As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
A river runs this way; another runs that way. They converge at a magical peninsula to form a third, which meanders west and flows into one of the nation’s most romanticized arteries. It reminds of bit of this place, our peninsula, where the Patuxent and Potomac Rivers empty, not too far apart, into the Chesapeake Bay.
Other than the confluence of waterways and geography, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with its massive buildings, sports stadiums and surrounding mountainous terrain, appears to have little in common with St. Mary’s County, Maryland. But something happened in Pittsburgh, many decades ago, that applies broadly to the human experience, no matter where on this precious globe one resides.
Roberto Clemente and Terry Bradshaw were both born with rocket right arms and brought six combined championships to Pittsburgh – Clemente won two World Series’ with the Pirates and Bradshaw won four Super Bowls with the Steelers. Beyond that, and like the aforementioned peninsulas, they appeared wholly dissimilar. Clemente arrived in Pittsburgh in 1955, a full 15 years before Bradshaw. Clemente hailed from Puerto Rico; Bradshaw made his way to the steel town from Shreveport, Louisiana. Bradshaw was outspoken, flamboyant and white; Clemente, a Latino, was more reserved and rightfully suspicious of a country that was, suffice to say, very much struggling to reflect its touted creed of human equality.
Appearances can deceive. In addition to sharing powerful arms and championship mettle, both Clemente and Bradshaw struggled to adapt to life in professional sports and to a city that must have felt like a foreign land. Clemente’s troubles were rooted in overt and subtle racism. Early in his career he experienced the shameful injustices of a segregated America. The press often shortened his first name from Roberto to the more Anglo-American sounding “Bob” and printed unflattering transcripts of interviews he would give in English (Clemente’s first language was Spanish…I wonder how many media members who mocked him could speak a word of Spanish?).
Bradshaw was lost early in his career. He had an acrimonious relationship with head coach Chuck Noll, was booed regularly by Steelers fans and, after four seasons, had thrown only 48 touchdown passes and an astonishing 81 interceptions. The former number-one overall pick in the 1970 looked like a complete bust, not someone who would one day have a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And even after his career took off, Bradshaw held a decades long grudge against the fans and Noll for the perceived mistreatment.
Pirates fans grew to adore Clemente for his play on the field; his impact off the diamond transcended Pittsburgh and baseball through his passionate commitment to humanitarian efforts, a calling that tragically cost him his life in a plane crash in December 1972 while transporting aid to Nicaragua. Clemente was just 38 years old.
While Pittsburgh and white America had to get over itself to finally appreciate Clemente, Bradshaw’s catharsis came only after years of introspection and acceptance that his perceived slights were rooted in his own pride and immaturity. When Bradshaw finally unclenched his fist and returned to Pittsburgh in 2002 after a multi-decade absence, he found a city and coach waiting to embrace a long-estranged son.
There is much to absorb from these two stories. It’s easy to imagine Clemente and Bradshaw, two great professors of life, standing at the front of a crowded lecture hall sharing timeless wisdom. Clemente would speak of the importance of inner strength, pride in oneself and a relentless determination to give more to the world than returns, no matter how fundamentally it fails you. Bradshaw’s lecture would focus inward – to understand ourselves, how our psychological wiring impacts relationships, the trappings of immaturity and hubris, and the burden of harboring grudges. From both, the lesson is this: It is never too late. People can change. The world can change. We are all, individually and collectively, a work in progress.
And with that, a distant bell sounds, students quietly exit the lecture hall, all with a mountain of notes and a lot to consider - perhaps during a quiet afternoon while watching water drift along on either side of their favorite peninsula.