Friday, August 16, 2019

Rocky Bleier: A true American hero

By Bryan Deardo
July 3, 2019
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Rocky Bleier is more than just a Pittsburgh Steelers' legend. He's a military hero who nearly sacrificed his pro football career to help ensure the freedoms that Americans continue to enjoy today. 
After helping Notre Dame win a national championship, Bleier was drafted by the Steelers in 1968. But in December of that year, after just 10 games in Pittsburgh, Bleier was drafted into the United States Army, and then volunteered to fight in the Vietnam War. In a matter of months, Rocky went from a NFL running back to a Specialist 4 in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.
On a mission in Vietnam on August 20, 1969, Rocky was searching for wounded comrades in a jungle when his platoon was ambushed. Bleier was hit during the ambush, suffering a bullet wound in his left leg and shrapnel from a grenade in his left leg.
Bleier was pulled to safety by a comrade, and later earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service and bravery.
"Fox hole prayers, you hear those a lot; those times where our backs are up against the wall," Bleier said. "From every conflict, there’s always been that one moment in time where you take a look at yourself, and you ask for the grace of God to be able to get you out of this situation."
Bleier survived that near fateful situation and returned to Pittsburgh a year after suffering his leg injuries in Vietnam. Aided by a cane and still in pain, Rocky began a grueling rehabilitation process that lasted two years. Despite not seeing any action for two more seasons and even being waived twice, Bleier continued to fight and improve, and by 1971, he resumed his NFL career.
"I never wanted to get to a place in my life where I’d look back and say ‘What if’. And I wanted to erase all of those ‘what ifs’, and especially in my case, coming back to play professional football," Bleier said.
By 1974, Bleier had earned a permanent place in the Steelers' starting backfield alongside Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris. Rocky played a pivotal role in Pittsburgh's first Super Bowl run, catching a touchdown pass in the Steelers' first playoff win over Buffalo, and then rushing for 98 yards a week later in Oakland. Along with helping Franco rumble for 158 yards, Rocky totaled 76 all-purpose yards in Super Bowl IX that included a key 17-yard run that set up the game-sealing touchdown in Pittsburgh's 16-6 triumph over Minnesota.
Harris and Bleier, the most successful running back-fullback combo in NFL history, became the second pair of teammates in NFL history to each rush for over 1,000 yards in a season in 1976. But it was a catch, not a run, that Bleier made in Super Bowl XIII that still lives on in Steelers' lore.
With the score tied late in the first half against Dallas, Bradshaw rolled right and found Bleier in the back of the end zone. Bleier's leaping catch over Dallas' D.D. Lewis not only graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, it was an inspirational play and one that gave the Steelers the lead for good in an eventual 35-31 victory.
By the end of his career, Rocky Bleier was regarded as one of the cornerstones of Pittsurgh's Super Bowl championship teams. More importantly, Bleier was revered and respected for his service to this country, and is still an example of what the military sacrifices on a daily basis to ensure our freedom to do things like play a football game.
"Like thousands of other young men during that conflict, there was no choice," Bleier said. "There was an obligation and a responsibility. As I reflect back, it was a turning part in my life. It was an important part in my life. I’m very proud to be a Vietnam veteran and I’m proud to have served in my military."

Rocky Bleier confronts his past in ESPN's 'The Return'

By Joshua Axelrod
August 13, 2019

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Rocky Bleier still isn’t used to being the center of attention, despite all he has accomplished in his documentary-worthy life.
“I think that the majority of people don’t know [my story], unless you’re an old Steelers fan,” he said. “I now am introduced to people outside of this area or even younger people in this area, and their parents or friends will say he played for the Steelers. I get that blank look, so then I have to put it in perspective.
“I go, ‘Listen, have you heard of Terry Bradshaw? Have you ever heard of Franco Harris? I’m the other guy.’ ”
Bleier’s story is about to be thrust into the national spotlight again due to “The Return,” a 30-minute documentary chronicling Bleier’s life from his days winning Super Bowls with the Steelers to him going back to the spot where he was injured as a soldier in Vietnam 50 years ago.
The full Tom Rinaldi-hosted documentary will debut on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 20, with a shorter version airing as part of “SC Featured,” a weekly series on “SportsCenter” Aug. 17-18.
“It’s a very powerful story,” producer Jon Fish said. “It’s an important story. Rocky was wonderful sharing himself with us and being so open. … “[I]t was really great and it’s one of those stories you’re proud to be a part of.”
Bleier’s career as a running back included a college football national championship with Notre Dame in 1966 and four Super Bowl rings with the Steelers . His most famous play as a Steeler was a touchdown he caught in Super Bowl XIII that gave the Steelers a lead over the Dallas Cowboys they never relinquished.
The lesser known part of Bleier’s story involves his time in Vietnam. He was drafted into military service in 1968 and came home a year later after suffering a severe injury to his legs while on patrol in Vietnam’s Hiep Duc district. Bleier was shot through the thigh and suffered a grenade blast to his foot.
He was told he could never play football again, but Bleier worked his way back into health and form enough to help Franco Harris anchor the backfield during the Steelers’ dynastic run. In “The Return,” Bleier goes back to the place where he was hurt 50 years ago and tries to make sense of his experiences since and the Vietnam War itself.
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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam gives new perspective

By Kevin Gorman
August 12, 2019

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When Rocky Bleier surveyed the open rice paddy at Hiep Duc in the Que Son Valley last August, the Pittsburgh Steelers great tried to visualize the differences of nearly five decades.
“Jesus Christ,” Bleier said, stopping in his tracks. “You think about those guys that got killed.”
Bleier sniffled, then started sobbing, his hands trembling.
“For what?”
Forty-nine years to the day he was wounded by gunshot and grenade shrapnel, Bleier’s return to Vietnam brought an emotional breakdown he never anticipated.
Bleier’s raw vulnerability — and the unexpected, dramatic moment that followed — was captured by a camera crew and makes for a powerful scene in the SC Featured documentary, “The Return.”
“All of a sudden, I had this overwhelming sense of emotion that I really couldn’t put a finger on of why or what took place,” Bleier told the Tribune-Review on Friday. “What I felt was this complete sense of waste — not loss, but waste. Why? Fifty-nine thousand died in Vietnam, for what? That was my justification or reason why it was overpowering. And I still feel that now.”
Regarded as one of the “grittiest players” on the Super Steelers of the 1970s, Bleier had been adamant beforehand that he carried no emotional scars — only to be moved to tears.
“You knew his demeanor going into that. He was like, ‘I don’t know if there’s anything there but we’ll see,’ ” said Jon Fish, who directed and produced “The Return.”
“As a filmmaker, we were just willing to roll the cameras and see what happens. … When it happened, it was really powerful. It was just really powerful, and we just let it happen.”
“The Return” is scheduled to air a shortened version on SportsCenter this weekend and the full 30-minute documentary on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. Aug. 20. That coincides with the 50th anniversary of the mission by 33 men from Charlie Company 4th Battalion (Light), 31st Infantry 196th Light Infantry Brigade to recover the bodies of nine soldiers killed in an ambush. Four more soldiers died, and 25 others, including Bleier, were wounded when they emerged from a wooded trail to face enemy fire in that open field in Hiep Duc.
Bleier was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart after he was shot in the left thigh, lost part of his right foot and took shrapnel in both legs. The documentary, reported by ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi, is a moving tribute to Bleier interrupting his NFL career to serve in the Vietnam War and his courageous comeback.
“No one told me no,” Bleier said, simply.
Not that he would have listened anyway.
“How can you not admire Rocky Bleier?” Terry Bradshaw said. “He had a dream, and he wasn’t going to quit on it. That’s the kind of people you want to play with.”
The storytelling is splendid, from scenes of the Steelers winning four Super Bowls to Bleier’s touchdown catch against the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The interviews, from Art Rooney and Joe Greene to Bradshaw and especially Franco Harris, are incredible. Fish found it amazing that almost everyone he interviewed connected to Pittsburgh is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
While Bleier’s story was a worthy subject on its own, what makes it powerful is the depth it delves into finding fellow soldiers from the Vietnam War, including one who fought for the Viet Cong. Where Bleier initially downplayed the idea, one that was a decade in the making, it gave him a new perspective.
“For people that knew the story, this is a new layer to it. For people that didn’t know the story, they’re blown away. That’s the wonderful thing about the story,” Fish said.
“Rocky Bleier now is the same Rocky Bleier who came back after being wounded to make the Pittsburgh Steelers. The essence of him then is the same as now: We’re going to come back, and we’re going to finish this story. You see the power and inner strength that he has, that started the story way back when. Years later, he’s the same person.”
Except that Bleier isn’t. He admits the visit to Vietnam — something he never felt a desire to do – changed him for the better. That was especially true when, a month after returning, he was inducted into the Steelers’ Hall of Honor. It made him realize how blessed he was to survive and succeed.
“That’s what we all want, to be recognized for your contribution along the way,” Bleier said. “It doesn’t mean you need to be in the Hall of Fame or an All-Pro, just that somebody recognizes that you put time and effort in and you played on a team that allowed you to be in position to win four Super Bowls.
“It’s not you. It’s that conglomeration of you and the owners, coaches and players you got to be part of. Hopefully, you can look back and say, ‘I made a difference in the lives of my kids, community, church, marriage’ or whatever it may be. That becomes essential, that you did something worthwhile.”
What is most essential to Bleier is those who watch “The Return” can make sense of the senseless by starting a conversation that will help them find their own closure toward the Vietnam War, which has touched all of our lives, whether that’s through a family member or a friend.
“Unlike the majority of Vietnam veterans at that time, who came back to a hostile environment here in the States and weren’t appreciated for their service — and they had nobody to talk to or talk about and had to suppress their feelings — I came back and became a story,” Bleier said. “That was somewhat of a catharsis for me, that I had to talk about those feelings and everything that had taken place. And I’ve been telling that story for 50 years.”
“The Return” tells Bleier’s story in a new way, with a moment of weakness actually showing his strength.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email or via Twitter .

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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

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Raiders finding out Antonio Brown is exactly as advertised

By Mark Madden
August 12, 2019

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It took time, but Antonio Brown finally did right by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Forget about his statistics. Brown compiled those for himself, not the team.
The Steelers never won a Super Bowl with Brown. (Told you so.)
But upon departing for Oakland, Brown immediately proved the turmoil that enveloped him in Pittsburgh was every bit his fault. Brown did so by creating comparable bedlam with the Raiders that is, again, totally his doing.
It wasn’t Ben Roethlisberger causing problems in Pittsburgh, like Brown and many agenda-serving members of the national football media claimed.
Brown’s teammates in Oakland don’t yet know him well enough to sabotage him, if he’s considering similar fabrication.
Brown let the Steelers off the hook. Roethlisberger is awaiting lots of apologies.
Brown rarely has practiced this summer. He hasn’t been seen at Raiders training camp in more than a week. He’s late for meetings, inattentive during. He bullied his bosses in Pittsburgh. He’s doing the same at Oakland. You knew that the minute Brown brought his kids onto the field for practice. Brown is running roughshod.
That’s meant figuratively. Frostbitten feet prevent Brown from literally running.
For someone with a rep for working hard, Brown misses a lot of practice. Dedication isn’t juggling a brick on video, then refusing to pay your personal trainer. Dedication involves pulling the same rope as your teammates. Dedication includes jelling.
Brown long has benefited from excuses made on his behalf. The latest barrage cites the potential for CTE. Or perhaps Brown is troubled, and needs therapy.
But it’s more likely Brown is a jerk and has been since tumbling out of the womb. He dropped to the sixth round of the 2010 NFL Draft because of character issues.
Brown’s personality shortcomings have been exacerbated by money and notoriety. Brown doesn’t care about winning, his teammates, his “friends,” or his family. His lone concern for any situation is how it benefits him. The world exists for Brown’s gain.
Being stupid doesn’t do much to dilute Brown’s narcissism.
The acute frostbite his feet absorbed during cryotherapy could only have occurred had Brown not worn the proper protective footwear. Maybe he wore his $1,000 loafers. You need to be fashionable inside that cryotherapy chamber.
If the notion of Brown refusing to protect his body properly during cryotherapy rings dumb, consider he’s campaigning to wear an unsafe helmet.
That’s Brown’s latest crisis: He’s worn the same helmet since beginning his NFL career. Now it’s been deemed unsafe. But Brown said other helmets impede his vision.
There are dozens of approved helmet options. But Brown threatened to retire or take legal action vs. the NFL if he can’t wear his old helmet. It’s been an issue since May. On the rare occasions he practices, Brown tries to sneak his old helmet onto the field. He even applied a makeshift silver-and-black paint job once. Can’t believe that didn’t work.
Thirty-one other players have switched from their old helmets this season, including Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
Brady doesn’t like it. The NFL doesn’t care. So Brady made the change.
Brown bullied the Steelers. He’s bullying the Raiders. But he can’t bully the NFL. His appeal was denied Monday.
This is terrific for Steelers fans. You get to witness the uproar, but the Raiders have to clean up the mess.
They won’t be able to.
The Raiders aren’t a very good team to begin with. Brown is making coach Jon Gruden and GM Mike Mayock look like bigger fools with each new eccentricity. The Raiders were 4-12 last season. They needed a workmanlike camp, not an excrement storm.
But Brown has been exactly as advertised.
It will get worse, not better. Between his feet and residue from the helmet drama, it’s easy to imagine Brown not playing in Week 1, or performing poorly if he does. When Brown struggles, the finger-pointing starts. Agitation ferments. Manure rolls downhill. Brown no-shows, or dreams up an injury. He goes in the tank.
The Raiders will be sorry they ever thought of trading for Brown.
They’re probably already sorry.
Categories: Sports | Mark Madden Columns | Top Stories

Monday, August 12, 2019

Pirates GM Neal Huntington’s ‘shelf life’ has expired

By Tim Benz
August 12, 2019

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General manager Neal Huntington warned that changes could be coming to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Gee, Neal. Don’t threaten me with a good time.
Sunday’s latest come-from-ahead defeat — an 11-9 debacle in St. Louis — was the club’s eighth straight loss.
Speaking prior to first pitch on his weekly 93.7 The Fan radio show, Huntington refused to rule out firing manager Clint Hurdle when play-by-play man Greg Brown broached the topic.
He also left the door open to significant roster retooling.
“I think we recognize that changes are needed,” Huntington said.
However, he couched that quote by adding, “Emotional decisions are rarely good decisions, whether things are going really well and you make an emotional decision because they’re going well or things are not going well, and you make an emotional decision.
“We recognize that, as we evaluate this in the big picture and we look to take into account as much as we can, as much relevant information as we can.”
Well, here’s some relevant information: The Pirates have lost 24 of their last 28, and they are en route to one of their worst seasons ever.
And, boy, they have had a lot of those.
The truth is, if changes are to occur with these Pirates, they should start at the top with owner Bob Nutting.
Since Nutting is unlikely to fire himself, though, whatever changes come as a result should include Huntington.
Given that he and Hurdle are signed through 2021, my guess is neither will be fired. Nutting barely wants to pay people to work for his team. He sure won’t want to pay those two to no longer work.
Unfortunately, his fanbase has gone from disappointed and dismayed to angry and vengeful. They want a few heads to roll.
They should.
A pitching coach or a few scouts won’t do it.
Firing Hurdle makes plenty of sense. The fundamentals of his team are atrocious. Baserunning, base-coaching, throwing, fielding and decision-making are all abysmal.
Plus, this is the third season as Pirates manager where Hurdle’s team has gotten in a bad stretch and utterly collapsed in the second half. Look at 2011 and 2012. Those teams — more talented than this one — were contending until hitting death spirals after the All-Star break.
So, yeah. Go ahead. Fire Clint Hurdle. But if you expect that act to fundamentally change the outlook for 2020, you’re nuts.
Connie Mack dipped in Joe Torre and rolled in Tony La Russa couldn’t manage a team like this to a winning record.
So if Hurdle goes, Huntington should go, too. After all, it’s his motley collection of “talent” that is 21 games under .500.
“We recognize the players on the field maybe don’t have enough talent because of the players I’ve put on that field,” Huntington said. “Maybe we’re not teaching them the way we can or need to. Maybe they’re simply not executing.”
I’d say A, B and C are all true.
Does Huntington have the means to buy better players for a quick fix? Of course not. He’s under the weight of Nutting’s financial restrictions. But it’s his charge to field a competitive team despite those constraints.
That’s something he has done in the past. But it’s also something he’s been unable to accomplish in the last three years.
Unless 82-79 without a playoff berth turns your crank.
Come to think of it, that sounds like nirvana right now.
“These positions, whether it’s the general manager or manager, they are hired to be fired,” Huntington said. “Everybody has a shelf life, whether it’s the general manager, the manager or coach.”
I think Huntington and Hurdle spoiled on the shelf a long time ago.
It would be intellectually dishonest to keep one and not the other. It’d be unexplainable to bring back both men in their current jobs.
So don’t expect an explanation. But expect that result to happen anyway.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at or viaTwitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.
Categories: Sports | Pirates | Tim Benz Breakfast With

The Battlin' Bucs: The First Century of the Pirates

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Steelers need James Washington to build on preseason performance

By Kevin Gorman
August 10, 2019

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James Washington knows what you’re thinking, even shooting a side-eye to the suggestion that his performance in the preseason opener was exactly what he needed.
That the second-year receiver had four catches for 84 yards and a touchdown in a 30-28 victory over Tampa Bay on Friday night at Heinz Field was just what the Pittsburgh Steelers needed.
Not only did Washington catch the Steelers’ first pass of the game — for a 43-yard gain — but he also pulled in a pivotal 22-yarder on a third-and-long from Josh Dobbs and scored their first touchdown on a back-shoulder throw from Mason Rudolph.
Washington caught everything thrown his way, even when he officially didn’t. He almost scored another touchdown on a Santonio Holmes-inspired tiptoes catch at the same spot of the end zone as the Super Bowl XLIII winner, if not for Washington’s front foot skimming the white line.
The performance wasn’t so much a boost for Washington as it was for those watching and wondering whether he would live up to his billing as a 2018 second-round pick who the Steelers would like to become their No. 2 receiver.
“It does (give) a lot with confidence, just to get people off your back,” Washington said. “There’s times I’m walking around and people will say, ‘You better do good this year.’ I don’t even know you and you’re talking to me like that?”
What Washington wants to prove is that he’s gaining confidence, not so much in himself as that of his coaches and teammates, especially those throwing him the ball.
“It’s real important because it shows the coaches and gives them a true evaluation of you,” Washington said. “It builds trust with the quarterbacks, as well, and that’s a big factor.”
Where Washington caught passes from both Josh Dobbs and Mason Rudolph, it was the attention he received from starter Ben Roethlisberger that made the greatest impression on him.
“With No. 7 sitting there watching you and evaluating you at the same time, he can tell you things that, say if he’s at quarterback, how he would prefer it or if you did it just right,” Washington said of Roethlisberger, who did not play but watched from the Steelers sideline. “It helps having him being on the sideline and watching you and helping evaluate you and helping you out. He congratulated me on a few routes I ran. He said it was a good route that I ran but if he was out there, to tweak it this way if the corner did this. He was always giving me advice and staying in my ear.”
Roethlisberger has had Washington’s ear since criticizing his diving drop at Denver last November on a pass he should have run through and caught in stride. Washington learned his lesson in that game. Soon enough, he earned Big Ben’s trust by catching three passes for 65 yards against New England — including a 32-yarder — and three for 64 yards (with a long of 47) when Antonio Brown went AWOL against Cincinnati.
If there appears to be a distinct difference in Washington, he’s willing to admit the game has slowed down now that he knows the playbook and is more of a well-rounded receiver instead of one who can only stretch the field.
“There were obviously ups and downs last year for him, but he’s focused and he’s excited to learn, always building and trying to get better,” Rudolph said. “When you put yourself in that position, when you have that type of work ethic, it’s eventually going to roll your way.”
That was evident from the start, when the Steelers saw an opportunity to throw downfield. The Bucs had a safety playing low and their corners playing outside leverage, which allowed Washington to get behind cornerback Vernon Hargreaves for the 43-yarder. If Dobbs hadn’t slightly underthrown the ball, Washington could have taken it for a 94-yard touchdown.
“I’ll take it over nothing,” Washington said. “That’s for sure.”
That’s the difference with Roethlisberger. The 16th-year veteran sees the entire field better than Dobbs or Rudolph, who are relatively inexperienced. It’s the kind of play that should motivate Washington to move into the starting lineup opposite JuJu Smith-Schuster and ahead of Donte Moncrief.
But Dobbs found Washington on a third-and-21 throw to jumpstart the offense. And Washington joked with Rudolph to “take it back to Oklahoma State,” and the teammates connected on that back-shoulder throw for a touchdown.
“It was almost like that take-me-back-home feeling,” Washington said.
It was almost like a take-me-back-to-last-preseason feeling for Washington, who had seven catches for 158 yards (22.6 per) and two touchdowns in the first two preseason games last year. He followed that with 16 catches for 217 yards and a touchdown in the regular season, pedestrian totals for a player of his pedigree.
“Obviously, last year we saw him make contested catches from the preseason throughout the season,” Dobbs said. “Everyone grows from your rookie year to your second year. He was out there making plays over the top of the defense, making contested catches on third down. He’s doing a good job. He’s had a great camp, and we look for him to build on that. I think he’ll be a big key for us this year.”
The key for Washington is to make these types of catches with consistency, to open the eyes of Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and to gain the trust of Roethlisberger. That’s what Washington is thinking, no matter what you think of him after his preseason opener performance.
“You can’t think too highly of yourself right now,” Washington said. “This is the first game, the first preseason game. I’ve got to keep building off of this.”
It’s a must to gain the Steelers’ trust. If Washington is going to do better this year, he’s off to a good start.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email or via Twitter .
Categories: Sports | Steelers | Kevin Gorman Columns