Twenty-four years ago, Jerome Bettis was a 21-year-old top-10 pick in his first training camp with the Los Angeles Rams. Football was his top priority. Football was also his second priority — and his third, fourth and fifth.
"I didn’t have any children or a family. Football was the only thing in my life, so from that standpoint that’s all I really cared about," Jerome Bettis told HERO Sports.
Even a decade after a violent and punishing playing career ended, it's easy for the Hall of Famer to see why a 21-year-old lives and breathes for football and would put his life on the line for the game.
New York Jets' rookie safety and top-10 pick Jamal Adams was skewered last week for saying he would "die on the field."
"Literally, if I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field. And that's not a lie," Adams said, among other things. "There's so much sacrifice that we go through as a team, and just connecting as one and winning ball games. There's nothing like playing the game of football. But again, I'm all about making the game safer."
Current and former players reacted to the comments with mostly disagreement, including Green Bay Packers' tight end Martellus Bennett tweeting, "Look football is great but I ain't dying for this shit." While Bettis echoes Bennett's opinion, he still understands where Adams is coming from and why young players are willing to risk everything for football.
"I can understand the comment that he made at this stage in his life," Bettis said. "I’ve been retired for 11 years and want to see my daughter walk down the aisle. I want to see different things that correlate to life after football.
"Ten years from now he’ll look back and say ‘I didn’t really mean that,' because he’s going to have a family and want to spend life after football with his family. I don’t look at it as ridiculous. At this point in his life, I understand it."
It didn't take nearly 10 years for Adams to walk back his comments a little. After marinating on the reaction for less than 24 hours, he said he didn't mean it like that.
"Honestly, I really did not see it getting that far," Adams said. "I was speaking about being passionate about the game that I love. I understand that some families were affected by this disease. I definitely didn't mean it any type of way."
Bettis — who is working with Fred Funk to create a content series that lives on Stryker Challenge — is encouraging healthy living through fitness activities that aren’t abusive on the body as a way to stay mobile and active. He said young players like Adams are in a better position to understand the risks of football than he was two decades ago. While he feels "OK" physically after a 13-year career that included nearly 14,000 rushing yards and thousands of blows to every part of the body, he could have felt better had the NFL not "taken advantage" of players.
"It’s a daily battle," he says, optimistically. "I’ve got joint pain that I deal with and manage. It’s a daily process, and some days are better than other days. I talk to my physician . . . to make sure I’m managing those issues and getting all the options available to me. Taking advantage of those options are important."
From visiting an neurotechnology company in Israel to mentoring young players on the importance of educating themselves on the short- and long-term risks of football, Bettis has been very involved in promoting the awareness of life-altering injuries and a healthy post-career lifestyle.
Now it's mostly a matter of getting everyone to buy in and seek help — like a 21-year-old Jerome Bettis may have done in 1993 had the resources been accessible.