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Original Issue


He had spent three hours scattering bodies for one of the
hottest running backs in pro football, and now Pittsburgh
Steelers fullback Tim Lester was getting ready to clear yet
another path for his buddy Jerome Bettis, this time from the
locker room to a Three Rivers Stadium parking lot. While Bettis
is boisterous--"You can almost hear him yell on film," says
Houston Oilers coach Jeff Fisher--Lester is the tight-lipped
type. Turning in his usual understated performance on Sunday, he
helped the Steelers to a 30-16 victory over the Oilers in a game
that included more trash talking than an East Coast versus West
Coast rap summit. Now even the blocking back was talking back.

"They were doing all sorts of idiotic stuff out there, and it
took them out of their game," Lester said of the Oilers. "They
still don't know what it takes to win. They're into talking
trash. We're into playing football."

It wasn't quite that simple. Pittsburgh played trash-mouth
football as well, and Houston's five turnovers had a lot to do
with the outcome. But this battle for AFC Central supremacy--the
Steelers (3-1) lead the Oilers and the Baltimore Ravens (both
2-2)--was a big game by September standards, and the players
with the cooler heads prevailed. "We've just got to grow up as a
team," said 11th-year running back Ronnie Harmon, who signed
with Houston in May. "Any NFL team can be physical, but we lost
our composure and they didn't, and that was the difference."

Under Fisher's adroit guidance, the Oilers are emerging as a
threat to join the upper echelon of the AFC. But the Steelers,
who lost Super Bowl quarterback Neil O'Donnell to free agency
and All-Pro linebacker Greg Lloyd to a season-ending knee injury
in their frightful 24-9 opening-game defeat to the Jacksonville
Jaguars, suddenly look capable of repeating as conference
champions. The key to their speedy recovery has been the
245-pound Bettis.

While Houston's defenders were running their mouths, Bettis was
running past them for 115 yards on 29 carries--his third
consecutive 100-yard game. The last time that happened was at
the end of his rookie season, in 1993, with the Los Angeles
Rams. He made the Pro Bowl in his first two years, but when the
Rams moved east to St. Louis, Bettis's career went south. After
a training-camp holdout in '95, he ran for just 637 yards behind
a weak line and was deemed expendable. Bettis says Rams coaches
and executives trashed him in league circles, saying he was a
bad locker room influence whose career was in decline. Then St.
Louis drafted former Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips
(page 44) and shipped Bettis to the Steelers for a second-round
pick in '96 and a fourth-round pick in '97. "I'll never forgive
the Rams for the way they treated me, especially [vice president
of football operations] Steve Ortmayer and [coach] Rich Brooks,"
Bettis says. "They had to justify getting rid of me when they
knew I could still play, so they labeled me as a bad apple."

Bad apple? This guy is more like apple pie. Blessed with an
ebullient personality, Bettis lives in the off-season with his
parents, Johnnie and Gladys, in their Detroit home. His prime
off-field hangout is the bowling alley, and with good reason. In
1995 Bettis bowled a perfect game at a celebrity pro-am
tournament in Muskegon, Mich., wowing an audience that included
his mother, his girlfriend and one of his bowling idols, Mark
Roth. The Steelers are as straitlaced as any NFL team, and their
background check on Bettis revealed no dirt. Now he's the steal
of Steeltown.

Bettis's average gain, which was 3.2 yards in '94 and 3.5 last
season, has risen to 5.0. That's testament to an outstanding
offensive line and to Lester, who came to the Steelers in '95
after three seasons with the Rams. With 421 yards after one
quarter of the NFL season, Bettis is well on his way to the
1,200 yards that, according to terms of his contract, will make
him an unrestricted free agent after this year and, presumably,
a very rich man.

He's already a marked man. Only two years removed from a 2-14
season, the Oilers wanted to prove their toughness to the
Steelers, and they knew the best way was to mess with Bettis.
Last Thursday night Oilers linebacker Micheal Barrow said,
"Bettis is an emotional player, and the key to this game is
whether we can rattle him early. If we can smack him right away,
maybe make him fumble, we can demoralize him because he's not
mature enough yet to shake that stuff off."

On the first play from scrimmage Bettis took a body shot from
cornerback Darryll Lewis after a 10-yard run. Bettis fumbled but
crawled forward to recover the ball. On Pittsburgh's next series
linebacker Joe Bowden slammed into Bettis so violently on a
screen pass that Bowden's helmet popped loose. But Houston was
the team that flinched. Return man Mel Gray fumbled a Steelers
punt, setting up a 16-yard touchdown pass from current
quarterback Mike Tomczak to future quarterback Kordell Stewart.
Rookie halfback Eddie George fumbled on the second play of the
Oilers' first possession, leading to Norm Johnson's 33-yard
field goal. Houston was down 10-0 before quarterback Chris
Chandler had thrown his first pass and trailed 17-0 midway
through the first quarter. A Chandler fumble late in the first
half led to another Johnson field goal and a 20-0 lead.

The Oilers struck back with two quick third-quarter scores and
kept fighting to the end. "This game was more physical than any
I've played in in a long time, including the Super Bowl," said
Steelers tackle John Jackson. That figures, since even Fisher
and Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher had had a run-in back in their
playing days. In 1983 Fisher was returning a punt for the
Chicago Bears when he was tackled by Cowher, a Philadelphia
Eagles linebacker, and suffered a broken leg. Fisher spent the
rest of '83 on injured reserve, serving as an unofficial
assistant to Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. A coaching
career was launched. "If it weren't for me," Cowher says
jokingly, "he wouldn't be where he is today."

On Sunday, Fisher was playing peacemaker during a late
fourth-quarter scuffle that resulted in the ejection of Lewis
and Steelers punter Shayne Edge. (Earlier, Oilers safety Marcus
Robertson was also tossed from the game, after dragging Tomczak
by his face mask.) At the sound of the final gun two of the
league's most accomplished smack-talkers, Barrow and Steelers
defensive end Brenston Buckner, went jaw-to-jaw. "You had all
those quotes in the paper about how tough y'all are, and we
kicked your ass," Buckner said. Replied Barrow, "I'm surprised
you know how to read."

The rematch will be in Houston on Oct. 20, at which time the
Oilers hope they'll make a much more meaningful statement.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER The Oilers had hoped to get the better of Bettis by battering him early, but failed. [Jerome Bettis in game against Houston Oilers]