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The Steelers Receiver Who Could Catch Passes Blind

The Steelers Receiver Who Could Catch Passes Blind

The Pittsburgh Steelers, like a lot of teams in the NFL, had to do unusual things to make ends meet during World War II and virtually every player was classified 4F which meant they were medically ineligible for military service. I am reading a fascinating book by Steve Massey Starless: The 1947 Pittsburgh Steelers and it has some great background information on the Steelers teams of WWII leading up to the 1947 season. One player in particular from the war time Steelers, really captured my attention.

Men that were classified 4F for the draft did not stop trying to enlist. It was a much different time in America and the thought of not doing your part for the country was strong motivation. So strong in fact that many 15 and 16 year old’s were faking ID’s so that they go off and fight for their country. The group of people who received 4F status often felt a sense of shame and often overcompensated by going above and beyond to prove their patriotism by trying to do their part at home.

Anthony J. Bova, better known as “Tony” played football for St. Francis in Pennsylvania. In 1942, he enlisted in the U.S Navy and was due to report as a Seabee in February of 1943. Bova played the 1942 season with the Steelers starting 10 games playing defense and offense for Walt Kiesling’s 7-4 Steelers who finished second in the Eastern Conference. Bova was excited to report for duty to the Seabee’s in 1943 to do his part for the war effort. He was discharged shortly after reporting for duty. The U.S. Navy decided that despite volunteering, they just couldn’t use him. Bova was essentially blind.

You read that correctly. He was completely blind in one eye and legally blind in the other. Bova had played college football and a year of professional football running pass routes with blurry vision and rushing quarterbacks who he probably couldn’t see clearly. Players didn’t wear facemasks in the 1940’s and Bova played without glasses. It is amazing he caught 3 passes in 1942 for the Steelers and I marvel at the concentration it must have taken to haul those balls in.

Stories of the Pittsburgh Steelers Early Coaches

You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet


After being discharged in 1943, Bova rejoined Pittsburgh who elected to play the infamous Steagle season. Bova once again played both ways for the hybrid squad, but under Kiesling who was coaching the offense, he led the NFL in yards per catch with a 24.7 yards per catch average. He caught 17 balls for 419 yards. I am willing to bet if you stood 20 yards away from Mr. Bova and held up your fingers like you were recreating a scene from My Cousin Vinny that he would be looking for new set of glasses.

I am sure that in today’s NFL, a man who could not see would not play professional football and would not even get on a high school varsity team — but it makes the accomplishment even more impressive in my opinion. Bova was not a one hit wonder either. He caught 19 balls the next year for one of the worst professional football teams of all-time, the 0-10 Chi Pit Cards/Steelers and no I am not abbreviating that name. His yards per catch fell to 15.1 yards but he was a viable offensive weapon.

In 1945, the Pittsburgh Steelers retook the field as themselves and Bova was again an integral part of the receiving corps catching 15 passes for 215 yards and 14.3 yards per catch. War era baseball is often looked down on from 1942-45 as older players who hung on or came out of retirement to augment the 4F products on the field. Baseball did not return to normal until 1946. The NFL wasn’t quite full strength, but close in 1945 as many players returned to the field. Bova was one of the 4F war time products who managed to not only stay on the field, but was an important contributor.

By 1946, at full strength the Steelers stuck with Bova as a two-way player, although he caught only six balls for the squad averaging a whopping 28.5 yards per catch. He had played five seasons as essentially a blind man in the NFL. He returned for a sixth and final season in 1947 and did not catch a pass, but still contributed on defense. I would encourage you to read about his contributions to the 1947 team in Mr. Massey’s book; it is a fascinating look back.

Hall of Fame Effort

Although Bova was only in the military a short time, he is on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Honor Roll in Canton, OH which lists the over 1,000 NFL personnel who served the military during WWII. We all know the story of Rocky Bleier and the trials he endured to become a Steelers legend. I have been rooting for the Steelers for a long time and I did not know the story about a blind receiver who led the league in yards per catch. Seems tailor made for a movie script. However, like a lot of his generation, he probably didn’t point out his vision issues and would have probably been embarrassed by his condition.


Photo Via Pro Football Hall of Fame

One thing is for sure, Tony Bova did not settle for participation trophies in his football career and made the most of what he was given. I suspect the only participation trophy he wanted would have been on his DD 214 after completing at least two years of service in the U.S. Navy.


What do you think of a blind man catching passes in the NFL, Steeler Nation? Please comment below or on my Twitter @thebubbasq.

I have been rooting for the Steelers actively since 1975. I love the Black and Gold and support them through thick and thin. I am a Navy Veteran, living in Jacksonville, FL and never miss a chance to go to the neutral site games here in Jacksonville. I am new to the Steeler Nation website, but I love discussing Steelers Past, Present and Future.

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