Category Archives: Chiefs

Mike Webster: A Fallen Warrior

After watching PBS’s stunning Frontline last night, dealing with head trauma in the NFL, I thought this might be an appropriate time to post an excerpt about Mike Webster from a book I wrote several years ago, THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY: PITTSBURGH STEELERS. (Shameless plug: you can purchase the book here!) Webster, who played for Pittsburgh and ended his career with Kansas City, was featured prominently in the Frontline special. Without further delay, here you go…

There’s a photograph from 1984 of Mike Webster, the Steelers Hall of Fame center. He resembles a warrior of any time or place, striding triumphantly off the field of battle. He’s carrying his helmet. His hair is wet from perspiration. His knuckles and wrists are taped. There are drops of blood below the No. 52 on his white jersey as well as on his gold pants.

For 17 years, 1974-90, Mike Webster gave his sweat, his blood (as well as the blood of others), and really everything he had to the Steelers (1974-88), the Kansas City Chiefs and the game of football.

Webster was tough. He was a throwback.

“The sight of Mike Webster on a cold, snowy winter day taking the field with short sleeves was the one picture that symbolized the strength and toughness of the Pittsburgh team,” former Steelers center Dermontti Dawson said.*

Picked by the Steelers in the fifth round of the 1974 draft out of Wisconsin, Webster joined three other future Hall of Famers taken by the team: Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert and John Stallworth.

Webster backed up Ray Mansfield at center for two years before becoming a starter. He went on to play a team-record 15 seasons with the Steelers and set the model for consistency by playing in 220 games, including 177 consecutive. That streak might’ve been longer if it hadn’t been for a dislocated elbow that kept him out of four games in 1986.

“I’m not sure I was a Hall of Famer,” Webster said during a conference call in January 1997, minutes after the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s selection committee saw otherwise. “I was there every Sunday, and I did everything I could to be as good as I could be.”

Former teammates with the Steelers will point to Webster’s play and consistency as one of the cogs in the team’s success throughout the 1970s, including Super Bowls XIII and XIV. Then, at the end of Webster’s career, the Chiefs signed him hoping that their young guys could learn from his work ethic and dedication to the game.

“I’ve never seen anybody like Mike Webster. He is the most professional football player I’ve ever met,” quarterback Steve DeBerg, who played with Webster in Kansas City, told The Kansas City Star in December 1990. “To be honest, I think Mike Webster has had a very big influence on the reasons I’m playing well this year. He was my roommate in training camp. He’s my roommate on the road. His professionalism just wears off on you. The guy is amazing. I feel really honored to be exposed to a guy like that. I feel he has had an impact on my performance.”

DeBerg, who had been in the league 11 years before taking snaps from Webster, went on to have the third-best season of his career with 3,444 passing yards in 1990.

After spending those last two years with the Chiefs, Webster, like so many ex-athletes, struggled to find a post-playing life. Business deals fell through, costing him his finances. Things were so bad at times that his family couldn’t even afford toilet paper. His marriage fell apart and his wife moved with their four kids to her hometown of Lodi, Wisconsin.

All the while, Webster’s health was deteriorating. He endured constant pain, headaches.

He was homeless at times, sleeping in his car or at a Pittsburgh train station. Sometimes he’d stay at a budget motel near the Pittsburgh airport. He was a volunteer assistant strength and conditioning for about nine months with the Chiefs, and he’d sleep in the equipment room, hoping no one would find out.

“Mike would not accept any assistance for any reasons,” said Chiefs President and General Manager Carl Peterson. “I knew he was having not only financial problems but also health problems, but he would never allow anyone to try to help him. He’d just disappear.”

“My problems are my problems,” Webster would say.

Those problems mounted. In 1999, Webster was diagnosed finally with brain damage from repeated and long-term head trauma — basically, dementia. Also that year, in September, Webster pleaded no contest to forging a prescription for Ritalin. He was placed on probation.

The dementia worsened. Webster would forget where he lived. And the damn pain wouldn’t go away. His head, his back, his shoulder, his knees, his feet. Seemingly every inch of his body hurt. It would get so bad that Webster stunned himself with a Taser gun in order to sleep.

Throughout the early part of the 21st Century, a battle increased between retired NFL players, the NFL and the NFL Players Association over, mainly benefits. Diseases and ailments such as dementia, Alzheimers, and numerous back, knee and hip problems started taking their toll on a large number of players. According to many ex-players, the NFLPA, led by Gene Upshaw, turned its back on its own who were in desperate need.

Former players receive benefits based on time of service and when the injuries occurred. Although an alarmingly high number of players are suffering from dementia-type illnesses — including former Steeler Ralph Wenzel — the NFL Players Association has argued that there isn’t a correlation between head injuries and life as an NFL player.

Webster was convinced to seek benefits. He unintentionally became the poster child for the ex-players’ cause.

The NFLPA argued that Webster didn’t qualify for full benefits because there was no evidence in their eyes that his problems started before 1996. However, Webster was awarded — and won in an appeal seven years later, in December 2006 — full benefits retroactive to his retirement in 1991.

Tragically, he wasn’t able to see the fight against the NFLPA to the end. On September 24, 2002, Mike Webster’s physical and mental pain went away forever. He died of an apparent heart attack. He was 50.

About two years before Webster died, one of his sons, Garrett, moved to Pittsburgh mainly to be with him, but also to play high school football in Pennsylvania.

“Normally it’s the parent waking up the son to go to school,” Garrett Webster, then 22, told The New York Times in 2006. “With us, it was me waking him up to tell him to take me to school. There were times it did get to be too much for me, but there is no way I would trade what I went through. I loved the moments when we sat in a car and shared a pizza or sat in an apartment with no furniture and watched a movie because we didn’t have anything else to do. Those memories made me grow up faster, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”

*Sources for all quotes are listed in THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY: PITTSBURGH STEELERS. (Shameless plug #2: you can purchase the book here!)

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Memories of Christmases past

As we sat around the dinner table on Christmas afternoon — my parents, my wife and daughter, my brother and his wife, and an uncle — Dad thought we’d go around and have each person share a memorable Christmas present from the past. Coincidentally, I had put together a similar column earlier in the day for the Kansas City T-Bones’ website…you can read that here. So my answer was fairly fresh in my mind.

The T-Bones column and the Christmas dinnertime discussion made me remember a column that I’ve done in the past, where I asked various sports personalities to share memories of their favorite Christmas presents*. This seemed like a good time to share those.

(*I’ve written a syndicated column, and did this type of piece each Christmas. Lord willing, I’ll try to remember to do it again in 2013. It all started, though, when I was co-hosting a radio show called Saturday Sidelines at WAKM in the Nashville, Tenn., market. Long-time Major League pitcher Bill Gullickson lived in the area, and I’d gotten to know him pretty well over the years. For a Saturday Sidelines special, Bill and his family allowed my co-host, Chuck Morris, and me into their home a few days before Christmas to record the show that was going to run on Christmas morning. All we did during that show was talk about Christmas memories and traditions. It ended up being one of our more popular episodes.)

The first of the personalities’ memories, which echoes my sentiments exactly, is from Fred White, long-time Royals radio announcer:

“I don’t have one special memory from Christmas … well, actually, one really big one. Every Christmas, period. Each one was special in our family growing up. They gave me years of great memories with family and friends.”

“When I was about 12 or 13, I got a TV for my bedroom. It was with that TV that I began to practice (broadcasting) games with the sound turned down. Our tradition was opening family presents Christmas Eve and then Santa came Christmas morning. I have many wonderful memories of snowy Christmas Eves in Green Bay.”

— Kevin Harlan, CBS Sports announcer and Kansas City resident

 

“When I was 4 years old, right after World War II broke out, our family moved into our first big house, which included indoor plumbing. That home felt like a mansion to me. Our first Christmas there, my brother and I each received one present, a toy machine gun. We had great times with those. Of course, times were different back then. But, the biggest thing about this time of year for me is family. I particularly learned that while I was playing and coaching. In the NFL, especially back then, we didn’t get much time to be with our families. When you’re not with family, you miss all the talking and laughing. Being together with family is important.”

— Tom Flores, former Chiefs player and (should-be Hall of Fame) coach for the Raiders

 

“I was either 8 or 9 years old, and my folks returned home to Lawrence from Kansas City, and placed a sack on the floor. It looked like hamburgers (which then were 6 for 25 cents, believe it or not). I bent down and opened the sack, and inside was the cutest puppy you have ever seen. I named him Scrappy, and he was my very best friend for the next 11 years. While I was in the service (during World War II), he was killed in a dog fight, but my folks wouldn’t tell me that until years later. I still remember him with great affection.”

— Max Falkenstien, legendary KU announcer for 60 years

 

“The gift that most changed my life was a drum set I received when I was 14, from my mom and dad. Then, on my 50th birthday, that feeling was recreated when I got another drum set from my wonderful wife, Lib. I had a recurring gift and recurring dream. It was one of those wonderful things that actually happened twice.

“I loved my John Callison glove, but then my old man traded Callison for Gene Freeze, which negated that deal. It didn’t negate the trade, unfortunately, but it just negated the gift.”

— Mike Veeck, the son of legendary baseball marketer Bill Veeck and the originator of “Disco Demolition Night” at Chicago’s Comiskey Park

 

Whether you got what you wanted or what you deserved, I hope you had a wonderful Christmas yesterday and have a joy-filled remaining 2012.

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In honor of 12/12/12…Flashback to KU’s famous “12th man”

Although I’m not a big numbers person, in honor of today being 12/12/12, it seemed like a good time to re-publish this “Behind the Stats” column I wrote in December 2007 for Metro Sports about KU’s most famous (or infamous, depending on your view) 12th man, Rick Abernethy. I’ve made minor edits for clarification.

Rick Abernethy will always remember the headline in the Miami Herald on January 2, 1969: “It’s All My Fault, Blame Me”

“The type they used must’ve been as big as when they announced Pearl Harbor,” Abernethy said with a laugh from his home in Leawood.

Indeed, it’s one of the worst tags to hang on an athlete: goat. It’s worse than “bust” or “past his prime.” It’s as bad as being called Bonds. Well, maybe not.

But it’s a tag that Abernethy has carried with him, to some degree, for nearly 45 years. During the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day, 1969, a game the sixth-ranked Jayhawks lost 15-14 to No. 3 Penn State, KU had its goat.

Abernethy, a fifth-year senior linebacker, was the 12th man in KU’s infamous “12th man” loss that day. He was labeled the goat.

“It bothers me, sure,” he said, “but I don’t ever really get tired of talking about it. I can look at it humorously now.”

For almost 15 years, Abernethy carried the guilt from that loss. Finally, in 1982, he watched the game for the first time. Not only did he watch it; he broke it down. At the time, Abernethy was the strength coach for the Chiefs. He also broke down film for the coaches, so to break down that 1969 Orange Bowl would be a breeze. At least physically. During the NFL strike in ’82, Abernethy had a little extra time on his hands, plus the 15-year reunion of the Orange Bowl team was coming up, so he decided to go to Lawrence and get the film.

For the most part, no one really knew what happened in that game. Not the coaches nor the players nor the media. People had guessed, but no one went to the painstaking detail of figuring it out exactly. Abernethy did. And he watched in disbelief. There were 12 men on the field for four straight plays!

“I will say that I wasn’t the 12th man on the field for the first three plays,” Abernethy said, again with a laugh. “Of course, I was when they blew the whistle on us. But I’d rather be the 12th man on the field than the 11th man on the bench with 10 on field.”

Kansas had a great team in 1968. A four-point loss to Oklahoma was the only thing that kept the Jayhawks from a perfect regular season and the Big Eight title outright.

“In my opinion, when you look at nine guys from that team who went to play professional football,” said Abernethy, “I still think it’s the greatest season KU ever had.”

The week the KU went down to Miami for the Orange Bowl, coach Pepper Rodgers inserted a new defense that the Jayhawks hadn’t used before. It was more of a 4-4-3 prevent defense. The NCAA’s rules at the time stated that a team could sub four guys on a change of possession or for the punt and kick teams. But then only two subs per play. When KU subbed, the player coming in would shout the name of the guy he was replacing two times and tap him on the shoulder pads.

With KU leading Penn State 14-7 with about a minute to play, the Nittany Lions went from midfield to KU’s 3 with a long pass play. The Jayhawks quickly needed to change out of their new prevent and into a goal-line defense. The only problem was that they needed to sub more than two guys. Three came in, two went out. Using his memory and his notes from watching the game film, Abernethy says Orville Turgeon was one of the three but he didn’t tap anyone.

On third down, Penn State scored. Coach Joe Paterno decided to go for the win with a two-point conversion. The Jayhawks finished making their substitutions by bringing in two more players. Two went out. See the problem? Still 12 men on the field.

“Nobody came in for me,” Abernethy said. “(Vernon) Vanoy and I were trying to occupy the same spot in the huddle. I should’ve known then that I shouldn’t have been in there, but nobody substituted me.”

Abernethy broke up the pass on the two-point conversion and the Jayhawks started celebrating their victory. Then, the official pulled out his flag. Among the noise and the chaos, there was some confusion about the call. Abernethy knew.

When the official told Abernethy and Emory Hicks, KU’s defensive captain and Abernethy’s roommate, the call, Abernethy and Hicks gave each other a sad, blank stare. They knew who the 12th man was.

Abernethy took the slow 30-yard walk down the KU sideline. On the second two-point attempt, Bob Campbell ran it to the left for, in essence, the Penn State win. Eight seconds remained, but it wasn’t enough time for the Jayhawks.

“I was devastated,” Abernethy said. “The newspaper people were walking around the locker room, trying to figure out what happened. I was crying. Emory was sitting next to me saying it wasn’t my fault. A writer from the Miami Herald heard me say it was my fault and they ran with it, including that headline.”

Looking back, the game didn’t necessarily come down to that play. KU had a chance to go up by 10 earlier in the fourth quarter. The Jayhawks had the ball at the Penn State 5 on fourth-and-1. Instead of going for the almost-sure three points, Rodgers chose to go for it. John Riggins was stuffed at the line.

“It was just a series of unfortunate events,” Abernethy says of the fourth quarter.

But it was easier for Abernethy to blame himself. And for people to say he was the 12th man.

Abernethy, who had gone to Center High School, moved back to the Kansas City area after receiving his degree in Advertising Journalism. He went to work for Phillips 66, but quickly decided he wanted to get into teaching and coaching.

After returning to KU and working with Don Fambrough as an assistant, Abernethy coached at several schools in the Kansas City area, including Wyandotte, Center and Ruskin. Then Marv Levy offered him the job with the Chiefs.

Today, he calls going to the NFL a “big mistake,” although it did give him a chance to watch the film from that Orange Bowl game and stop blaming himself for KU’s loss.

“The only thing I blame myself for now is that when we were lining up in the huddle, I should’ve known,” said Abernethy, who spent 18 years in the dairy business after Levy left to coach the Buffalo Bills. “If I could change it, I would in a heartbeat. If we would’ve lost the game with the right defense in there, I could’ve accepted that.

“Do I absolve myself from the blame? Not totally. Will I ever forget it? No. But look. If that — being the 12th man in a football game — is the worst thing that ever happens to me, I’ve had a pretty good life.”

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Behind the Stats: Today I’m thankful for…

Read nearly every newspaper around the country today — most of which you can find online, which is a slight reason newspapers are in their current dire state, but I digress — and you’ll read a column such as this. Our list of things for which we’re thankful.

In many ways, as some writers have said, this is a crutch column. Lists seem to be like that to some old-school writers. At the same time, though, writing of list of things for which I’m thankful almost seems that it’s not done nearly enough. Kind of like honoring veterans one day a year.

Of course, most of these are sports related and specific to the Kansas City area, except for the number of things in the list. As I wrote a few weeks ago, several of us celebrated recently the life of friend and former Lipscomb University pitcher Scott Shannon, who lost a battle with cancer 20 years ago this month. His number at Lipscomb was 23.

That said, in no particular order, this year I’m especially thankful for….

1. Christ. It seems so blasé these days to list religion first, especially with the firestorm under which Tim Tebow is planted. But, when you read through Tony Dungy’s book, “Quiet Strength,” or you spend a few minutes with someone like Dayton Moore, Kevin Seitzer or ex-Kansas State tight end Paul Coffman, you’re reminded that leading off with this should never seem trite.

2. Family, especially my wife and our three kids. Of course my parents and my in-laws fall in that category, too.

3. Friends. When you’re an extreme introvert, it’s nice to have a few people around you who can put up with your quirkiness.

4. Our service men and women, along with police officers and firefighters. I’m a big chicken. So I’m in complete awe when I think about these people who choose to defend our freedoms or keep us safe on a daily basis.

5. Frank White. My blood always boils this time of year with all of the discussions about the Baseball Hall of Fame and which of the current candidates deserve or don’t deserve to get in. The pointless debates don’t include Royals Hall of Famer Frank White. And, by this time they shouldn’t because he should be in already. But he’s not, which is a travesty. During his era, he was one of the game’s best all-around defensive players. He remains one of the best second basemen of all-time. Besides his play on the field, I do value Frank’s friendship.

6. The Royals and the Chiefs and the optimism that we have at the beginning of each season, and the fact that when one season hits the tank we can start looking forward to the other. By the way, pitchers and catchers report in 70-some-odd days, depending on when you’re reading this. Although, if we were going to look forward to pitchers and catchers reporting when the Chiefs season tanked, we could’ve said, “pitchers and catchers report in six months.”

7. Denny Matthews and Fred White. No offense to Ryan Lefebvre or Bob Davis whatsoever, but for me it’s always been natural to say the names Denny and Fred together. In various combinations, they’ve been great together for the past 38 years. They’re also great individuals and friends.

8. Max Falkenstien. In a way I could put Max with Denny and Fred. Like Denny and Fred, Falkenstien was one of my heroes growing up. He certainly is missed during the KU broadcasts.

9. The T-Bones. The baseball team, not the steak. (Although I’m thankful for the steak, too.) I’ve written about the T-Bones and General Manager Chris Browne in previous columns and articles, so it shouldn’t be a big shock that I think they’re a wonderful and important part of the Kansas City sports landscape. However, in a moment of weakness this past season, they did something so unthinkable that I had to add them to this year’s list. Desperate during the season, they asked me to fill in as their public address announcer when the legendary Dan Roberts had to miss a game. My start in this media business actually can be traced to doing PA work, so it’s not a complete stretch to think that I could do it. To think, though, that a professional baseball team would ask me does seem far-fetched. But, it went well enough, evidently, that they asked me in August to work PA for the Willie Wilson Baseball Classic. Who knows, maybe they’ll be in a bind again next season.

10. Jim Chappell and Chappell’s Restaurant and Sports Museum. Jim likely will argue that he should be higher on the list, and he may be right. But, you’ll be able to read more about Chappell’s in this space in a full-length column tomorrow. Suffice to say for now that Chappell’s is the best sports museum in the Midwest. Hands down. And the food is excellent, too. They must be doing something right since they’re celebrating their 25th anniversary this week.

11. The Border War. The rivalry between KU and MU (listed alphabetically, by the way) is one of the best, most heated, most hated and most overlooked in all of college sports. And, at least for the time being, is likely about to come to an end, because of both schools. Although Saturday’s football game promises to be exciting for about two possessions, it looks like both men’s basketball games this season could be classics.

12. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.  As a long-time Kansas Citian, I sometimes take for granted this city’s role in black baseball. We have a chance to be reminded of that with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

13. Steve Renko. I have so many reasons to be thankful for Renk, the Kansas City area native, who spent only one season, 1983, with the Royals. Besides the fact that he was one of my “Behind the Stats” radio sidekicks for nearly two years, he’s also a constant source of encouragement, information and opinions. Not to mention, he’s taken time to work with one of my sons who wants to be a pitcher. Most of those times, though, I think he’s working as much with me as a father of a kid who wants to pitch.

14. The Jazz Museum. As a huge fan of jazz, particularly the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Count Basie, it’s awesome to have the Jazz Museum next to the NLBM. It’s pretty easy to do both in the morning and still have time to grab lunch down the road at Arthur Bryant’s before driving past 22nd and Brooklyn, the site of where the Blues, Monarchs, Athletics, Chiefs and Royals all played.

15. Kansas Citybarbecue. Too many to have a favorite.

16. Pineapple and Canadian bacon. The person who first decided to try that odd combination on a pizza is a genius. Plain and simple.

17. Ken Morrow. Whether you’re a hockey fan or not, we’re lucky to have Morrow in the Kansas City area. The current Director of Pro Scouting for the New York Islanders and a winner of multiple Stanley Cups, Morrow is a great ambassador for amateur hockey in the Kansas City area. Besides — and as important as the rest — he was an important part of the 1980 U.S. hockey team that beat the Soviet Union during the Olympics.

18. The running/biking trails around the area. Yes, there are other cities with better or more extensive trails, but if you’ve lived in or visited cities without trails as nice as here you know how lucky we are. Now if we only had leaders who understood the importance of light rail.

19. Cedric Tallis, the Royals’ first general manager in 1969. Although he orchestrated one of the worst trades in baseball history, Lindy McDaniel from the Yankees in exchange for Rookie of the Year Lou Piniella, he’s also responsible for building the Royals into winners relatively soon into their existence with trades that brought Piniella, Buck Martinez, Amos Otis, Cookie Rojas and Fred Patek to Kansas City. Tallis deserves to be in the Royals Hall of Fame.

20. Taco Via. OK, this one might seem a little odd, unless you grew up on the Kansas side of the state line. If you grew up on the Missouri side, you might not know about the Via’s nachos, sanchos, taco burgers, enchiladas and sauce so good that you could drink it faster than a QT Quart. What you may not realize is that the restaurant moved about 500 yards from its location at 95th and Antioch in Overland Park – and the new location opened this week.

21. Municipal Auditorium. What a great, historic place to watch a basketball game. To think, more NCAA men’s championship basketball games have been played there than any other venue in the country.

22. LIVESTRONG Park. I’m not a big soccer fan. Those who know me might even take the word “big” out of that first sentence. But, what an incredible stadium in Kansas City,Kan.! Even if you’re not a soccer fan, you need to see the stadium at least once. It’s also cool to think about that stadium being within an Alex Gordon throw from the Kansas Speedway and CommunityAmerica Ballpark.

23. The NAIA. This isn’t a knock on the NCAA, but the NAIA “gets it.” They understand the importance of pushing the idea of character, not only to their institutions but also to local high schools, grade schools and amateur sports leagues. President/CEO Jim Carr and his staff should be commended for the work they do. Not to mention, the sports teams at NAIA schools are extremely competitive and fun to watch.

For more information on Matt Fulks’ books, or to suggest a “Behind the Stats” topic, visit Matt at www.mattfulks.com.

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Behind the Stats: Bleier shows Veteran’s Day is about second chances

As long as you keep moving forward, you’ll reach the finish line.

—Unknown

Throughout each person’s life we encounter at least one individual — whether it’s as basic as a casual acquaintance or as personal as a friendship — who teaches us about living and makes us realize that we can do better. It’s these people whose lives can intimidate writers, or at least give writers a mental hurdle while trying to relay the story in a perfect way.

Rocky Bleier, who is best known as a running back with the great Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s, is one of those people. His story, while worth telling and retelling and passing along to children and grandchildren, is challenging.

I have a deep appreciation for anyone who’s ever had the guts to serve our country. Heaven knows I didn’t and still don’t.

That appreciation — combined with a love of the Steelers that began as a child — makes Bleier a perfect subject to honor today as we  celebrate Veteran’s Day.

It’s tough to find one word to describe Bleier and his life. Oh, you could use courageous, inspiring, athletic, heroic, unwavering, horrific, determined, incredible, astonishing, remarkable, and tenacious. And so many more. You could also throw in Super Bowl champion and college national champion, but of course neither of those is just one word.

Shoot, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Pat Conroy, and even the Merriam-Webster folks would struggle finding one word to describe Bleier.

The remarkable aspect of Bleier’s life is not what he accomplished on the field per se.

“Like many people, I probably peaked when I was nine years old, in a game against my neighbor when I scored 52 touchdowns on one afternoon,” Bleier quipped, laughing. “That was probably the biggest game of my life, and it’s been downhill ever since.”

Actually, Bleier, a native of Appleton, Wisc., played an important role on Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship team under coach Ara Parseghian. But he wasn’t given much chance of making it in the NFL, particularly because of his 5-foot-11, 205-pound frame. The Steelers didn’t gamble a lot when they drafted him in the 16th round of the 1968 draft.

However, shortly thereafter is where the story takes its most revealing turn.

In December 1968, with three games left in his rookie season, Bleier received an unwanted piece of mail before practice…his draft notice for the U.S. Army. With the United States near the height of the Vietnam War, Bleier loved his country, but, c’mon, how many 22-year-olds really wanted to go to war?

“I can’t say that I was gung-ho about serving,” he said. “I can’t say that I wanted to or needed to serve our country in time of war. Like most others, I was just an average guy who got a draft notice. I’m sure my thought process wasn’t much different than anybody else who got drafted, when you look at that [notice] and say, ‘Aw, (insert your own profanity)! How did I screw up? Now what do I do?’ But you do what you think is right. You go and you serve.”

When someone received a draft notice, he usually had a week before he had to report. Bleier’s draft notice reached him late. He had one day to report. The Steelers tried to help him defer until the end of the season, but the best they could do was designate him with high blood pressure, giving him an extra day before reporting.

Five months later, in May 1969, Bleier was sent to Chu Lai, South Vietnam, with the 196th American Division’s Light Infantry Brigade.

A few months later, in August, Bleier’s life was altered in Heip Duc as he was crippled by enemy rifle fire and grenade wounds in both legs.

It appeared as though his NFL career — not to mention his ability even to walk normally — was finished.

But while he was still in the army, Bleier worked to become a better football player.

“Whether it was by design or by the grace of God, or the lessons that I needed to learn, I fell through the cracks and came back alive,” he says. “I went over there, I served, I got wounded, and I got wounded again. I wasn’t wounded enough to not play, but enough to learn a lesson.

“People have asked me if the experience made me a better  ballplayer. I would have to say yes, it did. If I hadn’t gone, would I have been a better ballplayer? I don’t know. I do know that what I wanted to do was come back from Vietnam and play football. That drove me. So I pushed myself.

“When I was in the service, I got up at 5:30in the morning and ran prior to going to my duty station. When I got done with my duty, I came back and lifted weights. When I got done with that, I went home and ran sprints. All of that was part of wanting to come back with a focus.”

Bleier, who was awarded a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and two campaign ribbons, came back with that same desire to play football.

Steelers’ owner Art Rooney, whether out of a belief in Bleier or pity for him, gave Bleier a second chance.

Two years later, in 1972, after working off the injured reserve and the taxi squad, Bleier made Pittsburgh’s active roster.

“I think all of us want hope. As long as we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we’re okay,” said Bleier, who retired from the NFL after the 1980 season. “As long as there is hope, or a ray of hope, of either making the team or doing something that you love, then you push yourself forward.”

Bleier became an important part of those championship Steelers teams of the ’70s. His best statistical season in 12 years with the Steelers came in 1976, when he rushed 220 times for 1,036 yards and five touchdowns, and caught 24 passes for 294 yards. He was best known on the field, however, as a great blocking back for Franco Harris, en route to four Super Bowl titles.

And to think that, as with so many other American veterans, Bleier’s life changed with one letter. In many ways, the lives of fans who followed Bleier’s career changed with that letter.

“Vietnam is a part of my story and a part of who I am,” he said. “Am I thankful for Vietnam? I’m thankful for the experience. I’m thankful for going. I’m thankful for having served. I’m thankful for the people I have served with, and those who served before and after me. I’m thankful for the people who know me and the relationship they have of one of those who defended our country.”

Indeed, Rocky Bleier can give us a kick in the pants every now and then. He can teach us that we should be thankful for life’s challenges.

He can teach us about change and being our best and finding our strengths. He can teach us that we will reach the finish line with each new step. And he can teach us that we sometimes do get a second chance.

For more information on Matt Fulks’ books, or to suggest a “Behind the Stats” topic, visit Matt at MattFulks.com.

The previous appeared on SportsRadioKC.com on Nov. 11, 2010.

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