Like most kids, I participated in a lot of sports growing up, and as is pretty common when you're playing sports in your formative years, I often fantasized that I was one of my professional sports heroes that I watched on television. If I was playing a game of pick-up basketball, I was Magic Johnson; if I was pitching in a baseball game, I was Nolan Ryan; and if I was running with a football, I was Eric Dickerson, John Riggins or Walter Payton.
I don't know how I looked when playing those sports, but I sure felt like I was one of those very talented athletes.
They were fun times, and I often wish that I could turn back the clock and revisit them. Fortunately, I'm still ambitious and athletic enough to participate in a lot sports even at the age of 40. However, my thought process today vs. 25 years ago is a little different. Looking back, I realize that I was never the most talented athlete in the group, and I sure didn't have the skills of any of the Hall of Fame athletes that I often emulated.
I could never make the no-look pass like a Magic Johnson; I didn't have a 100mph fastball like a Nolan Ryan; and I sure didn't have the speed and shiftiness of running backs like Eric Dickerson and Walter Payton.
The reason why I know this is because I was never the first kid picked when it came time to make up teams. I was almost always one of the last players "drafted", and that was usually after the other kids huddled up and asked, "Can't we just play with one less player?"
Going back and re-examining my years of participating in athletics, if I could take any player from any sport and compare myself to him, it would be former Super Steelers running back Rocky Bleier.
Bleier, a 16th round draft choice by the Steelers in 1968, overcame great odds to have a fairly productive career on one of the best dynasties in sports history.
Shortly after being drafted by the Steelers, Bleier was drafted into the U.S. Army and subsequently volunteered to fight in the Vietnam War. During the course of his tour in Vietnam, an enemy grenade wounded his foot so severely, he was told that he'd never be able to play football again.
However, Bleier was determined to prove people wrong, and after a few years of rehabilitation, he found himself in the starting lineup for the Steelers. Despite probably not being the team's ideal choice as a backfield mate for Franco Harris, Rocky quickly emerged as an important cog in the Steelers four championship teams of the 70's.
Fortunately for me, I never suffered the kind of war-time fate that Bleier did. People doubted him because of the severity of his injury. People doubted me because I've never really looked like an athlete in my entire life. But I've always been determined to prove people wrong.
Normally, what would happen to me as a kid was that I'd often get picked last before the first game because people didn't see a great athlete when they looked at me. However, at some point during the game, I would surprise my teammates with the ability to come through in a key situation.
The doubting of my athletic abilities has even carried over into my adulthood. A number of years ago, when I first started playing organized volleyball, I was on a team made up of really good players. I was quite green and didn't really know what I was doing at first. Towards the end of the season, I found out that my teammates had decided to go off and form their own team starting the following year; they were leaving me behind. This was right before the playoffs, and I was determined to go out with a bang and prove to them that I had the ability to become a decent volleyball player. I immediately went out and bought my own volleyball and began to practice drills on my own. I practiced as much as I could. When the playoffs started, I played better than I had the entire year. And even though I was far from the best player on my team, I contributed some key plays, and we went on to win the championship.
I haven't played a game with those people since, but their slight of my abilities motivated me enough that, today, I'm a pretty good and dependable all-around volleyball player.
Bleier was far from the mvp of the Steelers Super Bowl IX victory over the Minnesota Vikings following the 1974 season--that distinction would go to Franco Harris with 158 yards rushing and the first Super Bowl touchdown in team history--but he did contribute 65 yards on the ground and picked up a key first down during the game-clinching touchdown drive late in the 4th quarter.
Bleier was dependable during his entire career, rushing for 3865 yards to go along with 25 touchdowns. He wasn't a Pro Bowl talent, but he came through whenever the team needed him, like in 1976, when he added to Franco Harris' 1128 rushing yards by contributing 1036 yards of his own during a year when the two-time defending champion Steelers lost Terry Bradshaw early in the year and were 1-4 after five games.
If my knowledge of Steelers history is accurate, Pittsburgh never lost a playoff game with both Harris and Bleier starting in the backfield. In this Youtube clip of the 1979 AFC Championship game, Sidney Thornton is listed as a starting running back opposite Franco, but who comes out to start the game in the Steelers backfield? That's right, number 20.
In addition to volleyball, I also play a lot of flag football. A few years ago, my team played in a double-elimination charity tournament. We were shut-out in the first game and lost pretty badly. I didn't do anything of note in that game, but I wasn't considered a great player because of my lack of speed, so nobody was counting on me, anyway. However, starting in the second game, I sparked the team by scoring our first touchdown of the day, and we got on a roll and made it all the way to the semi-finals before being eliminated. In the two games that we lost, I didn't catch a single pass, but in the three games that we won, I caught 10 passes, including three touchdowns.
I wasn't the most talented player on the field, but much like Rocky during his career with the Steelers, I don't think my team would have gotten as far without my contributions.
A year later, in the same tournament, I didn't catch a pass in the first game, which we lost, and I didn't catch a pass in regulation in the second game. However, that game went into overtime, and after not doing a thing for the better part of two games, I caught the game winning touchdown in sudden-death overtime, and my team advanced to the next round of the tournament.
Super Bowl XIII between the Steelers and Dallas Cowboys is considered one of the most exciting Super Bowls of all time. It was a back-and-forth affair that saw many exciting, game-changing moments. Much like me in that second flag football tournament, Rocky Bleier didn't contribute much. He rushed for three yards, and only caught one pass, but that pass--a seven yard touchdown catch near the end of the first half--may have been the most pivotal of the day. In an unlikely display of athleticism, Bleier leapt in the air amid two or three Dallas defenders and came down in the end zone with a high, floating Terry Bradshaw pass. The touchdown broke a 14-14 tie, and in a game that the Steelers ultimately won, 35-31, one has to wonder what the outcome may have been without Bleier's key play.
Yes, Rocky Bleier was a player that I could certainly identify with. Much like the Rock, I've never been the quickest, biggest or strongest, but I'm a pretty solid and dependable contributor to any team that I'm on. And if you need a big play near the end of a close game, just call my number.
What about you? What Super Steeler could you most identify with? Being totally honest, were you the school-yard equivalent of a Hall of Fame talent, or like me, were you the Rocky Bleier of your athletic world?