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November 11, 2009

Inspirational Veteran's Day Story

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November 11, 2009

Colts' spokesman lost his legs in Iraq, but not his heart

By Phil Richards

You might not know Josh Bleill, but if you attended the Indianapolis Colts' game Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, you've met him, in a sense. He's the guy who led the national anthem.
Yeah, the one with metal legs.
Bleill (pronounced like Kyle) is a 32-year-old Greenfield, Ind., native and the Colts' community spokesman.
He has a story to tell.
He was a Marine lance corporal serving in Fallujah, Iraq, when, on Oct. 15, 2006, his Humvee -- and his world -- were blown upside down.
The roadside bomb went off directly beneath his seat. Two buddies were killed and a third grievously wounded.
The blast took both of Bleill's legs above the knee. His hip was crushed and his pelvis dislocated. He suffered a concussion, a broken jaw and an assortment of broken fingers and lacerations.
Football played a role in his long journey back.
Physicians spent 41/2 weeks putting Bleill back together at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Then he was transferred to Walter Reed Medical Center for rehabilitation. He had been there about a month when he got an offer he couldn't refuse.
An NFL owner whose identity he doesn't know had donated Super Bowl XLI tickets to the Marine Corps. The Colts were playing the Chicago Bears. Bleill had been a Colts fan most of his life; he has a photo of himself as a 10-year-old, getting wide receiver/kick returner Clarence Verdin's autograph.
Bleill was conflicted. He was in a wheelchair. He hadn't left the hospital since he'd been wounded. He was afraid to leave the hospital.
"I was so different," he said.
Super Bowl XLI was the first played in the rain. It rained from the opening kick to the final whistle.
"We sat in the rain like Marines," Bleill said.

The game was more than a soaker, more than a Colts victory. It was eye-opening, healing, transformative.
"There were thousands and thousands of people and I didn't care what they thought," Bleill said. "I saw Tony Dungy, a man of faith, being successful and outspoken about it. I saw a new mission for me."
It was a turning point, said Tim Lang, 24, the Marine gunner who occupied the seat next to Bleill in that bloody Humvee.
"It gave him hope: 'I don't have to be as miserable as I've been,' " said Lang, Jackson, Mich., who lost his right leg and is back at Walter Reed for further treatment. "His whole tone changed."
Another turning point came, Lang said, when the Super Bowl champion Colts stopped at Walter Reed on their way to the White House on April 23, 2007.
Running back Joseph Addai spent 45 minutes talking with Bleill. Addai's best friend and high school teammate, LaJuan Moore, suffered a spinal cord injury during a prep game that left him paralyzed from the waist down.

"LaJuan had a lot of questions, a lot of questions," Addai said. "I could feel a little of what was going on with (Bleill) and kind of talked to him about certain things."

Bleill also met Jim Irsay. The Colts owner was deeply impressed by Bleill's intellect, spirit and determination. He told Bleill to get well, to get home and come to see him about a job when he did.
Bleill emerged after 15 surgeries and nearly two years in hospitals with 32 pins in his hip, a 6-inch screw in his pelvis and an assortment of different prosthetic legs for different activities.
He went to work for the team in April. His self-described mission is to get "into the backyards of Colts fans." He tells his story and the team's at schools and churches and American Legion halls, and he recently visited a ninth-grader who had lost a foot in an accident. The teenager had many of the same issues and questions Bleill had faced. Bleill provided encouragement and some answers.
"He's very talented and bright-eyed and skilled," Irsay said. "Josh had one of the toughest roads of all in recovering and finding a way to live his life to the fullest. I know he's going to touch many lives for us."
The guy who was afraid to leave the hospital because he was so different stood on the Lucas Oil Stadium field Sunday. He wore shorts. He led the home crowd of 66,033 in the national anthem.
Happy Veterans Day.


  1. *tears* thank you for sharing. What an inspiring story.

  2. Very inspiring. My cousin was sent to Iraq. Thankfully he was discharged only a few months in.


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