players like Pepper Johnson, Keith Byars and Cris Carter. “Reggie was providing an opportunity for us and this camp was free, everything, and you can’t imagine how important it was to us. The mentoring part was always there.”
McKenzie would always ask his campers, “Who’s going to be the next one?” meaning that person to achieve great things. Bettis always raised his hand.
He would earn a scholarship to Notre Dame where he played for Lou Holtz. He was a first-round NFL pick. He was 1993 Rookie of the Year. He was 2001 Walter Payton Man of the Year. He won a Super Bowl ring with the Steelers in 2006, capping a Cinderella story in his hometown of Detroit and then retiring. He stands as the NFL’s sixth all-time leading rusher.
Along the way, Bettis would return each year to McKenzie’s camp, serving as camp director, passing on the lessons to a new flock of kids in need that were passed on to him.
“Because I was one of those kids, I knew how important it was that somebody took the time to give back,” Bettis said. “Most kids in that situation, they don’t need a handout, they just need a hand-up and it’s our job to provide that. That camp changed my life and helped develop me into the man I’ve become.”
Bettis, who is married with two children and lives in Atlanta, would eventually start his own foundation for underprivileged youth called The Bus Stops Here Foundation.
“That’s why it’s so important for all of us — all of us — to give what we can,” he said. “Maybe it’s not money, it’s time. But it’s important that we give back and provide opportunities for others. You never know who that one kid might turn out to be. It might even turn out to be a Super Bowl champion.”
With that, the Bus rolled out of Rochester, leaving a powerful message behind.