We’ve all had one hell of a 2020 so far. Between COVID shutdowns, cabin fever, the upcoming election … honestly, just typing out this list is giving me the cold sweats. As we proceed into the fall season, we’ll keep encountering the need to adjust and adapt our usual practices, whether that includes canceling Halloween parties, restricting in-person trick-or-treating … or, of course, refraining from heading to the stadium to cheer on our favorite football teams.
Patience, perseverance, and endurance feel more important now than ever before, and those three qualities happened to play a major role in the career of Jerome “The Bus” Bettis, the iconic Pittsburgh Steelers running back who helped lead his team to a Super Bowl win — in his hometown of Detroit, no less — in 2006 against the Seattle Seahawks. Inspired by the lessons he learned during his time with the NFL and by the challenging climate surrounding pro football (and every other aspect of our lives) in the wake of the coronavirus, Bettis decided to team up with Modelo and DraftKings to launch a new fantasy football challenge: “Beat Bettis”, in which players try to beat Bettis’ lineup for all 9 weeks of the season, with the chance to win a share of $5,000 each week (and there’s still time to join up). I caught up with Bettis to chat about his Modelo collaboration, the role of fantasy football in this very unusual season, and how he’s used his “fighting spirit” to overcome obstacles and achieve his goals.
Modelo’s “Fighting Spirit” tagline immediately resonated with Bettis.
Modelo has used “The Fighting Spirit” as its mantra since last year, and when they first approached Bettis about this collaboration idea, he instantly latched onto that phrase, feeling that it summed up the energy that propelled both his career and his personal life:
“What really drew me to this project is teaming up with Modelo. It’s a fitting partnership, because we both champion the ‘fighting spirit.’ This was never more evident to me than back in 2004, when I was considering retiring. I had just had my baby daughter — she was born prematurely, and she was in the NICU and she was fighting for her life. And I thought to myself: ‘I need to be fighting as well.’ So after much thought, I decided to come back for another year and fight for a championship, which I was able to win. So that ‘fighting spirit’ that’s part of Modelo, we share that. That’s what motivated me to team up with them, and also to start this competition, this fantasy football series that’s called the ‘Beat Bettis Challenge.’ And what people have the opportunity to do is, if they beat my score for the week, they’ll share $5,000. So I’m challenging everyone to bring their fighting spirit as well. Week to week, they’ll go head-to-head against me — they can sign up at DraftKings and take me on, and we’ll see what happens.
Fantasy football always gives fans a chance to directly connect with their love for the sport, but it may prove more necessary than ever this year.
The NFL launched its 2020 season amidst plenty of doubt and concern from fans and media figures alike, and the COVID crisis largely takes in-person attendance at games off the table. For this reason, Bettis thinks that participating in fantasy leagues (and in challenges like Beat Bettis) can reinvigorate the fan experience and give viewers a more direct connection to the game they love so much:
“I think [that fantasy football is] gonna be huge [this year]. Usually, on Sunday at 1:00, fans are heading to the game. Now, there won’t be an opportunity for most people to go to the games. So you’re sitting at home, and you not only have the ability to watch your team, but you can watch a lot of other teams, which is where the fantasy football aspect comes in. [When you play fantasy football,] you watch a lot more games and are rooting for a lot of different players in addition to paying attention to your own team. It gives you a [reason] to see a lot more games. Fantasy football is gonna be huge right now because the majority of people will be enjoying games from home (hopefully while enjoying a nice cold Modelo)!”
Both fans and athletes need to tap into their personal capacity for perseverance during this tough time.
I got to speak at length with Bettis about his own personal experiences with pushing past barriers and allowing his love for the game and his inner stores of determination to outshine external forces that would seek to get in the way. Bettis pointed out a few particular memories that felt especially relevant to the idea of persevering in spite of obstacles:
“One time I can think of is when I was told — at around my 8th or 9th year [in the NFL] — that I wasn’t going to be a starter. I was relegated to being the back-up, and I wasn’t gonna take that sitting down. So I fought, I worked my butt off, and by week 7 or 8, I was a starter again and was a starter for the rest of that year and the next year and the year after that. So it was one of those moments where I had to show my resolve, and I was able to do that.”
“When I was with the Rams, there was a situation where they were changing head coaches, and the [new] system really did not fit me. [The coach] didn’t want to really pound the football and he wanted a smaller running back, so I didn’t really fit his system. So the decision was made to give me a chance to seek a trade. My agent went out and started reaching out to teams, and there were two teams that were interested: The Houston Oilers — who became the Tennessee Titans — and the Pittsburgh Steelers. My agent came to me and said that both teams were willing to offer the same things, so the choice was mine. And I knew that the best choice would be Pittsburgh, because they had just lost an opportunity to win a championship, so [I knew that] they were a championship-caliber team. And they loved big running backs, so it was just perfect for me. I came to Pittsburgh, and I realized that [the team] fit me like a glove. They loved the whole idea of ‘three yards and a cloud of dust’.”
When it seemed like it was time to call it quits, Bettis decided to give his pro football career one more year … and he walked away with a Super Bowl ring.
The old needlepoint maxim of “Patience is a virtue” feels a bit like a mockery at this point, but from a far less condescending point of view than that of Victorian embroidery mavens, Bettis did discuss the importance of letting time unfurl and being prepared to seize opportunities, referring specifically to his 2004 decision to retire from the NFL (and his subsequent choice to continue on through the 2005/2006 season):
“At that point, I had pretty much retired. After we lost the AFC championship in ‘04, I told my teammates that I was retiring. I got up, I told the whole team — so for all intents and purposes, I was done. Coach Cowher told me ‘Hey, think about it, give it some time.’ And in that timeframe, just a few days later, my daughter was born. So I’m thrust in this position where now my daughter is fighting for her life, and it changed my perspective and how I looked at things. She was able to get through it, and a couple of weeks later, right after she got out of the hospital, I went to the Pro Bowl. At the Pro Bowl, the Steelers coaches were coaching, and I’ll never forget, a couple of guys were giving me crap about the Super Bowl being in my hometown [of Detroit] and I wasn’t gonna be there. After that, I thought about it and I knew that, [considering] all the things that I had gone through and that my daughter had gone through … it was time for me to give it another shot.”
Bettis encourages young athletes dealing with an uncertain future right now to keep “the fighting spirit” at the top of their minds.
For high school and college-aged athletes dreaming of building their careers and maybe playing professionally one day, the coronavirus’s impact on both pro football and on college football, with so many factors left up to chance and such an overall air of uncertainty, can seem not just discouraging, but insurmountable. But Bettis hopes that these up-and-comers will direct their focus toward what they can do to build their own skills and to bolster their resolve, because the rough times won’t last forever. “I would just tell [young athletes] that you have to find a way to persevere. [Difficulties] don’t build your character, they reveal your character. So you have to stand tall through all of this adversity and understand that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that the opportunity will present itself. If you’re committed and you have the fighting spirit, it will turn at some point for you,” Bettis insists.