Strength coach lifts Packers' spirits, too, from his wheelchair

December 13, 1990|By Ray Didinger | Ray Didinger,Knight-Ridder

GREEN BAY, Wis. BOB WIELAND is unlike any other coach in the National Football League. At 44, he is an author, a triathlete and a world-class power-lifter.

He leads his team, the Green Bay Packers, in sprints after practice. He has bench-pressed 507 pounds, more than any player on the roster. He works an average of 12 hours a day as the Packers' strength and conditioning guru.

So please, spare the sympathy.

Wieland lost both legs in Vietnam 21 years ago, but he is not a charity case. He is a coach. Got that? A coach. So put away the violins, folks. Wieland doesn't need them.

"Most people can't see past the wheelchair," said Wieland, a Milwaukee native who was added to the Packers' staff by coach Lindy Infante last month. "They mean well, but they don't understand. I came here to do a job, the same as anybody else.

"A few weeks ago, CBS put the camera on me during a game and the announcer called me 'the Packers' good-luck charm.' That bothered me. I mean, why couldn't he say the Packers brought in a world-class athlete to help with their strength program? That would have been the truth.

"If I thought Lindy wanted me as some kind of token gesture, I would have passed. But I know my field [weight training] and I can help these players improve. That's what this is all about. A good-luck charm doesn't work the hours I work [7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday]."

Wieland admits it might be hard for people to understand how all this happened. His road to the NFL was, to say the least, unusual.

A month ago, Wieland was a motivational speaker and physical education teacher at Cal State-Los Angeles. A friend, ex-Packer Paul Coffman, arranged for him to speak at the Green Bay team chapel service before the Nov. 11 game against the Raiders.

Wieland was such a hit that several players asked Infante if he would allow the Vietnam veteran to address the entire squad in the locker room. The coach agreed.

After hearing Wieland speak -- and watching the Packers respond with a 29-16 win over the Raiders -- Infante was intrigued.

The coach studied Wieland's credentials: former four-sport star at Greenfield (Wis.) High School; competitive weightlifter; flexibility coach at Cal State for six years; lifelong Packers fan, dating back to the Vince Lombardi era.

"It all added up," said Infante, who asked Wieland if he would move back to Wisconsin and take over the Green Bay weight room, effective immediately.

Wieland accepted Infante's offer and the Pack promptly ran its winning streak to three games with victories over Phoenix (24-21) and Tampa Bay (20-10). Hence, the label of good-luck charm.

The Packers cooled off the last two weeks, losing to Minnesota (23-7) and Seattle (20-14). This Sunday, they meet the Philadelphia Eagles at Veterans Stadium in a crossroads game for two slumping wild-card contenders. The Eagles are 7-6, Green Bay is 6-7.

Wieland will be in his wheelchair on the sideline, cheering on the Pack, as usual. This will be his first visit to the Philadelphia area since 1969, when he spent five months at the Valley Forge Army Hospital, recuperating from the mortal shell blast that almost took his life.

Wieland was a medic with the 25th Infantry Division on a search-and-destroy mission near Saigon in June 1969. He stepped on and detonated a booby-trapped 82mm shell.

"I went flying in one direction and my legs went flying in another," Wieland said. "Some newspaper articles have said my legs were amputated. They were actually blown off. That's a little different."

Wieland was unconscious for a week. He was kept alive on a life-support system. He contracted malaria and his weight dropped to 87 pounds. His temperature climbed to 105 degrees. Somehow, he managed to survive.

Wieland is convinced it was God's will that he pull through. As he puts it, "I realized God had a plan for my life." He became a "born-again" Christian and, after his recovery, he spread the word at schools, churches and prisons across the country.

Wieland gained national attention with a one-man march from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., starting in September 1982. Wieland wore rubber pads on both hands and a leather strap under his torso. He literally dragged himself across the country, one yard at a time.

Originally, Wieland thought the journey would take one year. He was wrong. It took three years, eight months and six days. He finally arrived at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington on May 4, 1986.

Wieland's walk raised more than $315,000 in pledges for the disabled vets. He wrote a book about the experience titled "One Step at a Time." His message was simple: "You're alive, so use your life to the fullest."

Wieland became such an accomplished weightlifter that in 1977, he actually broke the world record in the bench press in his weight class. The record never went in the books, however, because there is a rule that states the competitor must be wearing shoes when he lifts.

For obvious reasons, Wieland did not qualify.

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