When a grenade came rolling at Rocky Bleier during a fierce enemy assault at the height of the Vietnam War, his football instincts took over.
The small explosive "hit my commanding officer right in the back, but it didn't go off on contact; it had a timed fuse," said Bleier, who won four Super Bowl rings as a running back on the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s. "And here it comes toward me.
An Army veteran who has a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart along with his Super Bowl jewelry, Bleier is part of NFL lore. As a result of the grenade blast, infection set in, and he suffered nerve damage in his foot. It took him nearly two years to battle his way into the Steelers' starting lineup in 1973. Three seasons later, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards.
While Bleier talked about "football reaction" to describe his efforts to avoid that grenade, he said that the overlapping experiences of the football field and the battlefield go far beyond that single moment.
"You talk about war and combat ... and it's really all football. Or at least football got it from the military," he said. "You're talking offense and defense. You're talking about flanks. You're talking about blitzes. The strategy, the terminology. There are all those commonalities."
From academicians to comedians to the league's own chronicler of the games, the observation has often been made that football and militarism merge in ways metaphorical and real. Comic George Carlin famously made the point in a monologue:
"In football, the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun."
Sociologists make a more serious argument.
"The connective tissue between sport and warfare revolves around the social construction of masculinity," said Donald Sabo, director of the Center for Research on Physical Activity, Sport and Health at D'Youville College in Buffalo, N.Y. The sociology professor has written about how the Gulf War was couched in sports terms to help make it palatable to the American public.
Sabo, who played inside linebacker at the State University of New York, Buffalo, where future NFL head coach Buddy Ryan was an assistant coach, said that the more important similarities between football and the military are in the preparations for battle.
"There is a heavy emphasis on control and conformity," Sabo said, describing the football experience as a rite of passage for young males into manhood. "The coach controls the lives of the athletes right down to the dietary, what they should and shouldn't eat."
The segue to the military, he said, is obvious, "except it's not the coach giving orders, it's the colonel."
"And the rituals usually involve pain, and that's to be accepted," Sabo added.
Persevering through pain and physical hardship is standard fare in pro football's self-portrait as depicted in countless NFL Films story lines. Every fan has seen it. In slow motion, frozen vapor curls from the facemasks of big men poised on the line of scrimmage, knuckles pressed to the ground, martial musical thundering in the background, and then the battle is joined.
While some might view the methods and means of sports, especially as they relate to preparation for the military, as less than wholesome, others see the connection differently.
"I certainly got a lot out of the Naval Academy, especially playing the position I did," said former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, who served in a noncombat role in Vietnam. "It taught me the essence of leadership, which, I think, is showing that you're willing to work as hard as your people."
Staubach's transitions from football to the military and back to football were almost seamless.
"The military is the essence of teamwork ... and getting people to accept the spirit of that on a football team is the name of the game," he said.
"It comes down to perseverance and resiliency," said Staubach, who runs an international commercial real estate company that has a branch office in Baltimore. " ... When you get knocked down, you don't give up. You hold onto your values, and you keep your faith."
Bleier, who does motivational speaking and runs a construction company, is quick to say he is as proud of his military service as he is of his years on a championship NFL team. But he also points out that reality often differs from the public perception of glorious struggle, and that football and war have darker sides that linger.
Players unwisely play hurt, he said, because they want to show they're "tough ... and because it's part of the lore and the legend of the game."
"The downside is what we see today, more and more players having chronic pain or mental conditions that lead to depression," Bleier said. "And one of the terrible downsides of war is the post-traumatic stress that we see even right now in people coming back from Iraq. Whether it's war or football ... there can be a huge price to be paid."
Painful rites of passage
Football exemplifies link between sports, war
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