PARENTS FOLLOW THE BUS

There was a night game in Arizona when they got stranded, no cabs, and they had to walk until they found civilization. There was a game in Denver when angry fans threw peanuts at their heads. There was a game in Tampa when they were invited into a suite, but the mother kept yelling, “How come they’re not giving my son the ball? Give him the ball!” and that was the last time they were invited into a suite.

“Every game?” you ask.

“Every game,” they say.

There was the first game in college when they got soaked by rain. There was the game when they borrowed a car because theirs wouldn’t make the trip – and the borrowed car broke down. There was the high school game in freezing weather when everybody had blankets – except them.

There were hockey games before there were football games, and there were bowling tournaments before there were hockey games. But from the time Jerome Bettis was 7 years old, there was always, always, Johnnie and Gladys Bettis, somewhere in the seats, watching their son.

“Every game?”

“Every game.”

Sunday’s Super Bowl XL at Ford Field will mark milestones for many people, but none will be more impressive than this: Through high school, through college, through 13 years of his NFL career, Jerome Bettis’ parents have not missed a game he has played on American soil.

And any kid who ever has pined for his folks to be there when he performs would love the sight of Mom and Pop Bettis now, sitting inches apart at a dining room table in their Detroit home, crowing about their son.

Johnnie is 60. Gladys is 59. Together, they have sat on more wood, plastic, grease paint or aluminum than their bodies care to remember. Walking up stadium steps isn’t as easy these days. The luggage feels heavier. Yet even now, in the dining room, they are wearing Pittsburgh Steelers clothing, as if a game might break out in front of them.

And what is most impressive, what will hit every kid right in the stomach, is the way they answer, almost in unison, the obvious question:

“Why was it so important to go to every one of your son’s games?”

“Because,” they say, “he asked us.”

Fear of asthma and injury

Now, it’s not as if Jerome Bettis is insecure. He just wanted his parents to see him play. And they wanted to watch him. And knowing that he suffered from asthma made his mother particularly nervous about skipping even one game.

“That was always in the front of my mind,” she says. “I thought, ‘What if something ever happened? How could I not be there?’ “

She remembers a college game that Jerome’s grandmother was watching on TV. Jerome got hurt on a play, and while he was down, the network cut to a commercial.

“She almost died,” Gladys says. “She had to wait until they came back to find out if he was OK. I couldn’t go through that.”

So every game was circled on the Bettis family calendar. And every autumn weekend meant some sort of trip – whether up the road to Mackenzie High School, or an overnight pilgrimage to Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., or luggage and a plane ticket to the West Coast, or even more luggage and a longer plane ticket to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. Jerome, a running back, was drafted in the first round by the Los Angeles Rams and later traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“We were hoping the Lions would take him,” Johnnie Bettis sighs, “but … “

That would have been so easy. Instead, every week, he made sure he could arrange his schedule with the City of Detroit, where he worked as an electrical inspector. And while she was working, Gladys did the same with a bank and later a computer institute.

Schedules arranged. Bags packed. Friends or relatives in tow.

And off they would go.

“Every game?”

“Every game.”

Now understand what we’re talking about here. You figure 16 regular-season NFL contests plus four exhibition games, multiplied by 13 years? Another 11 or 12 a year for four years of college? Another nine or so for every year of high school? Throw in a few playoff games? A few bowl trips?

How many games are we talking about?

It’s somewhere around 350, give or take a few. That’s 350 times you pack up the rain gear or the sweatshirts, 350 times you make sure you have gas or food or directions or maps or plane tickets or luggage or hotel reservations.

Some games required two days’ worth of travel – a day to get there, a day to get back, overnights in cheap hotels, rest stops off the highway.

And what did they get for all that? Well, if it was a road game, they wouldn’t even see Jerome before it started. They only could wait in the tunnel when it was over, smile when he approached, “give him a hug, a kiss, tell him we’ll see him next week,” Gladys says.

And that was it?

“That was it.”

And was it worth it?

“Always.”

Late nights and smooth music

Jerome Bettis, who’ll soon turn 34, is a bruising, charming football star, the feel-good story of this game, and by Super Bowl kickoff, his parents will be well-chronicled. They will be photographed, interviewed. Who knows? Maybe endorsement opportunities will come to Gladys the way they have come to Wilma McNabb, mother of Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

If so, no one should begrudge it. These parents have put in their time. Remember, there was no promise of fame when they were sitting in rain slickers at Mackenzie High or snow showers at Notre Dame. There were no film crews when they got lost trying to find Penn State. There were no interviews after Gladys got in confrontations with opposing fans who were yelling “kill him! kill him!” about her son.

There were no talk-show hosts on those late-night rides when they stopped at Meijer stores to eat and use the bathrooms. There were no journalists at 3 a.m. when they were fighting to keep their eyes open at the wheel, nodding along with Al Green on the tape player.

“We always had Al Green on,” Gladys says. “You’d be sleeping, one person was driving, and you’d wake up and you’d hear Al Green singing ‘Love And Happiness.’ “

She laughs. “Oh, we’d play that tape over and over. It got us home.”

And now, finally, they are home. Finally, in what Bettis himself has hinted may well be the last game of his pro career, the family can see him play and never leave the Detroit city limits.

“Personally, I would be happy if this was his last game,” Gladys says. “I want to see him go out on top.”

But either way, you’ll be there waiting for him?

“Oh, yeah,” Johnnie says. “Like usual.”

They won’t need plane tickets. They won’t need hotels. They won’t need a map. They won’t even need Al Green. But love and happiness will be there anyhow. In football, there is often a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s called your parents.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. www.freep.com/mitch.

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