As a kid, Jerome Bettis didn't realize just how good he could be at football. The former Pittsburgh Steeler and future Hall of Famer loved bowling when he was growing up in Detroit; he didn't start carrying the oblong ball until he was in high school.
He also didn't know about the physical ailment that he'd have to contend with throughout his career. "I'll never forget it," he tells 'Men's Journal.' "I was 15 years old. I was at my aunt's house. We had just ordered Chinese food. I was eating shrimp fried rice, and halfway through, my throat shut down. I was having trouble breathing, and my eyes were red and watering. That was a scary deal there."
The doctors told him he was allergic to shellfish. Around that time, he also learned that he had asthma. The kid who would later earn the nickname "The Bus" quickly learned how to manage that: "I was diligent about everything I did from that point on. I didn't want that to happen again." Still, he suffered an asthma attack on the pro field during a game in Jacksonville in 1996. "That was a scary moment as well."
"Scary" is not a word that gets a lot of use in the invincible-warrior culture of the NFL, which is why Bettis, retired since 2006, is speaking out about his condition this month: May is National Allergy and Asthma Awareness Month. He has put together a "playbook" for sufferers of anaphylaxis – life-threatening allergic reactions – and is sponsoring a new epinephrine auto-injector on behalf of the pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis.
"It's something that not many guys talk about," he says. "The game we play, because it's so tough, you don't really wear your deficiencies on your sleeve. But we need to talk about it. Those experiences could help someone else."
These days, the great running back runs his own restaurant in Pittsburgh, Jerome Bettis' Grille 36. Just as the sports world is finally addressing the issue of head trauma with efforts to reduce concussions, the restaurant world has taken great strides in terms of food allergies in recent years, he notes.
"Twenty years ago, if you said you have a shellfish allergy, the waiter would say, 'okay,' and keep on going," Bettis says. "Now, there's a reaction that happens – the waiter tells the manager, and the manager tells the chef. They understand how serious that can be. They're protecting you and themselves in the same breath."
He's eating well, and he's also returning to his first love – bowling. Last year Bettis joined fellow athletes Chris Paul and Terrell Owens and comedian Kevin Hart as the first celebrity owners of teams in the Professional Bowlers Association League. And he's bowling again himself, traveling, he says, with three balls of his own.
"I can still hit my spots," he says.