Salute to Service: Steelers in the Military

via Post-Gazette, Peter Diana photo

Last year I wrote an article for Behind the Steel Curtain prior to annual NFL Salute to Service game. Antonio Brown had focused that week’s “What It Is” video on the topic, and during his interviews with various of his teammates, Troy Polamalu commented that the Steelers had a veteran on the team.

He then gave a very moving speech about the men and women who serve our country. No one has a better right to do so, because Polamalu and his wife are very active in raising money to assist veterans as part of their foundation. At the end of the article you will find information on their foundation.

My article was naturally focused on Alejandro Villanueva. I won’t repeat the information, because I did a much more extensive article on him for this site a few months ago as part of my Character (Ac)counts series. You can read it here. I finished the article with these words:

This combination of size and athleticism has to be intriguing [to the Steelers] and I very much hope the Steelers can find a way to put all of that physical talent to use. He already clearly has the sort of heart we wish to see from our players.

According to ProFootballTalk, Villanueva has said that if he does not make an NFL roster, he plans to serve a fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan. He commented, “I see this as a win-win situation. Obviously, I’m trying to get to a team and contribute. But if I can’t, then I can’t wait to get back to the Army and serve in the same manner that I have.”

So from my heart, and the heart of Steeler Nation, I thank you, Captain Villanueva, for your brave service to our country, and I wish you all the best. Whether you ever play a down in an NFL game or not, I’m thankful that we have men like you on our team.

In this week’s “What It Is” video, Brown spoke to several players, including James Harrison, who called members of the armed services “the real heroes” and sent his thanks. Antwon Blake noted that a number of his family members have served in the military, including his grandfather, who received a Purple Heart. A picture of him in his military cap is tattooed on Blake’s left forearm.

AB then interviewed Alejandro Villanueva. Brown began by noting he had served in the armed forces and that he wanted to honor him. Villanueva: “Thanks, man. During the two years I’ve been here I’ve been hearing this from my teammates.” After a bit more back and forth, Villanueva added:

To all the men and women that are serving overseas and are currently on active duty, reserves, National Guard, we really appreciate what you do, and it means a lot for us that you protect our freedom everyday.

For this year’s video someone obviously told AB you don’t salute with your left hand. This time he carefully held the microphone in his left hand and saluted with his right. That’s what we like to see in our players—attention to detail.

During the preseason Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette began an article on Villanueva with these words:

Tackle Alejandro Villanueva, says teammate Ramon Foster, is not one to sit on the sidelines. He did not mean football either, although the way Villanueva’s career has ascended with the Pittsburgh Steelers, that might be said as well.

The fact he had three tours of combat duty as an Army Ranger captain in Afghanistan and is on the brink of earning a roster spot with the Steelers would be inspirational enough. That he also did not play football for five years, that he first signed last year as a defensive end with the Philadelphia Eagles and could become the Steelers’ No. 3 offensive tackle is right up there with the Rocky Bleier story.

Make that “the Steelers starting left tackle.”

But Alejandro is hardly the first Steelers to have served his country—there are a number of Steelers who did so. But most of them are a good deal less known to today’s fans.

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. So Art Rooney came up with the idea of merging the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh teams, and the Steagles were born.

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.

Andy Russell also served in the military. He was drafted by the Steelers in 1963 at Pick No. 220. He played out his rookie year, but left 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. 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.

A story such as this would scarcely be complete without Rocky Bleier. As Roxanna Firehall noted in his post, The Good Guys—My Favorite Steelers Running Backs, Rocky Bleier was not only a veteran but was severely wounded. Do check out the post if you haven’t already. Besides the usual info it contains a personal experience Roxanna had with Blier.

The Rocky Bleier story has been told many times and in many ways, and for me it not only puts a spotlight on a worthy former Steeler but on the way the Rooneys have run the organization.

After being wounded in both feet and legs, Bleier was told by the doctors in the military hospital in Japan that he would never play football again. 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?”…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. Do check out the full article, which is still available:

What followed [Bleier’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.

The article goes on to note what happened when he returned to the team:

He reported to Steelers camp in the summer of 1970, less than one year after his right foot was nearly destroyed.  Chuck Noll was graceful, but he had a professional football team to run.  He decided to put Bleier on waivers.  The Rocky Bleier story would likely have ended at this point, except for one simple stroke of luck.  Bleier was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were owned by a gentleman named Arthur J. Rooney…He changed Chuck Noll’s waiver orders and placed Bleier on Injured Reserve.

This unnecessary act of kindness cost Mr. Rooney $20,000, which was Bleier’s salary.  It allowed Bleier to concentrate on rehab instead of worrying about gainful employment.  Rooney also reached into his pocket to pay for a third operation.  Bleier’s medical bills were the responsibility of the U.S. Government, but Rooney wanted the Steelers team doctor to perform the surgery.  More shrapnel was removed and scar tissue was ripped apart to promote flexibility.  With the outlook of playing professional football still looking bleak, Rooney allowed Bleier to work in the scouting department to give him a head start on an alternate career, if needed.  It was Rooney being Rooney, on a level unto himself.

We all know the end to that story. And what a happy one it was.

The NFL is holding their official Salute to Service today. I won’t go into the gory details recently released about how they have managed to get the US Military to pay for it with our tax dollars. I would rather not tarnish the story. And frankly, considering the myriad of things my tax dollars help pay for that I don’t approve, this one is pretty benign. But the NFL ought to be paying for it themselves, if they are in fact grateful to the military. It’s a bit like the time my husband took my mother and I out for lunch on Mother’s Day and paid for it with my credit card.

But however it gets done, I’m glad it is happening. Like Antwan Blake, I have friends and relations who are either former or current members of the military, and to them I say thank you, Godspeed, and please come back safely.

Here is the promised information on the Polamalu foundation:

Named after Theodora Polamalu’s maternal grandfather who fought in WWII, The Harry Panos Fund for Veterans, a fund of the Pittsburgh Foundation, is dedicated to helping those who bravely served our country in foreign wars.


During WWII, Harry Panos served as an artilleryman in the battles of Okinawa and Saipan. The stories of what he endured during those times are an inspiration to both Troy and Theodora. Troy became interested in helping veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006, after he had visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital. He was inspired by the resiliency of a young woman, of about 18 or 19 years old, who had lost her limbs in combat in Iraq. The fund will focus on assisting US veterans of foreign wars, who are currently dealing with health issues and/or financial problems.

Current Causes
  • Operation Once and a Lifetime
  • VA Hospital – Pittsburgh
  • Military Focused Charitable Opportunities (as they arise)



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