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Pittsburgh Steelers' Jerome Bettis talks Roethlisberger retirement, Rooney legacy

By
Alex Butler
Former Steeler and Hall of Fame honoree Jerome Bettis shows off his Hall of Fame ring at halftime during a 2015 game. File Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI
Former Steeler and Hall of Fame honoree Jerome Bettis shows off his Hall of Fame ring at halftime during a 2015 game. File Photo by Archie Carpenter/UPI | License Photo

May 3 (UPI) -- What makes the Pittsburgh Steelers different than 31 other NFL teams? In a name, Dan Rooney.

It's what the late Steelers owner and chairman practiced that other franchises can only attempt to mimic. Rooney died on April 13 at age 84.

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"You hear all kinds of stories and the stories that pop in your mind from time to time," Jerome Bettis, who starred at running back for the Steelers for a decade from 1996 through 2005, told UPI in an interview Monday.

"Mr. Rooney was special because he always found time to talk to you," Bettis said. "No matter who was talking to him, he would break away from a conversation and say, 'Hey, Jerome, how are you doing?' Then he would go back and talk to the commissioner. He always found time for the players. I just thought that was such an incredible trait. Because a lot of times you are talking to somebody and you are so entrenched in that conversation, but he was always conscious of his players.

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"He treated us like men and respected us. He was very appreciative of everything that we did for the organization, so in turn he was very attentive and appreciative with us. So much so, that if we ever had any kind of problem, he would make it happen."

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Bettis said the team once wanted a copy machine and fax machine in its player's lounge. A few days later, the electronics were delivered. He said Rooney gave the players whatever they needed to ensure the Steelers were a successful team.

Rooney's Steelers were "absolutely" a family for the six-time Pro Bowl and two-time All-Pro selection.

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"He always had an open door policy," Bettis said. "Whenever you had any kind of issue, any kind of problem, you could always walk in and talk to him. And he was constantly walking around the facility, shaking hands and saying hello.

"He wanted the players to understand that it was more than just football. When the owner takes a personal interest in all the players, he knows everybody and their wives, and their families, then their players respond in kind, and want to run through a brick wall for the organization because he knows that the people, starting from the top down to the players, care about you as a person."

Bettis and fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer Franco Harris paid tribute to Rooney when announcing the Steelers first pick Thursday in the 2017 NFL Draft.

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"When he passed, he was holding the hand of his beloved wife, Pat," Harris said at the draft in Philadelphia. "Dan loved his family. He loved God, he loved our great country and Steeler Nation, he loved you. And he loved us, the players. He loved us. He was so approachable, respectful and he was a good man. He was good to the city of Pittsburgh. He touched many lives. And to the NFL, he had a major impact. With that impact he made a difference and touched a lot of lives also. So Dan Rooney will be missed, but his spirit will live on."

Bettis, 45, said background checks on draft prospects are no different than from when he played. The Notre Dame product was the No. 10 overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft.

The Steelers No. 2 all-time leading rusher, behind Harris, said that players are the "commodity" in the NFL business. When it comes to taking guys off of draft boards for off-the-field issues before the draft, Bettis said that's up to "your tolerance level as an organization."

But Rooney had no tolerance for subpar human personalities in his locker room.

"His philosophy was that he wanted a great person and a good athlete," Bettis said. "If he got great person good athlete, then he was happy. Obviously you want a great person, great athlete, but he would never settle for good person.

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"He wanted a great person and a good athlete after that. If you could win a championship, you stuck around, but you had to be a great person first."

Rooney died an NFL pioneer. His legacy included close relations with three NFL commissioners, settling labor disputes and pushing for diversity on the field and in front offices. Art 'The Chief' Rooney, Dan's father, founded the Steelers. Dan's son, Art Rooney II, now runs the organization.

Dan Rooney became general manager of the Steelers in 1969 and chairman in 1988. The Steelers appeared in eight Super Bowls in that timeframe, winning six Lombardi Trophies.

Le'Veon is NFL's best back, David Johnson No. 2, but where's Zeke?

You might expect Bettis to have a little Steelers favoritism, but it isn't too much of a stretch to recognize Le'Veon Bell as one of the NFL's best running backs. Bettis said that he thinks Bell is the best back in the league. He added that Arizona Cardinals superstar David Johnson isn't far behind.

"I'd have to say Le'Veon Bell," Bettis said. "He is doing it on both ends. But you know they've got a running back in Arizona that some people would argue with me about. But I'd like to think that Le'Veon Bell is the best guy in the league right now."

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Bell, 25, piled up 1,884 yards from scrimmage and 31 touchdowns in just 12 games last season. He made his second Pro Bowl in the suspension-shortened season. Bell also caught 75 passes last season. He was an All-Pro in 2014.

Johnson, 25, made his first Pro Bowl and was voted an All-Pro in 2016 after piling up a league-high 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 32 touchdowns in 16 games for the Cardinals. He had 80 receptions for 879 yards out of the backfield, often lining up as a wide receiver in Bruce Arians' explosive offense.

One back Bettis didn't mention was Dallas Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott. Last season the rookie gobbled up the NFL rushing title with 1,631 yards. He netted 1,994 yards from scrimmage and scored 16 touchdowns en route to Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods.

Bears rookie Jordan Howard ranked No. 2 in rushing yards last season, followed by Tennessee Titans star DeMarco Murray, Jay Ajayi of the Miami Dolphins, Bell, Buffalo Bills ace LeSean McCoy and Johnson.

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Bell will have some help this season, despite the uncertainty surrounding the return of talented backup DeAngelo Williams. The Steelers drafted University of Pittsburgh star and cancer survivor James Conner on Friday in the third round of the draft.

"I thought it was great," Bettis said. "The one thing the Steelers needed was depth. They got the depth that they needed. They got it at the running back spot, they got it at the wide receiver spot. I thought it was a great draft. Conner, I think he is going to be great in that system. It's a power running system and he's a power running back. He can one move and go. So I think he will be very effective."

Conner made his name during his rookie season for the Panthers. In 2015 he ran for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns, taking home ACC Player of the Year honors. He capped off his career with 4,145 yards from scrimmage and 56 touchdowns in four seasons.

Steelers woes could determine 'Big Ben' exit

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With just one losing seasons since 1999, the Steelers aren't in real danger of tanking in 2017. Still, Bettis says that the team's performance can be used as an indicator to determine how long Ben Roethlisberger keeps playing.

Roethlisberger, 35, announced in April that he was returning for his 14th season. The five-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champ worried fans in January when he told 93.7 The Fan that he needed to "consider all options" this offseason.

"To consider health, and family and things like that and just kind of take some time away to evaluate next season, if there's going to be a next season," he said. "I'm going to take some time and evaluate with my family and just do a lot of praying about it and make sure [playing next season is] the right thing for me and my family."

The Steelers' season ended with a 36-17 loss to the New England Patriots on Jan. 22 at Gillette Stadium in the AFC Championship Game.

"I think Ben has two or three really good years left," Bettis said. "The key is always being effective. If the team goes 4-12, I think it's less likely you will see him for that many years. It's always tied to winning. You want to win, because when you win, you always want to give it one more shot. If you can get a little closer...if you came close but not quite there."

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Bettis is on a cross-country fitness tour with golfer Fred Funk. The duo are taking part in a video series while testing out workout trends in cities across the United States.

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