Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Roberto Clemente: The day the game died

By  · December 8, 2014
Don McLean’s “American Pie” is a musical classic that tells the tale of the day music died when singer Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash. For me, December 31, 1972 is the day baseball died because this is the day my favorite player, Roberto Clemente, died, also from a plane crash.
Roberto Clemente (Wikipedia)
Roberto Clemente
Today, we are all too frequently reminded of what is wrong in professional athletics. Stories abound of player wrong doings and arrests making it difficult to look up to athletes as role models. As a kid growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, this was not the case and I came to admire Roberto Clemente, the right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
As I think back, I am not exactly sure why I liked him more than the other greats of the game at the time. I grew up outside of San Francisco, but was never a big fan of Willie Mays or others on the Giants. I suppose I liked Clemente because of his somewhat awkward style of play, not unlike the way I played ball as a kid. He always ran hard, but never gracefully. He swung at pitches outside the strike zone and could hit to all fields rather than wait for the perfect pitch. He played the less glamorous position of right field while possessing a howitzer for an arm. And he quietly went about his business while earning one MVP award, 15 All Star Game appearances, four batting titles, and 12 Gold Gloves for fielding excellence. He was a complete player who played every game like it might be his last and in his final at bat, he hit his three thousandth hit.
In December of 1972, Nicaragua was devastated by an earthquake just three weeks after Roberto had visited the country. After the quake, he led the effort to collect much needed aid for the victims only to become frustrated when the first three plane loads were stolen by rebels. Clemente decided to escort the fourth plane hoping he could convince rebels to allow the aid to reach victims. He never made it. The plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean shortly after take off and Roberto’s body was never found.
I was watching the Rose Bowl game the following day when just before half time, one of the announcers told viewers of Roberto’s death. When I then read about it at the bottom of the television screen, it conformed what I did not want to believe at first. I quietly got up and walked back to my bedroom and began to cry. I didn’t know what else to do.
Following his death, I found it difficult to really admire athletes and have a favorite. I still loved sports but I did not place players on a pedestal like I used to, even though I would not graduate from high school until 1977. By the early 1980’s, I pretty much quit following baseball. Players had gone on strike and I now thought they cared more about their bank account than anything else. A few years later, drug problems would begin to dominate sports and I now see professional sports as nothing more than entertainment that seems to thrive in a constant state of controversy.
Jason Brown (YouTube)
Jason Brown
It’s too bad because there are still good guys out there in athletics who do not get the attention they deserve. Nowadays, athletes are more apt to write a check to a cause and then show up for a well choreographed photo op than to actually give back to the less fortunate.
Someone worthy of praise today is Jason Brown, the 29-year old former center for the St. Louis Rams. While his former teammates have grabbed headlines for their Michael Brown Jr. “Hand Up, Don’t Shoot” pose, Jason decided to retire even though he was leaving $12.5 million dollars in money if he played through the remainder of his contract. He did so in order to become a farmer who grows food with the sole intent to donate his crops to food pantries for the homeless. Even though he still had another five to seven years of playing days ahead of him, and probably another $50 million dollars in earnings, Jason made a choice that deserves far more attention than what we give to screw ups like Adrian Peterson or Ray Rice.
This New Year’s Eve will mark 42 years since the tragic death of Roberto Clemente. If he were still alive, he would not be one of those former athletes living off the memory of what he accomplished on the field of play. Instead, he would judge himself by what he accomplished off it. He would also be proud of Jason Brown, and others like him. We should all honor the memory of Roberto Clemente by going out of our way to recognize the work of the Jason Browns of professional sports. Doing so will go a long ways to make being a fan of athletes worth it again.
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Steelers' five defining moments of 2014

Thomas Davis #58 and Luke Kuechly #59 of the Carolina Panthers tackle Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game at Bank of America Stadium on September 21, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
(September 20, 2014 - Source: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images North America)

The Steelers spent the first seven games of the regular season alternating every win with a loss. They then went on to win eight of their final 10, sealing the franchise's first AFC North championship in four years. But it wasn't always easy. As the Steelers mark their return to postseason play for the first time since 2011, Times Steelers Writer Chris Bradford looks back at his five defining moments of this season:
STEELERS 37, PANTHERS 19: On a warm Sunday night in Charlotte, the Steelers posted their second win of the season -- and first on the road -- but it came at a great cost. The Steelers scored 28 points in the second half as Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount became the first Pittsburgh running backs to rush for 100 yards in the same game. However, the Steelers lost the services of CB Ike Taylor and LB Jarvis Jones for most of the season. With Jones placed on IR/designated to return, the Steelers reached out to James Harrison and re-signed the former defensive player of the year. While Harrison has battled injuries, the 36-year-old has restored a swagger to the defense.
BUCCANEERS 27, STEELERS 24: If the Steelers had missed the playoffs, this was the game that likely would have kept them out. Coming off the impressive road win in Carolina, the Steelers laid an egg the following week, losing to hapless Tampa Bay and QB Mike Glennon. The Steelers overcame a 10-point, first-half deficit, but could not sustain it. It was the only game in which the Steelers blew a half-time lead as Glennon hit Vincent Jackson on a 5-yard TD pass with :07 remaining for the win. Tampa Bay, which earned the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft, won only one other game this season (against four-win Washington).
STEELERS 30, TEXANS 23: In the first of a crucial three-game homestand, the Steelers rallied to victory over J.J. Watt and Houston on a Monday night game. The outcome turned on the final 73 seconds of the first half as the Steelers scored three touchdowns in that span to erase a 13-0 deficit and take a 24-13 lead into the break. It also marked the arrival of rookie WR Martavis Bryant, who scored the first of Pittsburgh's touchdowns and the first of his fledgling career. Bryant's emergence sparked the Steelers' offense to new heights.
STEELERS 42, BENGALS 21: After losing two of their previous three, including an inexplicable loss to the lowly Jets in the Meadowlands on Nov. 17, the Steelers rebounded with perhaps their most inspired performance of the season on Dec. 7 at Paul Brown Stadium. Trailing 14-10 at halftime, the Steelers exploded for 32 points in the second half, led by Le'Veon Bell. The second-year running back rushed for 185 yards and joined Walter Payton as the only player to record 200 yards from scrimmage in three straight games.
STEELERS 27, BENGALS 17: Needing a win to secure a home playoff game and a division title, the Steelers did both with a complete team effort. Antonio Brown set the tone with a 71-yard punt return for a TD, Brice McCain picked off a pair of Andy Dalton passes and Ben Roethlisberger shook off the flu and threw for 317 yards. But, again, victory came at a cost. Bell suffered a hyperextended right knee in the third quarter. Though the Steelers secured the No. 3 seed in the AFC, their playoff hopes could ride on a healthy Bell.

Steelers-Ravens rivalry steeped in bitterness, respect

Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014, 10:45 p.m.

Steelers safety Ryan Clark levels Ravens running back Willis McGahee during the 2009 AFC Championship Game. (AP)

Seven years ago, on a field at Baltimore Ravens training camp in Westminster, Md., I asked then-Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan about the Steelers.

“I don't like Pittsburgh,” Ryan said. “But I respect them.”

The feelings were mutual. They still are. That's the great news here: Steelers-Ravens has endured.

The names have changed. It'll never be the same as when Hines Ward, James Farrior, Bart Scott, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and the boys were bangin' heads. But the rivalry endures, and rivalries are what make sports great.

Imagine your life as a Pittsburgh sports fan without the Ravens or the Philadelphia Flyers to loathe. If you're well past the halftime intermission, imagine it without the old Cleveland Browns or Oakland Raiders or Philadelphia Phillies … or the Flyers. Imagine it without Penn State and West Virginia.

It is a bloody shame the Backyard Brawl disappeared. Steelers-Ravens easily could have done the same after a long, strong run. Both teams needed serious retooling. Either could have faded. It's a testament to the strength of their organizations that neither sank below 8-8 during the process.

For my money, Steelers-Ravens remains the best rivalry in the NFL and the best this town has.

With that in mind, one man's snapshots of Steelers-Ravens from the Mike Tomlin era …


5. Courtney Upshaw nearly breaks Ben in half. Call it the modern-day version of Bart Scott's Ben blast, the one of which Scott memorably said, “It felt good to hear the air leave his body.”

4. Hines Ward rocks Reed and Scott in the same 2007 game. The second one had Scott threatening to “kill” Hines, who just kept on smiling.

3. Ray Lewis snaps Rashard Mendenhall's shoulder blade like a piece of kindling. Was this the play that drove Mendenhall into deep thinking?

2. Jarret Johnson de-cleats Ward. One thing about Hines: He knew the Ravens would get him someday. It happened during Baltimore's blowout win in the 2011 opener, when Johnson ambushed him running across the middle without the ball. Said Johnson: “Everybody wants to knock that guy out.”

1. Ryan Clark nearly maims Willis McGahee. One of the scariest hits you'll ever see, from what might have been one of the most violent championship football games ever played.


3. Byron's scramble. Who could forget statuesque, 250-pound Byron Leftwich rambling 31 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown two years ago? It was the longest run of Lord Byron's career and proof that when it's Steelers-Ravens, somebody who normally would skip out of bounds just might decide to turn upfield. Even if he's moving at the rate of an inch worm.

2. Clark's invasion. Steelers safety Ryan Clark entered the Ravens' locker room after a 2012 loss at Heinz Field and pretended to interview childhood friend Ed Reed. I was standing there, and let me tell you: It was mighty uncomfortable. I couldn't help but think what might have happened if Ward or Joey Porter had entered the Ravens' room in such fashion.

As then-Steelers lineman Max Starks put it: “I don't think Hines would have been received well at all.”

1. Tomlin's blowoff. This was a beauty, after a 2012 win in Baltimore, as Icy Mike tried to keep running after a cold and silent shake. John Harbaugh held on. He pulled Tomlin back and said, “Hey, hey, hey, I said congratulations.” Tomlin looked back and offered a “Thank you. Good job.” before moving along. If there were a Passive Aggressive Hall of Fame, these guys would be first-ballot inductees on that exchange alone.


3. Troy's parting of the seas. Close your eyes, and I'll bet you can see it: Late in the 2008 AFC title game, a young, crazy fast Polamalu sprinting untouched through a sea of Ravens inside the 10 and holding the ball aloft with both hands — a gift for the football gods? — as he crosses the goal line. Heinz Field nearly exploded in ecstasy.

2. Tomlin's near tackle. The Steelers were fined $100,000 after Tomlin stepped over the sideline and nearly tripped Jacoby Jones on a kick return last season. Tomlin claimed innocence. At least one Ravens player wasn't buying it. This is what Joe Flacco, who had threatened such a move in the previous year's Super Bowl, said at the time: “(Tomlin) was looking at the big screen the whole entire time. He knew where he was, and he knew where Jacoby was. He pulled my move.”

1. Charlie's last stand. Ancient Charlie Batch, in the final start of his career, beat the Ravens on a dramatic late drive. “To silence those 71,000 people? Wow. What better feeling could you have?” he said.


3. “A little 5-9 linebacker gets four sacks. That will never happen again in his life. He knows that.” — Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce, referring to James Harrison, who had nine tackles, 3.5 sacks, six quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles, one recovered fumble, an interception and a TKO of Ed Reed on a punt return in a 2007 game.

2. “Who is Trevor Pryce?” — Harrison.

1. “That team beat us last week, then they went and got their (butt) kicked this week.” — Harbaugh, to his players in the locker room after a win over Tennessee this season, referencing the Steelers' loss to Rex Ryan's Jets.

You can bet Tomlin will repeat those words once or twice behind closed doors this week. I'll repeat these, from The Book of the Great (Bart) Scott, in advance of Saturday night's bloodbath:

“Can't wait!”

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Steelers season something to behold

Monday, Dec. 29, 2014, 12:51 a.m.

Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown (84) returns a Cincinnati Bengals punt for a touchdown during the first quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh. GENE J. PUSKAR AP PHOTO

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Handing off to a no-name running back. A fake punt. The Big Play from a secondary known for giving those up.
This is how the Steelers were going to win the AFC North.

And that's exactly what they did.

“Remarkable,” Art Rooney II said.

The team president said it all with one word.

There is no telling what is next for these Steelers. The very spark for their offense, Le'Veon Bell, has a hyperextended right knee. Maybe he plays against Baltimore on Saturday night at Heinz Field. Surely the Ravens — all right, definitely the Ravens — will target that injury if Bell plays in his first playoff game.

Everything could end, and soon.

I wouldn't bet on that, though.

I'd bet on Mike Tomlin's team. I'm sold, actually.

My confidence has nothing to do with Ben Roethlisberger, though it has to comfort Steelers Nation knowing their quarterback is playing better than any one of the starting signal callers for other AFC playoff teams.

Sure, Antonio Brown can't be covered by two defensive backs — or maybe an entire secondary — and that gives offensive coordinator Todd Haley a lot of freedom to tinker with designs and calls. But that's not why I like the Steelers to at least make it to Denver for Round 2.

Nope, I like their defense.

Yes, the same defense that I've referred to as the worst for this proud franchise since before Joe Greene was drafted in 1969. That was a fair opinion a month ago. Not now.

Entering 2015, the Steelers have one of the most improved defenses in the NFL.

They've allowed 21 or fewer points in four consecutive games. They've become stout in the red zone, which is where the only differentiating defense is played in this league, and they are — get this — making splash plays.
No, get this: They're making splash plays without Troy Polamalu.

On Sunday night, with his team holding a three-point lead and about six minutes left in the fourth quarter, Tomlin told his defense to “get ready,” cornerback Brice McCain said.

A fake punt was coming.

The pass by the punter faked nobody and went nowhere, and the AFC North suddenly was there to be won by the Bengals.

So why wasn't it?

Because the Steelers have grown into something special.

“Communication,” McCain said. “We're communicating better.”

So third-year cornerback Antwon Blake was ready when Cincinnati's stud receiver, A.J. Green, caught a pass that appeared destined to position the Bengals for at least a tying field-goal attempt.

“Sometimes he tends to carry the ball a little loosely,” Blake said. “Sometimes he doesn't pay for it.”

Green paid. Blake collected.

His strip-and-recover was the defensive play of this season for the Steelers, and it was symbolic of their run toward reviving a franchise that seemed stuck in muddy mediocrity.

They were 8-8 for two consecutive seasons and 3-3 in this one. Now they're 11-5. The league's best record was 12-4.

One game separated the Steelers, who lost to one opponent with two wins and another with four, from the teams with the most victories in football.

One thing is true about the NFL as it currently exits: The best team usually doesn't win the Super Bowl.
The team playing the best does.

There are teams with more talent that these Steelers.

There are teams with better health than these Steelers.

There are teams with first-round byes and home-field advantages and more impressive recent track records.

I'm not sure there is a better team. I'm absolutely sure there isn't one that has come as far.

Josh Harris taking handoffs. Brad Wing throwing passes. A former Jacksonville Jaguar (Blake) making memorable plays.

Oh, and Roethlisberger-to-Brown for a 63-yard touchdown that secured a sweep of the Bengals and final, firm control of the NFL's toughest division.

“It's really been something,” Rooney said.

It really, really has. Something tells me it's not going to end Saturday night.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Bell's injury sum of all fears for division champs

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) is hit by Cincinnati Bengals free safety Reggie Nelson (20) in the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, in Pittsburgh. Bell was injured on the play. (AP Photo/Don Wright) (Don Wright)

PITTSBURGH — For all of Heinz Field's aesthetic flaws — some real, most perceived — there really is no place like home.  
At least the Steelers better hope that the big yellow monstrosity on Pittsburgh's North Shore provides some sort of distinct advantage to its primary occupants when they host arch-rival Baltimore next Saturday night. 
While the Steelers might be AFC North champions, thanks to Sunday night's thrilling 27-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengalsthey might be going forward without their biggest advantage: Le'Veon Bell.  
The star running back was injured during the third quarter of Sunday's win over the Bengals with a hyper-extended right knee after taking a low-bridge from Cincinnati safety Reggie NelsonThough Bell was able to jog off the field on his own power, he did not return after rushing for 20 yards and adding another 80 in receiving. The injury cast a pall over Heinz Field even as the Steelers were able to hold off Cincinnati and clinch their first division title in four years.  
As for Bell's availability for wild-card weekend — and beyond — that is very much in question. Bell hasn't been ruled out but will be monitored throughout the week.  
"No journey is without its adversity," Tomlin said in an understatement 
Sure, the Steelers can curse their bad luck but want to blame someone? Don't look at Nelson. Blame the system, blame the NFL.  
"Unfortunately, that's the way the game is being played these days because guys are so afraid of getting fined," said Steelers safety Mike Mitchell. "Guys are lowering their targets. That just sucks.  
"I'm a guy, I hit a lot lower now. I don't think it was a dirty play. Obviously, it was extremelunfortunate. You don't want to see Le'Veon getting hit when he 's not looking but that's the NFL we play in today."  
Rookie running back Dri Archer, who along with Josh Harris, filled in for Bell, said he didn't get a good look at Nelson's hit but said "It's hard to get a good legal hit." 
Mitchell knows all too well how that goes. He says he's been fined over 10 times since coming into the league six years ago. Hit high and you risk league punishment. Hit low and you sometimes get collateral damage like that inflicted on Bell. Oh, and process all that in a split-second's decision. 
"People have families," Mitchell said. "You don't want to hit guys in the head and cause long-term brain damage. And also you have families as a defender. You don't want your livelihood, your money, being taken away from you. It's a tough situation for everyone involved, referees included."  
With apologies to Harris and Archer, the loss of Bell is a very tough situation for a team that has shown in recent weeks that it can be a legitimate contender to come out of the very tough AFC. It’s a potential game-changer. 
Last week there was a clumsy debate as to who the Steeler's most valuable player was. Was it Bell? Was it quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or was it wide receiver Antonio Brown? 
Bell won in a vote of his teammates, hard to argue against Bell's 1,361 rushing yards, 994 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. But it's a moot point now.  
Now the Steelers might have to find out who reallis their most valuable player the hard way. On a short week, to boot.   
"I know if there's a chance that he can be out there, he's going to be because that's how he is," said Roethlisberger. 
For all the feel-good stories surrounding the Steelers' win, and there are many, the truth is that the Steelers' success is ultimately predicated on their high-powered offense. If the Steelers are to get where they would like, that means a healthy Bell

Steelers win AFC North but lose Bell to injury

By Will Graves
December 29, 2014
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Brice McCain (25) intercepts
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Brice McCain (25) intercepts the ball on a pass intended for the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (18).  The Enquirer/Jeff Swinger
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Le'Veon Bell tugged at the top of his jersey while the Pittsburgh Steelers training staff tended to his throbbing right knee.

Game Leaders

The Pittsburgh Steelers are heading back to the playoffs as division champions after a 27-17 win over Cincinnati on Sunday night. They just might have to begin their journey for a seventh Super Bowl without their talented and versatile catalyst.
The second-year running back was injured in the third quarter after a legal but low shot to the legs from Cincinnati's Reggie Nelson. The early diagnosis is a hyperextended knee and no major structural damage. It's uncertain whether Bell will be available on Saturday when the Steelers (11-5) host Baltimore (10-6) in the wild-card round.
''I can say right now from the things I've heard that he should be OK, but I can't really say,'' Pittsburgh backup running back Josh Harris said.
Neither can anyone else, leaving the surging Steelers with an unwanted question mark as they prepare for a return to the playoffs after a two-year absence.
''I know if there is a chance that he can be out there, he's going to be because that's how he is,'' Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.
Either way Pittsburgh will press on. The Steelers have won four straight and are 8-2 since falling to Cleveland on Oct. 12. Their sixth AFC North title this millennium and first since 2010 marked the end of a rebuilding process that began in earnest two years ago. Pittsburgh endued 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013 but have roared back to prominence behind one of the NFL's most potent offenses.
The Steelers relied on it to bail them out late. Antwon Blake forced a fumble by Cincinnati's A.J. Green to end a promising Bengals drive late in the fourth quarter and Roethlisberger responded by turning a third-and-8 into a 63-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown. The Pro Bowl wide receiver's 129th and final catch of the season sealed Pittsburgh's rise from mediocrity.
''Who else was going to make (the play)?'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. ''He needs no endorsement from me. He is who he is. I don't think any of us are surprised when he delivers for us time and again.''
The Bengals (10-5-1) turned it over three times and will play at Indianapolis next Sunday. Green left the game with concussion-like symptoms and his status for the playoffs is unclear. Even if he plays, Cincinnati knows it has to be crisper than it was on a night a chance to win a second straight division crown slipped away.
''We had a rough day,'' Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. ''It's key to take care of the football. We didn't do a very good job of it.''
Other things we learned as a pair of rematches next week loom.
LITTLE GUYS, BIG PLAYS: Pittsburgh played without injured Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, fixtures of its secondary for over a decade. In their place were Brice McCain and Antwon Blake. Both players are 5-foot-9 and turned in three of the game's biggest moments. McCain intercepted Andy Dalton twice while Blake caused and recovered Green's fumble.
HEATED EXCHANGE: Tomlin and Nelson engaged in a brief but somewhat heated exchange during the postgame handshake. They both declined to elaborate on the conversation but it hardly appeared friendly.
''He was talking about some he-said, she-said type of deal,'' Tomlin said. ''I don't know what he was talking about.''
DANGEROUS DALTON: Dalton did little to quell the notion he lacks the grit it takes to thrive in January. He completed 27 of 38 for 244 yards and the two picks, both shoddy overthrows to Green.
''It was my fault,'' Green said. ''You have to be better. You can't turn the ball over.''
REMATCH NO. 1: The Steelers and Ravens renew one of the AFC's most heated rivalries, even if it has cooled in recent years. They split the season series, with each team winning on its home field. They are no stranger to each other in the postseason. Pittsburgh beat Baltimore in the 2009 AFC title game and again in the Divisional round two years later.
''It's going to be regular Ravens/Steelers,'' Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison said. ''Smashmouth.''
REMATCH NO. 2: Cincinnati returns to Indianapolis, where the Colts humbled the Bengals 27-0 on Oct. 19. Cincinnati managed just 135 total net yards.
''I'm looking forward to the opportunity to give it back to them,'' Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. ''They obviously put it on us pretty well earlier in the season.''
Online: AP NFL website: and