Detroit's hero, even before kickoff

The Super Bowl host city celebrates what could be the last game for native son Jerome Bettis.

Every Super Bowl has its Big Story: Jim McMahon's acupuncturist, Terrell Owens's ankle injury, Jon Gruden and his former team.

This year, the name on everyone's lips - and in print and on the air - is Jerome Bettis.

The Steelers running back and likely future Hall-of-Famer is returning to his hometown for his first Super Bowl, and what may well be his last game. It's a tailor-made heart-tugger, complete with an XL hero for Super Bowl XL, and a nickname that has produced a slew of headlines such as "One last stop for the Bus."

But all the clichés in the world can't keep Bettis's homecoming from injecting a jolt of extra excitement into a city already primed for its day on the Super Bowl stage - and its opportunity to disprove the negative Detroit stereotypes. This week, virtually everyone in Motor City is a Steelers fan, if for no other reason than to give Bettis his Super Bowl victory at last.

"Bettis has got to end the year winning in his hometown," says Ashton Harper, a Detroit teenager in a knit cap. His father, Eric, a Sears store manager and a Steelers fan for decades, agrees. "His demeanor, his family, his ties to the community," says Mr. Harper of the reasons he likes Bettis. "He's pretty much a staple here anyway: He's always visiting."

A likable behemoth whose ego is much smaller than his 270-pound physique, Bettis has been soaking up the attention. Even league MVP Shaun Alexander, the Seahawks running back, has resigned himself to a place in Bettis's shadow this week. But the 13-year veteran directs as much of the attention as he can to the city he loves.

"The best part about this is being able to showcase the hometown," he told reporters this week. "I love this city, and it puts our city on the grandest stage in the world. And I think it's something that's much needed."

Detroit has been struggling for years now, mostly unsuccessfully, to match the urban renaissances taking place in many other US cities. It's battled urban flight, a growing budget deficit, racial tension, and a decline in manufacturing. Just last week, Ford announced it was cutting another 30,000 jobs. The city's population - around 900,000 - is at its lowest since 1920.

Against that bleak backdrop, the Super Bowl was an unexpected gift. Few people thought the city would ever host one again, after its first attempt in 1982 was a debacle: wind chills at 20 degrees below zero, snow-covered roads, and huge delays when the vice president's motorcade blocked off streets.

Still, the city convinced the NFL it was up to the challenge, and the result has been a solid three years of downtown development, with the hope the event will bring in $300 million for local businesses.

Bettis has been doing his part, too: With the help of his company, he plans to convert some 40 acres of riverfront property into apartments, condos, shops, and a hotel.

The result of all the work is a downtown that locals say looks the best it has in years, although even a quick walk away from the river reveals a sad collection of empty buildings, vacant lots, and decaying exteriors. And no one knows whether the current development momentum will be able to hold once the Super Bowl leaves town.

Nevertheless, residents are proud. "We're still portrayed as the 1984 city winning the World Series and burning cars," says John Fawaz, a young mortgage manager from nearby Dearborn, waiting in line for the "NFL Experience" exhibition at the Cobo Center.

Like the Harpers, Mr. Fawaz and his brother Mike are pulling for the Steelers. "They're a bunch of grinders just like here in Detroit," he says. "They got steel; we got the auto industry." And Bettis, of course.

But the reasons for Bettis's appeal go beyond his Detroit connection. He is one of the NFL's leading rushers of all time and is loaded with colorful anecdotes: He was a hockey player as a kid and almost considered a career in professional bowling. His parents have been to every football game he's ever played in the States. And he got his "Bus" moniker - which describes the way he flattens defenders - during his Notre Dame days.

This week, reporters are digging up all those past details, while the city fetes its hero. On Tuesday, leaders presented him with the key to the city, and on Monday, his teammates worked out wearing his No. 6 Notre Dame jersey.

"I told him last year after the AFC Championship, 'Bus, I promise I'll get you to the Super Bowl,' " remembers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "It means a lot to bring Jerome back, and we'd love to win it for him."

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