View Full Version : Starkey: The man behind the Steelers' line

11-13-2009, 07:01 PM
Starkey: The man behind the Steelers' line
By Joe Starkey
Friday, November 13, 2009

Larry Zierlein never had flashbacks of his time in Vietnam, just dreams.

"I dreamt I had to go back," he said, during our conversation on Veterans Day. "That would wake me up."

Growing up in Lenora, Kan., Zierlein, the Steelers' 63-year-old offensive line coach, was captivated by comic-book depictions of World War II and the Korean War. As a junior at Emporia State (Kan.) College, he determined it was now or never and joined the Marines.

Without telling his parents until after the fact, Zierlein signed up for a two-year volunteer program. That led to boot camp in San Diego and war preparation at Camp Pendleton. Before long, he found himself in South Vietnam.

And it was nothing like the comic books.

"In the comic books, they were constantly fighting; there was never any down time," Zierlein said. "In Vietnam, there were long, long lulls, and (the North Vietnamese) almost dictated the pace of the war. When they were ready to engage you, they would engage you.

"You didn't know where they were, or, in some cases, who they were."

Zierlein's unit sometimes lived underground during his one-year tour and did a turn at dreaded Con Thien, a U.S. combat base noted for its proximity to major North Vietnamese artillery. Con Thien would become the subject of a TIME Magazine piece depicting the war's horrors.

Zierlein, reluctant to go into detail, acknowledged that he lost friends and was lucky to come home alive. He has a photograph of himself and the men in his unit, taken early on. They agreed that if any lost his life, the photo would be sent to his loved ones.

"It sounds kind of a grotesque now," Zierlein said. "We said, 'Let's get a picture of each other looking off in the distance like we're contemplating something, and if we don't make it home, send that picture back to your family.' It was kind of hokey."

When his tour finally ended, Zierlein made the abrupt journey home.

On Dec. 24, 1967, he departed at noon from Okinawa, Japan, arrived in San Francisco at 6 a.m. (gaining six hours) and took a flight to Denver, where his parents picked him up and took him out for a cheeseburger.

"The strangest feeling was landing in San Francisco, because so many times you think, 'I'm never going to make it back,' " Zierlein said. "All of a sudden those wheels hit down, and you say, 'Wow, we're here.' "

That's when problems would begin for many vets, though Zierlein was not among those afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder. He isn't sure why.

How did the war change him?

"Didn't," he said. "I just grew up a little bit."

When a shoulder injury ended his football career at Fort Hays (Kan.) State, Zierlein reached a crossroads. He was married (he and wife Marcia have three children) but had to quit his construction job because of his bum shoulder.

Then-Fort Hays football coach Tom Stromgren asked Zierlein to help with spring ball.

"First day on the field," Zierlein recalled, "I said, 'This is what I want to do.'"

Thirty-nine years, 14 jobs and 13 cities later, Zierlein won a Super Bowl ring, last season. His son, Lance, a sports radio talk-show host in Houston, sat in the stands that night and thought of how his father was coaching at the University of Houston in the late 1970's and turned down an offer to work for Jimmy Johnson at Oklahoma State.

That might have fast-tracked Zierlein's NFL career, but he was loyal to Houston and wanted his family to grow roots there.

"The life of a coach and a coach's wife is extremely difficult," Lance Zierlein said. "When the Steelers won, my mom had tears in her eyes."

Like most Steelers employees, Zierlein humbly goes about his duties. His name doesn't surface much, except for criticism of the line -- rarely warranted anymore -- and his e-mail blunder from a few years ago, when he accidentally forwarded an off-color video to league personnel.

Zierlein's players swear by him and sometimes feel like swearing at him. He cracks them up with one-liners but has a hard-core teaching style that accentuates precise technique.

"He can be cranky in the morning," said center Justin Hartwig, laughing.

Hartwig and tackle Max Starks said Zierlein rarely speaks of Vietnam, though the subject arose last week. Hartwig demanded to know what Zierlein looked like back then because the coach had been telling them he was a "muscled-up, good-looking guy."

Zierlein promised to bring in the aforementioned photo. Hartwig grew serious when he spoke of it. He couldn't imagine what his coach had endured.

Few of us could.

Joe Starkey can be reached at jstarkey@tribweb.com or 412-320-7810.

11-13-2009, 08:34 PM
Thank you for your service, Mr. Zierlein.

11-14-2009, 04:13 PM
You are a good man Larry Zierlein and thank you so much for your time. Isn't it amazing how LZ is no longer being picked on with our OL playing so well.