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NFL Legend Jerome Bettis

Gives the Play-by-Play on Managing His Asthma & Severe Food Allergies

by Jessica Webb Errickson

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As one of the most celebrated players in NFL history, former Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome Bettis knows the importance of staying at the top of his game. For Jerome, whose impressive rushing skills earned him the nickname “The Bus,” keeping in tiptop shape demands more than a healthy diet and exercise routine; he also has to contend with asthma and severe food allergies. But with his asthma under control and his anaphylaxis action plan in place, nothing can stop “The Bus.”

Many years before leading his team to Super Bowl XL victory, 14-year-old Jerome was enjoying some Chinese food with his aunt and uncle when he first experienced anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction.

“I ordered shrimp fried rice, and as I was eating it, my throat started to itch. A couple of seconds later, I could feel my throat starting to close up,” Jerome explains in an interview with Coping magazine. “I was familiar with that type of feeling because I have asthma, so it was clear that something was wrong. It didn’t feel like an asthma attack, but I knew I needed to get help immediately. My aunt and uncle rushed me to the hospital, where I was injected with epinephrine. That’s when I was diag­nosed with a shellfish allergy.” From that day forward, Jerome had to adhere to some permanent lifestyle changes to ensure his safety, especially when dining out. This is where his ana­phylaxis action plan comes into play.

"Even if you don’t have severe allergies, by becoming educated on the condition, you could possibly save a life."

“The first step in my action plan is to avoid my allergen,” he explains. “When I’m at a restaurant, the first thing I do is let my server know that I am allergic to shellfish. I also alert the chef. When I look at the menu, I ask about ingredi­ents and how dishes are prepared, and I alert the staff about the possibility of cross-contamination and the importance of making sure that they don’t cook my food in the same pan or the same grease as my allergen.”

However, when it comes to life-threatening allergies, it’s not enough to depend on the restaurant staff to keep you safe. You have to be prepared to handle a potential allergic reaction.

“I always carry two Auvi-Q epineph­rine auto-injectors,” Jerome continues. “This is paramount because I can be as diligent as possible, but someone in the kitchen or on the waitstaff could make a mistake, and I may need to use one of my epinephrine auto-injectors. If so, I know I have a second one available in case of a secondary reaction. I also need to get emergency help immediately.”

Jerome stresses that people should never treat these types of reactions lightly, as they can be life threatening. “If you don’t carry your epinephrine auto-injectors with you, then you put yourself in a very dangerous position,” he says

While his shellfish allergy never posed a problem on the field, the former running back, who barreled more than 13,000 yards through packs of muscle-bound defensive linemen during his 13-year career, did have to take actions to keep his asthma under control come game time.

“I’ve had an asthma attack during a football game. That was a dangerous situation as well,” says Jerome. “After that, I used a nebulizer before every single game that I played, to open my airways and allow me to take those deep breaths you need when you’re playing football.”

Just as he is diligent about manag­ing his allergies and asthma, the football legend and current NFL analyst for ESPN, is also intent on spreading aware­ness about these conditions. Specifically, Jerome has teamed up with the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America and the pharmaceutical company Sanofi to promote What’s Your AQ?, an educa­tional online quiz that allows participants to test their AQ, or anaphylaxis quotient.

According to Jerome, “The quiz gives you a better understanding of what anaphylaxis is and dispels some of the misconceptions about it. Even if you don’t have severe allergies, by becom­ing educated on the condition, you could possibly save a life. There were even some things about the condition that I didn’t know until I took the quiz.”

The main point Jerome hopes to drive home is that anaphylaxis is life threatening, so if you’re at risk for anaphylactic reactions, you have to have a game plan.

“Have an anaphylaxis action plan – be diligent, educate yourself about severe allergies, and keep two epineph­rine auto-injectors with you at all times,” he stresses. “It could save your life.”


Learn more about anaphylaxis and take the What’s Your AQ? quiz at

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, September/October 2014.