This Bus Never Stops

updated 01/21/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/21/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

He felt light-headed and short of breath, and not only because huge men had just slammed him to the ground. Sometmig else was wrong with Jerome Bettis, star running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, after he was tackled during a 1997 game. "I could barely breathe," recalls Bettis, who. was carried off the field on a stretcher as his parents watched from the stands. "I knew this was serious. I was scared."

With good reason. Bettis, now 29, had suffered an asthma attack, his first during a game since being diagnosed with the condition at 15. Such attacks can lead to cardiac arrest and even death, but Bettis recovered, thanks to prompt treatment from the team doctor. The incident, however, proved to be just the wake-up call he needed. Bettis began to take himself out of games whenever he felt badly winded, and he now carries an inhaler with him everywhere (he keeps one nearby during games). "After the attack, I monitored and managed my asthma daily," says Bettis. "It is a life-and-death situation."

But even asthma has not stopped Bettis from becoming one of the best running backs in the National Football League—and from making the Steelers among the favorites to reach the Super Bowl on Feb. 3. So powerfully built his nickname is the Bus, the 5'11", 255-lb. Bettis rushed for 1,072 yds. this season in leading his team to an impressive 13-3 record (he missed the last five games to rest his injured groin). On Oct. 7 he barreled past Ottis Anderson to become the 12th-leading NFL rusher ever. "Yes, he can be a bus, but he can also be a Porsche," says Tom Jackson, a former Denver Broncos linebacker and now an NFL analyst for ESPN. "He has a rare combination of power and very quick feet."

Many believe Bettis is already one of the sport's all-time great guys. Through the Bus Stops Here, a foundation he started in 1997, he runs food drives, computer training classes and other programs to benefit underprivileged children in the Pittsburgh area. On occasion he even deploys a 45-ft. bus to deliver food to the needy. And Bettis is famous for his willingness to mingle with the Steeler faithful. "He's always signing autographs, and I think he enjoys it more than the fans do," says Steelers safety Lee Flowers. "People could take lessons from him on how to be the perfect athlete."

Bettis himself draws inspiration from his parents. They began attending his high school games to be close in case of an asthma attack and have been on hand for all but three games since. "That means everything to me," says Bettis, the youngest of three children born to Johnnie, now 56 and an electrical inspector for the city of Detroit, and Gladys, 55, a retired bank clerk. To keep the kids out of trouble, Gladys took them bowling and even drove them to tournaments across Michigan. "It was a good diversion," says Bettis, "and took us off the streets."

As a freshman at Detroit's Henry Ford High School, Bettis, whose brother Johnnie also has asthma, discovered he had the condition himself during a football practice. "I passed out," he says. "But my parents said, 'Don't let this change your plans. If you want to play football, you can.' " He starred at Notre Dame for three seasons before being drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1993. After earning Rookie of the Year honors, he spent the off-season living with his parents—and taking out the trash. "They wanted to keep me humble," he explains. In 1996 disagreements with Rams coach Rich Brooks led to the trade to Pittsburgh, where his lunch-pail work ethic fit right in. "He's got charisma," says Steelers tight end Mark Bruener, "and his attitude is contagious."

Thanks to a six-year, $30 million contract he signed with Pittsburgh last year, Bettis drives a silver 2001 Ferrari and stocks his four-bedroom bachelor pad in Pittsburgh with memorabilia signed by idol Muhammad Ali. Yet those trappings have not dulled Bettis's desire to get even better: Last summer he worked with a track coach to improve his speed.

Nor is it like Bettis to slip into neutral off the football field. "If you bowl with Jerome, you bowl until he wins," says his mother. "He'll bowl 10, 12 games if he has to." Bettis admits to being a spectacularly sore loser. "I can't just compete for fun because when I lose, I get mad," he says. The Bus is stuck in overdrive.

Alex Tresniowski
Joseph V. Tirella in Pittsburgh

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