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|09-07-2009, 08:36 AM||#1|
A Son of Martha
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Steelers alumni Rocky Bleier, Franco Harris golf for a cause
Steelers alumni Rocky Bleier, Franco Harris golf for a cause
Monday, September 07, 2009
By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Rocky Bleier, former Pittsburgh Steeler and a Vietnam vet, right, talks to Jan C. Scruggs, founder and president, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, with plans for a new visitors center next to the wall in Washington, D.C.
A few months back, Rocky Bleier phoned former backfield mate Franco Harris about doing something special for the men and women who have borne the battles of the last eight years.
The timing was right. The national spotlight is on Pittsburgh as the NFL kicks off a new season Thursday with concerts and hoopla. The following day is the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and events are planned for the memorial of Flight 93, the flight that fought back.
So, how about having the Steelers Alumni dedicate their Sept. 11 golf outing to the troops -- no one calls them America's Team, but they could -- by raising money for a charity that provides golf equipment and gestures of gratitude to veterans.
"On a day that we say we will never forget, we need to do something to try to help those who have given so much," said Mr. Bleier.
His bond with the troops is sealed in blood. Forty years ago, two days after Woodstock concluded, he was an Army infantryman who was wounded in the left thigh and had his right foot shredded by shrapnel in a rice paddy near Chu Lai, Vietnam. Those who qualify for the Combat Infantryman's Badge and the Purple Heart -- medals for being on a battlefield and shedding blood -- tend to remember that there is a price to be paid in blood during war.
Meanwhile, the one-time idol of a fan club called Franco's Italian Army liked the idea of supporting the troops with a golf tournament. He had once considered following in his father's footsteps as a career Army man. These days, he is one of the Soldiers' Angels, a charity that provides a support network for families of deployed troops.
"Wow!" Mr. Harris told his former teammate. "This fits right in with what I want to be involved in."
The outing, which begins at 8:30 a.m. Friday at the Pittsburgh Field Club, benefits Golf Supports Our Troops. A registered charity that doesn't pay salaries, it provides golf clubs, driving nets and golf balls to 35 Veterans Affairs hospitals, including one in Butler.
The fee is $750 per person, most of which is tax deductible, and includes admission to the Flight 93 memorial dinner at Heinz Field on Friday night. Officials hope to get 20 foursomes, and spots are still available.
"The interesting thing about the feedback I've gotten is that people want to help but don't know where to go or what to do. Maybe this is a reminder," said Mr. Bleier.
He and Mr. Harris once were part of the same ground game that won four Super Bowls. They each had more than 1,000 yards in 1976 on the best team that never won the Lombardi Trophy. Now they are teamed up again, each sponsoring a foursome.
Golf and troops
Established in 2007, Golf Supports Our Troops works in various ways. It has donated golf clubs and golf equipment for an annual tournament in Baghdad. It has arranged for wounded warriors and veterans to attend the PGA golf tournaments of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, among other events. And it provides resources to VA hospitals to use golf as a form of therapy, even for amputees and those who have lost their sight.
"All we're trying to do is improve the lives of wounded vets. If we can provide them with one good day, it's worth it. It's time to pay them back," said founder Brian Coleman, of Madison, N.J. Mr. Coleman got into golf following a career as an executive in the printing industry. In 2001, he founded a business selling golf accessories and collectibles, such as ball markers, pin flags and other merchandise. Then in 2007, he decided to convert his new business into a charity for veterans.
"I've had troops come up to me and thank me for giving them access to golf. And I always say, 'No, thank you for what you're doing.' I just have to look in their faces, and I get more out of it than they do," he added. "It's the most rewarding thing I've ever done."
Organizers hope that the public can separate the wars from the warriors, which wasn't always the case for returning Vietnam vets. Indeed, Osama Bin Laden is still at large while Afghanistan and Iraq bleed, and some of the most outspoken criticism comes from the family of NFL star Pat Tillman, a U.S. Army Ranger killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.
"People can disagree about how and why the wars are being fought, but we should all support the troops," Mr. Coleman said. "We want them to know that somebody cares about them."
Fighting Back II
About 30 months ago, as one of the sky soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, Ramon Padilla lost his left arm and suffered a head wound when hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during an attack on his firebase in a place called Afghanistan's Valley of Death.
As part of his rehab at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he was introduced to golf and picked up a club for the first time. He swung and swung and swung for 30 minutes, maybe 45, without striking the ball.
Then something clicked. A ball struck on the sweet spot soared 150 yards, and a spirit soared with it.
"It's the one shot that always brings me back," said Sgt. 1st Class Padilla, who grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Wheaton, Md.
"Golf is good therapy for me. It's a great outlet," he said. "The game lets me relax and clears my mind. It lets me believe in myself. I don't stress out unless I'm stressing over the next shot I hit. And you get to be outdoors again in the fresh air to smell the grass and hear the birds sing."
Sgt. Padilla, who has played golf with Tiger Woods, will be playing in the Steeler Alumni event. And he can draw on the experiences of Rocky Bleier, whose book about his return to the NFL was titled "Fighting Back."
"I know I'm in a fight," the sergeant said, "but I'm willing to fight back all the way."
As the program coordinator at the VA in Tampa, Fla., Kathryn Bryant sees firsthand the benefits of adaptive sports like scuba diving, boating and horseback riding. And she's become a believer in golf after Golf Supports Our Troops donated equipment, and wounded warriors could play on a nine-hole course called Terrace Hill.
"The game has a calming effect," she said. "Any time you can focus on anything other than your pain, it helps take your mind off your agonies. Some guys can't wait to get back on the course. It's given them something to look forward to."
A soldier's duty
The burden of fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has fallen on an all-volunteer military. During the Vietnam War, conscription was in place to fill the ranks.
Drafted by the Steelers in the 16th round of the 1968 NFL draft, Mr. Bleier received a telegram from President Richard Nixon the following year informing him he had been selected for induction.
While lots of guys sought deferments or exemptions, Mr. Bleier took the step forward because he believed in something bigger than himself.
"In all honesty, I'm no better than anybody else. For me, there was no other choice but to go," he said.
"At the time, you could go to jail, leave the country, become a conscientious objector or get a deferment. None of those things appealed to me. If I was going to go, I was going to be the best soldier I could be."
After he was wounded, it took years of work to make it back to the Steelers and the NFL. He walked with a painful limp, and he was waived twice. But by 1974, he had won a starting job and played on the first of four Super Bowl teams. After his 11-year career was over, he became a motivational speaker. And he's still stepping up for his former comrades in arms.
"Franco, Jerome Bettis, all of the former Steelers involved in this, we all know the importance of being involved in the community," Mr. Bleier said. "We've made this place home. Giving back is a great responsibility."
More than a game
For Mr. Harris, providing an opportunity for veterans to play golf has practical benefits.
"I'm a big believer in sports. Sports give you a goal. It gives you a challenge. You have to prove yourself, motivate yourself. Then hopefully it gives you the reward of a sense of accomplishment," he said. "Golf fits right in with what we hope we can do to help our wounded warriors."
But golf also raises awareness and precious donations.
At the Super Bowl in Tampa, Mr. Harris and former Penn State teammate Lydell Mitchell held a charity golf tournament for Soldiers' Angels. The group's motto is "May no soldier go unloved," and it helps keep families connected to the troops.
"We need to reach out to the families of those who are overseas," Mr. Harris said. "They go through a lot. Sometimes, we tend to forget if we're not directly affected by it."
A couple of years ago, e-mail networks circulated a story about how a soldier who was returning to duty in Baghdad was given an airline seat in first class by Mr. Harris.
Not all stories in cyberspace are true. This one is, even if he is reluctant to talk about it.
"I never mention it," said Mr. Harris. "I felt a bigger deal was made of it than necessary. So many people are doing the same acts of kindness for people who are putting their lives on the line without getting any attention for it. Airlines do it. Gate agents do it. It's not a special case. I'm just one of many."
Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09250...#ixzz0QQJMjGEt
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