I don’t know what you were doing in 1979, but I know what I was doing –I was not caring one bit about the Pittsburgh Steelers.
I don’t know what happened between then and the days before Super Bowl XIV — Pittsburgh was looking to cap off the ’79 season with its fourth Lombardi trophy of the decade in a match-up against the Los Angeles Rams in January of 1980 — but my seven-year-old heart and soul were suddenly so emotionally invested in the outcome of this game that a loss would have surely brought me to tears.
Anyway, the Steelers did triumph in that game, 31-19, and a lifelong fan was born.
I’ve seen it all in the four-plus decades since deciding that the Steelers were the greatest team in the history of the universe. I’ve witnessed three head coaches, countless playoff appearances, 16 division titles, nine AFC title games, four Super Bowl appearances and two more Lombardi trophies in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.
Chase Claypool scores a 2nd quarter touchdown vs the Eagles. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Reivew
It’s just hard to fathom for me that this is the first time Pittsburgh has started a season so successfully since I was in elementary school, since I believed in Santa Claus, since disco was a thing.
Yet, here we are. What’s the lesson to be learned from this? I think one such lesson is that it’s never too late to be amazed by a sport, a team or a player. Take receiver Chase Claypool, for example, who scored four touchdowns in the victory over the Eagles–three receiving and one rushing–becoming the first rookie in franchise history to do so.
Much like the 4-0 start, I can’t believe I — or even much older Steelers fans — had never witnessed such a feat.
There’s a lot not to like about the 2020 calendar year–although, I’d be a fool to tap into any of that mess on here–but there are some bright spots.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are 4-0 for the first time since Welcome Back, Kotter was on the air.
Sorry about that, but whenever I write articles that have to do with Jack Lambert, Chuck Noll, Mean Joe Greene or that time I went to that Steelers game in 1988, you just don’t seem to care all that much.
Pete Rozelle hands the Lombardi Trophy to Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll after Super Bowl X. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune Review
And, by the way, writing an article with a headline such as: “Why it Makes Sense for the Steelers to Bring back Antonio Brown” is not click-bait — not if the article actually covers why the author thinks it would make sense for Pittsburgh to re-sign Antonio Brown.
Attention-bait? Anger-bait? Traffic-bait? Perhaps. However, if you want actual click-bait, go click on one of those links at the bottom of most websites that like to draw you in with headlines such as: “She was Enjoying Her Birthday Cake but had No Idea What was Lurking Behind Her.”
What was lurking behind her? You usually never get to find out, thanks to having to click through 28 pages of ad-infested gibberish — that, my friend, is click-bait.
As for those reaction-baiting articles about Antonio Brown or the Steelers possibly signing Jameis Winston?
Those are usually money. Why? Because you like, no, love them. Oh, you say you don’t love them. You say you’d rather read about Ramon Foster’s retirement and/or the merits of his possible replacements — Stefen Wisniewski, a veteran free-agent signing, or Kevin Dotson, a fourth-round pick out of Louisiana in the 2020 NFL Draft — but you really don’t.
At least not according to the numbers.
You say you don’t want to read yet another article about the controversial Rooney Rule, but traffic for such articles is through the roof. As for the comments sections? They’re fire, my friend.
Todd Haley and Mike Munchak at St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Keith Srakocic, AP via PennLive.com
You want an article about Shaun Sarrett, who became the Steelers offensive line coach after the legendary Mike Munchak moved on to coach the Broncos’ hogs following the 2018 season? Fine. Crickets.
And that’s why there were 45,000 articles written about James Harrison, last week, and the controversial envelope head coach Mike Tomlin may or may not have given him way back in 2010. James Harrison appeared on a podcast with former Steelers offensive lineman Willie Colon and was very revealing about countless subjects.
However, the sexiest subject Harrison touched on regarding his time with the Steelers centered around Pittsburgh possibly covering one of the several fines he received a decade earlier, thanks to the NFL’s sudden desire to legislate head shots out of the game.
You want more articles about things that are not so juicy and sensational? Read more articles about things that are not so juicy and sensational.
Do you know who Don Shula is? He’s the winningest head coach in the history of the NFL. Did you know the guy who coached the Colts in Super Bowl III — the team that lost to Broadway Joe Namath and his guarantee — passed away on May 4 at the age of 90? Did you know that upset victory by the Jets may have been the most significant in the history of the NFL and paved the way for all that came after that? Did you know Shula went on to coach the Dolphins and guided them to the only undefeated season in modern NFL history in 1972?
If you learn about Noll, and all that he accomplished in his 23 years as the Steelers head coach, maybe you’d agree that it’s ridiculous that so many people have misspelled his name over the years.
Sorry for the rant, but it was necessary, at least in a sense. If you’re on this site and have read this far, you’re probably prioritize substance over style. While some Steelers sites like Steel City Blitz and Steelers Takeaways, or Twitter feeds like @VintageSteelers and @SteelCityStar do a fantastic job in fostering a great respect and reverence for Steelers history, many do not.
Most can’t afford to.
Maybe they would if readers started showing a little more respect and reverence for Steelers and NFL history.
COVID-19 is radically transforming our world. Not even the NFL is immune. Yet, Coronavirus can’t touch James Harrison’s status as the “gift that keeps on giving” to Pittsburgh Steelers bloggers.
Seriously. Just when you think there’s nothing left to add James Harrison’s story, a new chapter emerges. No disrespect to Antonio Brown, but James Harrison out does him when it comes to controversy. Heck, Harrison might give Terry Bradshaw a run for his money at this rate.
Football news has been slow during the pandemic, but Steelers Nation can count on James Harrison to speed it up. And that’s actually a real shame. For James Harrison.
James Harrison and Mike Tomlin after Steelers ’15 loss to Seahawks. Photo Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
And so it was that James Harrison went on Willie Colon’s Going Deep Podcast talking about a wide range of topics. From a journalistic standpoint, Harrison’s interview with Colon was revealing.
He reaffirmed his love for Dick LeBeau. He contrasted how players partied heavily the Bill Cowher era as compared to the atmosphere on Mike Tomlin’s watch. He left no doubt that Kevin Colbert stood shoulder to shoulder with him in 2010 when Roger Goodell unfairly scapegoated him for hits to the head. He shed light on a previously unreported clash with Bruce Arians that started when he bumped into Ben Roethlisberger.
Our knowledge about the inner workings of the Steelers of the 00’s and the ‘10’s is richer for Harrison’s chat with Colon. Then, after referencing his $75,000 fine Roger Goodell slapped on him for his legal hit of Mohamed Massaquoi he dropped this bomb:
And I ain’t gonna lie to you, when that happened, right? the G-est thing Mike Tomlin ever did, he handed me an envelope after that. I ain’t gonna say what, but he handed me an envelope after that.
Of course James Harrison was implying that Mike Tomlin was paying the fine for him. Harrison knew what he was doing would set off a firestorm. That was his intention all along.
And that’s the problem.
James Harrison Needs to Get Over Himself
Reaction has been swift to Harrison’s bomb. Art Rooney II issued an unequivocal denial. Harrison’s agent Bill Parise declared that the exchange “Never Happened.” Harrison himself partially walked back comments, clarifying that Mike Tomlin never paid him to hurt anyone.
This came after Sean Peyton suggested the Steelers should face some sort of Bountygate investigation similar to what he was subjected to.
Hum. It seems like Harrison is confronting the law of unintended consequences, doesn’t it? He wanted to poke his former coach. He wanted to make some mischief? But get him and the organization into real trouble? Not so much.
But both men moved on and ultimately reconciled with their first NFL franchise.
Rod Woodson terrorized the Houston Oilers
Whether James Harrison reconciles with the Steelers is his choice. Regardless, he would do well follow Rod Woodson’s lead. Even when blood was bad in the ‘90’s, Woodson never resorted to taking petty potshots of the kind at Harrison is taking. (Even if Woodson was on the receiving end of some of those from Tom Donahoe.)
James Harrison again insisted to Colon that he’d been promised more playing time and made no bones about mailing it in once when he didn’t get it. Even promises were made, Harrison must take responsibility for his own actions.
Yes, Harrison could still contribute in 2017. But rookie T.J. Watt was better than Harrison. Faking injuries, sleeping through meetings or going home when deactivated is no way to prove you deserve to play.
As the late Myron Cope argued, the Pittsburgh Steelers yield nothing to the rest of the NFL when it comes to its linebacking legacy.
But how James Harrison transformed himself from a practice squad bubble baby into a an NFL Defensive Player of the Year who made game a changing play in Super Bowl XLIII was always part of his mystique.
Now he’s tarnishing that mystique. James Harrison needs to get over himself and see just how petty his one-sided feud with Mike Tomlin has become.
I was recently watching an NFL Films “Top 10” production that ranked the all-time best safeties in the history of the league.
Much to my amazement, Donnie Shell, a 1974 undrafted free agent out of tiny South Carolina State, made the list at number nine.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Shell played 14 years in Pittsburgh, was elected to five Pro Bowls, made First-team All-Pro three times, was a four-time Super Bowl-winner and collected 52 interceptions before calling it a career following the 1987 campaign.
Donnie Shell intercepts Dan Marino in the 1985 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.
However, when it comes to safeties throughout franchise history, Shell has not only been overshadowed by the likes of Troy Polamalu, but people such as Mike Wagner, Carnell Lake and even Ryan Clark have also made their marks while contributing heavily to some memorable Super Bowl teams and runs over the years.
But maybe it’s safe to say those days are behind us now, and Shell will finally get the recognition he has so long deserved. He’ll certainly get the immortality now that he’s been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020.
Speaking of which, Shell was part of the Steelers famed 1974 rookie class of players who proved to be the final pieces of the puzzle for a Super Bowl run that would see the organization snag four Lombardi trophies over a six-year span between 1974-1979.
The Steelers 1974 draft class, one that included four future Hall of Fame players who were picked over the first five rounds–receiver Lynn Swann (first round); linebacker Jack Lambert (second round); receiver John Stallworth (fourth round); and center Mike Webster (fifth round)–has been recognized as the greatest in NFL history for quite some time.
It’s a draft that stood on its own. It’s a draft that didn’t need anything else to make it greater.
But while undrafted free agents are just that, they’re still a part of the same rookie class as the players who were drafted. They still have to prove themselves to their coaches and veteran teammates. Unfortunately for UDFAs, they don’t necessarily have the same odds and opportunities as the drafted players. Oh, sure, coaches like to say that they don’t play favorites, that rookies earn a spot on the team by what they show them on the practice field and not because of their draft pedigree.
Let’s be honest, though, drafted players, particularly those selected in rounds 1-3, have a much longer leash and get many more chances to make an impression with their coaches.
Undrafted free agents, on the other hand, they usually have the longest odds and the shortest leashes. And back in the mid-1970s, when the annual NFL Draft consisted of 17 rounds, UDFAs had an even tougher time than they do today with drafts lasting just seven rounds.
Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room
But that just makes what Donnie Shell was able to accomplish, by not only making the Steelers roster in 1974, but by going on to have such a decorated career, even more remarkable.
That brings us to the tremendous job the Steelers scouting department was doing in those days.
Thanks to Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary scout whose connections with small black colleges proved to be the perfect entree for the Steelers to evaluate players that were being ignored by most pro teams, Pittsburgh was able to build one of the most talented rosters in the entire NFL, a championship roster that would become the greatest dynasty in the history of the league.
While the likes of Mel Blount, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Stallworth were more high-profile members of those famed ’70s Steelers teams, Shell may have actually been the greatest example of an African American football player from a small school getting an opportunity he may not have had, otherwise.
Kudos to the Steelers scouting department for doing its due diligence with Shell–he may actually be the greatest find in franchise history.
Finally, while Donnie Shell will never be mentioned as one of the drafted players from that ’74 class, his gold jacket and enshrinement in Canton, Ohio further illustrates what a legendary job the Steelers did that year in putting the final touches on a future football dynasty.
Ryan Shazier’s injury left the Steelers reeling at inside linebacker. Pittsburgh appeared to turn a corner in 2019, but does that mean they can ignore the position in the 2020 NFL Draft?
Devin Bush dives for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com
Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Starters
In 2020 the Steelers will start a potent duo at inside linebacker, led by 2019’s first round draft pick Devin Bush, and Vince Williams who has manned the other starting linebacker position since his rookie campaign in the 2013 season.
At age 31, Vince Williams has never been and will never be a superstar.
But he very much is the type of player who helps teams win Super Bowls. No, that’s not a misprint. Mel Blount was far more important to the Steelers 1978 Super Bowl team, but it matters little of Ron Johnson had been a liability at the other cornerback position.
And Vince Williams has never been a liability, and when paired alongside a truly athletic inside linebacker, Vince Williams is very much an asset. He craves contact, is stout against the run and can pressure the passer when needed.
He’s the perfect foil to Devin Bush, who exploded early in his rookie season for 3 fumble recoveries, one sack, and a touchdown. As the season wore on, Devin Bush was eclipsed by Minkah Fitzpatrick, but all indications point to him being worth the hefty price Pittsburgh paid to make him a Steeler.
Steelers Inside Linebacker Depth Chart Entering the 2020 NFL Draft: The Back Ups
Mark Barron was an important part of the reason why the Steelers turned a corner at inside linebacker last year, and he is no longer on the roster. In fact, he was on the field for 69% of the Steelers defensive snaps as compared to Vince Williams’ 37%.
Alas, Mark Barron was a cap casualty, collateral damage wrought by the need to apply the franchise tag to Bud Dupree.
His departure was not unexpected, but perhaps Tyler Matakevich’s was, and together they’ve left the cupboard pretty bare at inside linebacker for the Steelers. The Steelers do have Ulysees Gilbert, whom they drafted in the 2019 NFL Draft, and Robert Spillane who was on their active roster for the 2nd half of 2019.
The Steelers 2020 Inside Linebacker Draft Needs
During the Tomlin era, inside linebacker really has been a boom-bust position for the Steelers. There’s been very little middle ground. When things go according to plan, the Steelers have been solid at inside linebacker.
But of course, one needs to expect the unexpected in the NFL.
And that’s when inside linebacker has been a problem for Pittsburgh. Injuries limited Larry Foote’s 2013 season to a handful of snaps. He was first replaced by Kion Wilson whose NFL career would last for another six games.
Within a few game, Vince Williams had already replaced him, but the rookie Williams faced a steep learning curve at the expense of the Steelers defense. Something similar happened in 2017 when Ryan Shazier’s spinal injury ended his NFL career.
His back up, Tyler Matakevich, only lasted a few snaps, forcing Arthur Moats into the mix.
The Steelers signed Sean Spence after the mix, and it didn’t take long to see why Spence had been waiting for the phone to ring at home in December.
The point to this brief history lesson is that, while the Steelers have a strong starting duo at inside linebacker, depth is decidedly thin, meaning that the Steelers needs at inside linebacker going into the 2020 NFL Draft must be considered Moderate-High.
After years of being on the outside looking in, former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Donnie Shell has been selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class as part of 10 seniors.
Donnie Shell, who retired in 1987, and who has been eligible since 1993 was only a Hall of Fame Finalist in 2002. This despite the fact that Donnie Shell has 51 interceptions to his credit, a record for an NFL strong safety which still stands today, according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Donnie Shell intercepts Dan Marino in the 1985 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.
Yet, as commentators debated the merits of inducting Buffalo Bills special teams demon Steve Tasker into the Hall of Fame, Donnie Shell’s name was forgotten outside of Pittsburgh. And the reason is quite clear:
In his quest to reach the Hall of Fame, Donnie Shell has fought the mentality that “There are already too many Steelers in Canton.”
This is the same mentality that hurt Lynn Swann and John Stallworth’s candidacy, with Peter King openly skeptical about putting so many Steelers in the Hall of Fame. As Lynn Swann approached the end of his eligibility, the Steelers made the unusual step of lobbying for Swann, which got Swann in. Swann in turn asked Stallworth to induct him into Canton in an open bid to boost his candidacy. John Stallworth made into the Hall the next year
But, as Ed Bouchette explained in The Athletic, “Back when Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were elected in consecutive years, I had one HOF voter actually tell me I should not even think “that safety’” — Shell — would ever get in.”
Fortunately, the selectors for the Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class saw things differently.
Another Win for the 1974 Rookie Class, Bill Nunn Jr.
The Steelers signed Donnie Shell as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1974. This came on the heels of the 1974 Draft class that saw the Steelers pick future Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.
The Steelers 1974 Draft Class has long been acknowledged as the best in NFL history, by far, and Donnie Shell’s selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame only strengthens the shine of the personnel team’s efforts that year. Art Rooney Jr. and Dick Haley deserve credit for that class, Donnie Shell’s invitation to Canton marks yet another milestone in Bill Nunn Jr.’s already impressive resume.
The Steelers found Donnie Shell by scouting South Carolina State, a Division IAA Historically Black School.
Bill Nunn, who’d come to the Steelers after working as the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most important African American newspapers of its generation, and maintained extensive connections with the coaches at Historically Black Colleges. This gave the Steelers a leg up in selecting players like L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Stallworth and Donnie Shell.
Donnie Shell earned a roster spot by playing on special teams with the 1974 Steelers.
By 1977 Chuck Noll had had enough of Glen Edwards antics, and traded the safety, paving the way for Donnie Shell to join the Steelers starting lineup. Shell remained the Steelers starting free safety for until 1987. During his career, Shell played in 201 games, made 162 starts, and recorded 19 fumble recoveries. He also appeared in 19 post-season games and started 11 of them.
Donnie Shell intercepted Dan Pastorini in the Steelers 1978 AFC Championship win over the Houston Oilers, and he closed his post season resume by intercepting Dan Marino in the Steelers loss to the Miami Dolphins in the 1984 AFC Championship game.
Will Cowher and Shell have Company in Canton
Donnie Shell joins from Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher as part of the Hall of Fame’s 2020 Centennial Class. Two more Steelers alumni could join them. Troy Polamalu is in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, and Alan Faneca is a finalist.
Both men authored Hall of Fame worthy careers, and both men should and will make it to Canton.
Troy Polamalu deserves first year induction, but he along with Faneca could fall victum to the “Too Many Steelers” already in mentality.
After the Steelers 27-14 win over the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football, Art Rooney II might do well to petition Roger Goodell to allow him to tuck the football safely away where the sun doesn’t shine.
Or, better yet, perhaps the operative phrase would be “When” the Sun doesn’t shine as the Pittsburgh Steelers are 3-4 with their 3 wins coming at night.
Big Ben took so much punishment that night that Al Michaels suggested that he, and not Robert Downy Jr., should star in Iron Man II.
But this isn’t the type of toughness that quarterbacks really need.
Quarterbacks bust be mentally tough. It’s an element that will never show alongside a player’s measurables. Yet it is the characteristic that separates quality quarterbacks from average ones.
A quality quarterback has to be tough enough to shuck off a couple of costly interceptions and turn around to throw touchdown passes.
For the first quarter and a half of action against Miami, Mason Rudolph was lost.
His mechanics were poor. His velocity was slow. He was tentative. Rudolph was inaccurate.
Before two minutes had passed in the 2nd quarter, Mason Rudolph had thrown an interception that Miami converted into a touchdown. Had another interception mercifully negated by the grace of toe that barely tapped the sideline, and fumbled a ball which David DeCastro recovered.
Charles Harris pressures Mason Rudolph. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive
By that point in the game, James Conner and Benny Snell had ripped off a few impressive runs. But with Mason Rudolph unable to mount any sort of downfield threat, the Dolphins were up 14-0 and looked every bit like a mediocre team en route to a major upset.
Mason Rudolph responded, and his response resonated with the rest of the Steelers roster.
Fitzpatrick Vindicates Steelers Unorthodox Move
Mason Rudolph’s recovery began when he connected with Dionate Johnson for 12 yard while standing in his own end zone on 3rd and 11. He didn’t lead the team to a touchdown, but by the time Chris Boswell lined up for a 45 yard field goal, the Steelers had burned 7 minutes off of the clock.
Ryan Fitzpatrick took over at the Miami 29 yard line with 2:40 left to play in the first half – just enough time for a journeyman quarterback to move his team into scoring position.
While Mason Rudolph’s shaky play had been what had worried everyone prior to the previous drive, Pittsburgh’s defense had been equally putrid, particularly after putting on a “missed tackle clinic” that led to the Dolphins 2nd touchdown.
Ryan Fitzpatrick moved the Dolphins to their own 40 after a handful of plays, when Minkah Fitzpatrick picked off a deflected pass and returned it to the 50.
At that point the Steelers had 1:13 remaining in the half, two time outs left, a rookie quarterback who’d suffered a shaky start and the knowledge that they’d start the 2nd half with the ball. In other words, Mike Tomlin had every excuse he needed to feed the ball to James Conner and call it a half.
Instead, Tomlin chose to put foot on the gas.
Dolphins coach Brian Flores did the same and threw the house at Rudolph
Mason Rudolph made him pay with a 45 yard strike to Diontae Johnson that included a Hines Ward-like block from James Washington that paved his way into the end zone. That was a strong finish to the first half, but the Steelers were still behind 14 to 10.
Defensive Deluge Dooms Dolphins in 2nd Half
During the first 27 minutes of the Dolphins game, the Steelers defense had displayed little, if any of the dominance they’d been flashing since the 2nd week of the season. They must have been saving it for the 2nd half.
Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick. Again.
Bud Dupree also sacked Fitzpatrick for good measure
In the game’s first 14 minutes Miami scored 14 points. The Dolphins next nine possessions ended: Punt, Interception, End of Half, Interception, turn over on downs, Fumble, Fumble, turn over on downs, End of Game.
Mason Rudolph Makes First Step, Must Grow More
Mason Rudolph ran Steelers Nation through the spectrum of emotions Monday Night and the praise heading his way is well earned.
But Mason Rudolph remains a work in progress.
As Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reports, Mason Rudolph not only began to throw with more authority, he took command of the huddle, reprimanding Vance McDonald after one play, and even took issue with coaches for not calling plays fast enough.
All positive steps. But Mason Rudolph still has much to accomplish. JuJu Smith-Schuster’s heroics on the go-ahead touchdown were necessary because the ball was under thrown. With just over 8 minutes left, the Steelers took two deep shots down the field, attempting to lay the knockout punch.
Mason Rudolph overthrew his target on both attempts.
The young 3rd round quarterback from Oklahoma State still has a long way to go. But his in-game transformation against the Dolphins suggests he has the mental toughness necessary to make the journey.
Tonight ESPN will air its documentary “The Return” chronicling Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam and the retelling of his incredible comeback story that began 50 years ago. Rocky Bleier is of course a central character in Black and Gold lore, and this is the perfect time to praise his contributions to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ story.
Terry Bradshaw hands off to Rocky Bleier. Photo Credit:
Yet the first time I remember hearing Rocky Bleier’s name was in the living room of my grandparent’s house in Baldwin, when my grandpa Bill saw me wearing a Steelers shirt and asked, “Are you a Steeler? Which one are you? Rocky Bleier?”
That put Rocky Bleier on my radar screen.
But it was only a year later that I learned of Rocky Bleier’s story. A day or two after the Steelers win over the Rams in Super Bowl XIV, at breakfast my mother mentioned to me that she’d heard Lynn Swann going out of his way to praise Rocky Bleier’s touchdown in the Super Bowl.
“What touchdown in the Super Bowl?” I quizzed. Franco, Swann and John Stallworth had scored touchdowns in Super Bowl XIV, but Rocky Bleier hadn’t.
My mom explained that Swann had made the comment after watching tape from Super Bowl XIII, remarking that there was no way Bleier should have been able to run fast enough or jump high enough to make that play. (Here’s a clip of the play, available as of 8/20/2019. Watch now before Goodell’s YouTube police get it):
“Why?” I inquired? And then my mother explained about Rocky Bleier’s backstory of having to fight back after being gravely wounded in Vietnam. My mom’s story made an impression on me. However, learning more about Bleier’s comeback would have to wait.
In December 1980, ABC aired, Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story. The show was heavily hyped and I really wanted to watch it. I did get to see the beginning and remember watching until the scene where Bleier gets wounded.
After that, it was bed time. It was a school night.
My mom promised me that it would be on again as a rerun in the summer, when getting up for school wouldn’t be an issue. Yet if ABC aired Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story that next summer, I never saw it. Nor did I ever see it on any other occasion.
While I admit to feeling deprived over that for far longer than I should have, that has passed. I simply share this as a reminder of how different things were before we had VCRs, DVRs and viewing on demand (the movie is now available on YouTube, although I haven’t watched it; alas I have no time.)
I’d have to learn about Rocky Bleier’s comeback elsewhere.
I can remember reading a Steelers Digest article about that told how Rocky Bleier went to practice even after Chuck Noll cut him. I’ve never seen that factoid repeated elsewhere, but in his book From Black to Gold, Tim Gleason recounts how Art Rooney Sr. intervened after Noll cut him to move him to IR, allowing Bleier to remain on the Taxi Squad.
Andy Russell also discussed Rocky Bleier’s comeback in his book A Steeler Odyssey, recounting how Bleier had been told by both Army and team doctors that his professional football career was over.
Rocky Bleier ignored them all and persevered.
Rocky Bleier trained religiously, making the team in 1972, carving out a role for himself on special teams in 1973, and by 1974 he established himself as the starting halfback alongside fullback Franco Harris. As Dick Hoak told Gleason, “’He was quite an inspiration. He did something unheard of, he actually improved his speed significantly. That’s how hard he worked.’”
When Chuck Noll made his game plan for Super Bowl IX, he scripted an off tackle run by Bleier as the Steelers first play against the Vikings Purple People Eater Defense. As Gleason points out, Bleier ripped off an 18 yard run at one point in the season – which clocked in at 1 more yard than the entire Vikings rushing total for the game.
Rocky Bleier returns to Vietnam. Photo Credit: AP, via Yahoo Sports
Rocky Bleier was one of the first Super Steelers to seek out his “Life’s Work,” as he retired after the 1980 season. Since then Bleier has remained in Pittsburgh, actively working to support veteran’s causes and serving as a motivational speaker.
Based on the previews that ESPN has already published, its clear that Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam was an emotional one.
No one will question why. Although only those who’ve experienced the terrors of war first hand can probably truly understand, how gut wrenching the trip must have been for Rocky Bleier.
But fortunately, Rocky Bleier never allowed those horrific events of August 20th 1969 to define him, either physically, mentally or spiritually. And the dedication, perseverance and faith that sustained Rocky Bleier during his comeback is a lesson everyone both understand and learn from.
Tomorrow the Steelers put the pads on at St. Vincents. Football in shorts will have ended. The sorting between the men and the boys will begin. As Peter King remarked two years ago, Mike Tomlin is one of the last NFL coaches to practice full speed hitting in training camp.
It says here that is a wise move.
As Jack Lambert remarked, “I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest. If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t play.”
Unlike other teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers STILL hit in training camp. Photo Credit: MMQB
And conditioning yourself to hit doesn’t come through simulation. So its good that the Steelers will do some hitting in Latrobe.
But it would be better if Mike Tomlin could run the Oklahoma Drill.
The NFL, in an attempt to reduce head trauma banned the Oklahoma Drill along with a number of other traditional hitting drills. The blunt truth is, this is a wise move. After the tragedies of Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Adrian Robinson, Steelers Nation needs no reminder of the existential threat that CTE poses to football.
But that doesn’t change the reality that something is lost even as player safety gains.
The Oklahoma Drill pits a defender against an offensive player and sometimes a ball carrier in a test of wills.
They line up 3 yards off the ball and the offensive lineman and the defender tussle until the defender is knocked to the ground, or the ball carrier is tackled or disrupted from his one yard corridor. Chuck Noll used to start training camp with the Oklahoma Drill.
Rookie Joe Greene famously tossed Ray Mansfield like a rag doll and anhililated every other offensive lineman in his first Oklahoma Drill.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have regressed each of their past two seasons. The team, along with Ben Roethlisberger, served as a veritable punching bag during the 2019 off season. What better way for Mike Tomlin to set the tone than by asking for volunteers to run say a half dozen Oklahoma Drills?
How about letting Matt Feiler and Chukwuma Okorafor start their competition for the starting right tackle slot by squaring off against Cam Heyward in an Oklahoma Drill? Why not acquaint Mark Barron and Benny Snell Jr. with what it means to be a Steelers by making the former fight through David DeCastro to get to the latter?
Joe Greene’s famous Oklahoma Drill exhibition came on his very first snap of training camp practice. Dick Hoak says that veteran defensive lineman who were watching Greene openly talked about packing their bags. Andy Russell pinpoints this as the key moment when Pittsburgh pivoted from being a perennial loser, to transforming into the best football team the story has or ever will see.
There are a lot of things Mike Tomlin can do to transform this Pittsburgh Steelers squad into a champion this summer at St. Vincents. Sadly, however the Oklahoma Drill won’t be one of the tools at his disposal.
The Steelers were expected to pick a wide receiver early in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Diontae Johnson decision is a bit of a surprise.
Both Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin and Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler, both of whom had been mocked to the Steelers – in some cases Butler was mocked to the Steelers in the 1st, remained on the board. Steel City Insider’sJim Wexell had Diontae Jones mocked to the Steelers, but in the 5th round.
Diontae Johnson delivers a stiff arm. Photo Credit: utrockets.com
Could the Steelers have waited it out and drafted Dionte Johnson later?
According to Pittsburgh’s wide receiver coach Daryl Drake, the answer is a resounding “No.” Drake expanded:
…there were so many coaches I know who were at that Pro Day, and everybody raved about this kid. So he probably would not be around. I know for a fact that Tampa Bay was going to take him with their next pick, and I got cussed out by the Tampa Bay head coach who called me some names for taking him because that was his guy.
So if Drake did in fact get that tongue lashing from Tampa, it would have come from Bruce Arians, who does know a thing or two about coaching quality wide receivers (although Arians did want to cut Antonio Brown).
Diontae Johnson’s Video Highlights
The knock against Diontae Johnson is that he didn’t have impressive workout numbers from the NFL Scouting Combine. Drake addressed this issue head one declaring, “To me, speed is overrated.”
He then went on to cite a number of wide receivers, including Larry Fitzgerald, Jerry Rice, and Hines Ward who were “4.5” guys, yet could play football. Here’s Dionte Johnson’s tape:
Those are impressive highlights, although the quality of defenders he’ll face will be exponentially higher in the NFL. Still, the same could have been said about Antonio Brown, who played at Central Michigan, and had a Combine 40 time of 4.56 compared to Dontae Johnson’s 4.53.