You wouldn't think football and military service would combine very well, despite the Army-Navy game. The prime time for military service is more or less the same time in which players are in college programs. But there are a number of Steelers who have served our country.
The situation is quite different during World War II, of course. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor some 600 NFL players entered the military. During the 1943 season the Steelers were down to six players, all of whom were ineligible for military service for one reason or another. One such player was Tony Bova, a Steelers receiver who was blind in one eye and partially blind in the other.
Steelers' owner Art Rooney came up with the idea of merging the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh teams, and the Steagles were born. (The official name was the "Phil-Pitt Combine," but it doesn't have quite the same ring as the "Steagles.") Bova became the leading receiver for the club.
One Steelers player who left the team to serve in the military was Bill Dudley. Dudley was drafted by the Steelers in 1942, the first overall pick, but decided to enlist in the Air Force. He wasn't actually taken until December, though, and consequently played his whole rookie season with the Steelers. Here's a quote from Dudley's obituary in the New York Times (February 2010:)
Playing single-wing tailback (the Steelers were the last team to convert to the "T" formation), Dudley led the N.F.L. in rushing, punt return yards and yards per kickoff return as a rookie. He also punted and played defensive back. He later did the place-kicking, too.
Dudley enjoyed his finest season after returning from his service in World War II, in 1946. He became one of only three players (Sammy Baugh and Steve Van Buren are the others) to lead the N.F.L. in three individual statistical categories in one year. He finished first in rushing, interceptions (both the number of picks and yards returned) and punt returns.
Dudley was the league MVP in 1946. He finished his career with the Lions and the Redskins, and after he retired he briefly served as a scout for the Steelers. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1966.
One player who appeared only briefly for the Steelers was Lieutenant General Ernest C. Cheatham Jr. He served in Japan and Korea from 1952-1954, but after this tour of duty gave the NFL a spin. He played defensive tackle for both the Steelers and the Baltimore Colts during the 1954 season, but decided to return to the military in 1955. He served in Vietnam, and was awarded a Navy Cross for his service in 1968, among several other honors. You can read more about him here.
Several other players post-World War II players served in the military, most notably Andy Russell and Rocky Blier.
Andy Russell was drafted by the Steelers in 1963, Pick No. 220. He played out his rookie year, but had to leave the team to fulfill his ROTC requirements. He was stationed in Germany for two years, and returned to Pittsburgh in 1966.
Russell played for the Steelers for the next eleven seasons, until 1976. He was the Steelers' MVP in 1971 and made the Pro Bowl seven times. He has two Super Bowl rings from his years as a linebacker in the famed Steel Curtain. Here is the website for his charitable foundation, which has more information about him.
And finally, Rocky Bleier. He was drafted by the Steelers with Pick No. 417 and played his rookie season. He was drafted by Uncle Sam in December of 1968, and volunteered for service in Vietnam. He was wounded, both by a rifle shot in one leg and shrapnel from a grenade in the other foot and leg. He received both the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
Bleier was told by the doctors in the military hospital in Japan that he would never play football again, but Art Rooney had different ideas, as Bleier relates in this ESPN interview in November of 2009:
...[W]hen I was in Tokyo, the one thing that was on my mind was coming back [home] and playing [football]. And now that I was hurt, my question was, "OK, doc, what do you think? Can I play?" I did not lose a limb, I did not lose my legs, so it was just like, "OK, fine, it's an injury. How serious is the injury? What do you think about coming back and playing?" And the doctor, in his rush -- he has many guys to take care of -- is just like, "Don't worry about it, you've got your legs, you'll have a normal life." And I tell people, it was kind of like you suck that hope out, your chance to play. Shortly thereafter I got a postcard in the mail and it was from Art Rooney. It said, "Rock, team's not doing well. We need you. Art Rooney." And you go, "Wow, somebody has a concern. Somebody has an interest in you," and I think that becomes very important in thinking you might be able to come back and play. That was a part of what Art had always done. Not only taking care of his players, but he had that kind of reputation of sending postcards to people. That was well before cell phones, that was well before Twitter, Facebook and voice mail and anything else. That's how he communicated. Nothing long, just short notes in postcards. That was very impactful at that time in my life.
As we all know, he did come back, although it was not easy or quick. In fact, if it had not been for the generosity of Art Rooney he most likely would have never had that second chance. In August of 2009 Bleier gave an interview to maryrose of Behind the Steel Curtain, and to whet your appetite to read the entire article I will leave you with this quote. Please don't miss it. It is one of the finest pieces I have ever seen on this site:
What followed [Blier's discharge from the Army] is a lesson in human determination that is difficult to fathom. Bleier took shock therapy treatments. He stretched with large rubber bands. He ran before dawn, lifted weights and ran sprints every day. On weekends, he ran the steps of the Kansas State University stadium with 10-pound weights on his ankles. He ate every vitamin known to mankind and supplements like wheat germ and calf's liver.
"I just wanted to play football more than anything else in the world," recalled Bleier. "I was a bachelor. Football was my life and my dream at the time. Nothing else mattered. I loved the game so much. I didn't want to look back later in life and regret not giving the game every ounce I had."
I hope you all enjoy blowing up stuff and eating lots of great food tonight. (Do use discretion, especially in the "blowing stuff up" part.) But let us never forget the sacrifices of many men and women, past and present, which allow us to live our lives in freedom. And to all of you readers who are active military personnel I render my deepest thanks. I hope and pray you will all return safely, and soon.