The VVA Veteran® Online

November/December 2014

Rocky Bleier: Overcoming Long Odds

Courtesy Rocky BleierRocky Bleier was drafted twice, once by the NFL and once by the U.S. Army.

In February 1968 the running back from Notre Dame was selected in the 16th round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL draft. He was the 417th pick overall—not the last player chosen, but not far from it.

Bleier was used to overcoming long odds. At 5 feet, 9 inches and 195 pounds, he’d heard the rap countless times. Too slow. Too small.

The only way he knew how to counter that criticism was to keep on doing what he’d always done. Win.

From the moment he was born on March 5, 1946, the first of four children, Robert Patrick Bleier seemed a winner, at least to his father, who boasted to his friends that his baby boy already had muscles as hard as a rock. That’s how the nickname “Rocky” started.

Bleier himself points to “strong roots” that gave him the character he would need to overcome great obstacles and challenges. In the factory town of Appleton, Wisconsin, where he grew up, his grandfather worked in the paper mill. His father worked long hours at the bar he owned, a place where mill workers drank whiskey and beer.

The family lived above the bar, and Rocky became steeped in the blue-collar world that made him physically strong and mentally tough. “There was a certain work ethic that I grew up around, that I heard from my father and the guys in the bar: Whatever you do, be the best you can be.”

At Xavier High School, Bleier starred on the basketball and football teams. He was part of the first Notre Dame class recruited by its new coach, Ara Parseghian, who would become one of the most successful coaches in the school’s history. Bleier made the starting lineup his sophomore year, the 1966 season. That year Notre Dame won the national championship.

Going into training camp with the Steelers, Bleier didn’t see himself as just another late-round pick with slim odds. He was going to do whatever it took to make the team that had long been the doormat of the NFL. But some things were beyond his control.

In 1968 the war in Vietnam was at its height. That year communist forces launched an all-out attack against the United States and South Vietnamese forces, the Tet Offensive—one of the bloodiest phases of the war.

More than ever, young Americans were being drafted to fight in the war. Just a few months after graduating from Notre Dame, Bleier received a letter from the Selective Service classifying him 1-A. Bleier had already reported to the Steelers training camp, and team officials said they would try to help him. He took that to mean they would try to pull strings to get him into the National Guard or Reserves. But with so many young Americans in the same situation, those alternatives to the draft weren’t available.

Courtesy Rocky BleierBleier was ordered to report for induction on December 4, 1968. The following May he shipped out to Vietnam. He was an infantryman assigned to the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, stationed in Chu Lai. Though soldiers knew he had briefly been in the NFL, it wasn’t like he was a celebrity, especially playing for the lowly Steelers.

“I was an unknown football player on a losing football team,” Bleier said.

Each day companies from his battalion conducted sweeps around the landing zone they were assigned to protect. On August 20, 1969, when Bleier’s company went out to rescue some wounded soldiers from another company, his unit was ambushed.

Bleier rolled into a rice paddy for protection. While preparing to fire his grenade launcher, he took a bullet in the thigh. He got himself bandaged up, but the fighting intensified and Bleier’s unit suffered several other casualties.

Then a grenade bounced near him. He tried to jump out of the way, but it blew up under his right foot, shredding it with shrapnel. Subsequent operations would remove more than a hundred bits of metal from his foot.

During his recovery in Japan, Bleier remembers asking his doctor if he thought he could play football again. The doctor said he’d likely walk again, perhaps with a limp. But he should forget about ever playing football. “So that was a little downer,” Bleier said.

A few days later a postcard arrived from Art Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It simply read: “Rock—Team’s not doing well. We need you.—Art Rooney.”

“That was a little picker-upper, knowing someone cared,” Bleier said.

All he needed was a little encouragement. The rest was up to him.

“My mindset was I’d had enough injuries, as all football players do—sprained ankles, torn ligaments, things like that. You learn the same lesson. You get hurt. In time it heals. Then you rehab like hell and in time you play. That’s the process.”

That sounds simple enough. But for a running back, nearly everything depends on the foot, an intricate and complex system of small bones and nerve endings crucial to balance, speed, and agility. As his foot healed, Bleier needed another operation to remove the scar tissue that had rendered it inflexible.

With hard work and rehabilitation, Bleier slowly made progress. “I got back on a workout routine,” running, lifting weights, and doing stretching exercises, he said. “I wanted to come back and try to make this team.”

In the summer of 1970, fresh out of the Army, Bleier reported to the Steelers training camp. He didn’t make the team. But the Rooney family gave him the next best thing. The Steelers placed him on injured reserve and paid his salary that year.

“That’s the kind of family the Rooneys were,” Bleier said. “They bought me time. They bought me a chance.”

Bleier made the most of his chance. In 1971 he made the team’s taxi squad. The year after that he made the active player roster. That was enough of a feat in itself. But Bleier kept working.

In 1974 he earned a spot in the starting backfield alongside future Hall of Famer Franco Harris. The Steelers won their first Super Bowl that season. With Bleier in the backfield, the Steelers would win three more Super Bowls in the next five years.

As his fame grew, the media asked him about the war. He found it therapeutic to tell his story. “I got that chance to tell my story, unlike my fellow Vietnam veterans,” he said. “Nobody ever asked them how they felt.”

He was buoyed by the feedback he received from other Vietnam veterans who thanked him for being a positive role model—someone to counter the stereotypical image of the maladjusted veteran.

Over the years, Bleier has continued to tell his story. Recently he participated in an Army workshop on multigenerational relationships in the workplace.

Illustration: Travis KingIn his talks he encourages other veterans, including those just back from Afghanistan and Iraq, to tell their own stories, to help themselves and others understand their experiences.

“You should share your feelings with your family. They want to know what you did. It’s not all about combat or valor. It’s about your experience. And what it means to have served in the Army, Navy, Marines, or Air Force, as a mechanic, in personnel, the infantry, or whatever it is,” Bleier said. “Good, bad, or indifferent, it’s your experience.”

Unfortunately, Vietnam veterans “didn’t have a place to do that,” Bleier said. “You didn’t get into the VFW or the American Legion. So you’re isolated from that experience. And so for some, it just needs to be talked about.”

Dave Tarrant is a freelance writer in Dallas.

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