Special thanks for ESPN for helping make this interview happen. A new film about Rocky, The Return, will air on August 20th, featuring Rocky’s story, and his return to Vietnam where he sustained his injuries 50 years ago. Rocky’s story - of going from the NFL to Vietnam, to being wounded in action, being told he will never again play football, and clawing his way back to the NFL to win 4 Super Bowls is absolutely inspiring.
Not falling within the ideal of what a running back should look like, Bleier had to run harder and play smarter to be able to stand out. Despite his drive and ability to make the big play, the Pittsburgh Steelers only considered him a late round pick. But before the season ended that first year, he was drafted again…this time by the United States Army. At the height of the Vietnam War, Bleier was thrust into combat early and was seriously wounded when his platoon ran into an ambush. Receiving wounds from both rifle fire and grenade fragments in his legs, he was barely able to walk and his professional football career seemed to have ended before it began…
For more than two years, he drove himself. Little by little he overcame obstacles and fought his way back. He not only made the Pittsburgh Steelers, but also eventually became a starting running back on a team that won four Super Bowls and became the greatest football team of the 20th century.
The hard lessons Rocky Bleier learned early in his life that helped him overcome adversity and reach his goals, have paid off after football. These lessons are seen between the lines in the popular book on his life, "Fighting Back" and on stages of speaking appearances around the country.
This episode of Beyond the Uniform is sponsored by Warfighter Hemp, who’s mission is to provide our nation’s veterans with an organic, non-addictive, non-psychoactive means to manage pain, lower anxiety, and improve the overall quality of their lives. 50% of Warfigher Hemp’s profits go back to Veterans. In episode #218 I spoke with Warfighter Hemp’s founder, Steve, and since then I’ve been a fan of both their company and their products. Warfighter Hemp is offering BTU listeners 20% of their first purchase using the promo code BTU20 - that’s BTU20. Thanks and enjoy today’s episode.
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Transcript & Time Stamps:
Joining me today from Pittsburgh, PA is Rocky Bleier. At the end of your rookie season in the NFL, you received news that you were going to be drafted. What did that feel like?
For those of us at that time, it was something that was at the back of your mind. You knew you were eligible to be drafted. I received my draft classification at the end of my first NFL training camp. At that time, a lot of players were going into the National Guard or Reserves.
It was 1968 at the height of the war. It became more and more on my mind that getting drafted would be a possibility. Then I got my draft notification in November. They wanted me to report the next morning. I went to the Steelers front office and they went with me the next morning. But the best they could do for me was a 24 hour extension to give me time to get my things together.
I just reacted to that situation as it happened. There were thousands of men going through the same process. I saw it as fulfilling an obligation. I was on a bus the next day to fly down to basic training. There wasn’t much time to think too much about it.
What do you remember from the engagement in which you became wounded?
Charlie Company was sitting on LZ Siberia. We operated two companies on LZ’s landing zones and two companies in the field. You would rotate between these.
Our sister company was hit and we were to fly off and help them. In the middle of getting the company out of that area, we ran into a firefight. We had to leave American bodies there and come back and get them two days later. We went back to get the bodies and were given direction to go out into a rice patty. My point man was about forty yards in front of me. We saw movement across the berm and the point man fired against the enemy. Everyone got drawn out onto the rice patty and we started hearing machine gun fire. I got down and discharged my grenade against the enemy but during that action, I also got hit for the first time.
About twenty minutes later, we set up another perimeter. I caught a grenade out of the corner of my eye. I saw it hit my Commanding Officer and then come toward me. It blew up right under me. Eventually the sister company came down to help get us out of there.
How did you go from lying in your hospital bed to returning to the NFL?
As kids, you get injured. You learn that you get injuries and they hurt. But then you go back and play again. In high school and college you get sprains and torn ligaments. It’s that learned process of dealing with injuries and eventually healing and bouncing back.
The doctor’s diagnosis was that I would ever be able to play football again. I was grateful to not lose my foot or my leg. So I just started to go through rehab and see where it took me. I wasn’t a fast guy to begin with so running with speed wasn’t really an issue.
During my time rehabbing, I ran into a young soldier that was a triple amputee. He stopped by my bed, he’d ask I was doing. He had a really positive attitude. I was feeling sorry for myself and he was living as a triple amputee and was staying extremely positive.
I also got a postcard from Art Rooney. He told me the team wasn’t doing well and that they needed me. That gave me a window of hope that they cared and wanted me back.
I knew there was a lot of work that would need to get done but I never thought that I couldn’t return to the NFL.
Can you talk about the mindset that you used to get you back into the NFL?
When I was still in the service before I got discharged, there was a rehab process I had to go through. My goal was to go back to training camp in July of that year. I got up at 5:30 and went out and ran to the best of my ability. Then I would go to work. After work, I would go to the gym and do my lifting. I would then go home and try to run some sprints. The next day, I would do that all over again.
One of the things I truly believed was that the choice of me playing again was the decision of the choice or owner. All I could do was do everything I possibly could to allow the coach to make a decision in my favor.
The season I was a rookie we did not have a winning record. I came back in 1970 and the team was in a rebuilding phase. I went to training camp that year and it really took a toll. The Steelers put me on the Injured Reserve list. I needed to have an additional surgery to remove shrapnel from my foot.
I went back the following year and I made the development team. During that time, they saw me as someone that worked hard. They continued to offer me opportunities to improve. I credit the Rooney family for giving me the time I needed to improve. In 1973, I came into training camp in the best shape I had been in my life. All my hard work was starting to pay off and I made the team.
I had self doubts along the way. During the rehab process, I had moments in which I lacked hope. But I kept taking things day to day and eventually made the team. But after the 1973 season, I felt ready to retire. That off-season, I was in Chicago selling insurance. I was invited to a player dinner by Andy Russell. I declined because I wasn’t planning on playing in 1974. He asked me why and I told him that I wasn’t going back to the NFL. He told me that by doing that, I was making the decision for the coaching staff instead of going back, putting my best effort in and letting them make the decision from there. That conversation changed my mind and I went back. 1974 ended up being the start of the rest of my career. I was able to break into the starting lineup and everything went from there.
You have impacts on individuals that you will never know or think about. It’s something you said that left an impression on someone else. What Andy said to me really left an impact and things could have been completely different if I had never had that conversation with him. Another one of those moments for me was when I received the postcard from Mr. Rooney when I was still recovering in the hospital. Getting that postcard left an impression on me and pushed me to get back to football.
What are the best moments that stand out to you during your football career?
I don’t know if there’s really one moment. The first time I got a chance to start an NFL game really sticks out to me. Another one is winning the division and going to the SuperBowl for the first time.
Having children and raising a family is another great memory for me. I’m also grateful to have the opportunity to create positive impact on other people’s lives by sharing my experiences.
With the opportunities I’ve had, I feel a responsibility to help other veterans and people in the community in any way that I can.
Why did you write the book Fighting Back?
Terry O’Neill gave me a call right before I was about to play in SuperBowl IX. He told me to just record my thoughts during my SuperBowl experience. From there, we started writing the book. We had an initial publishing and then more recently published version with some additional chapters and photos. All the proceeds go to veteran organizations.
What would you like listeners to know about ESPN’s film The Return?
It was an interesting experience. It was a ten year process of trying to get it all together. Tom Rinaldi was the interviewer for the film. I told him about the perception of Vietnam veterans coming back to the United States- how in many cases they were rejected by society. For me it was a little bit different because I came back and eventually ended up making it in the NFL. In that way, I got a chance to talk about my feelings and that was cathartic for me.
We went back to the rice paddies in Vietnam and Tom asked me how I felt. All the sudden, I had an overwhelming sense of loss. I broke down and started to cry. I started to not feel very well and I ended up passing out. I came to a short time later and we started to head back to Danang. During that trip, I looked out the window and saw how the country had changed since I had last been there. A couple days later, we again went back to the rice paddy. I started to cry again thinking about the reality of what had happened. 58,000 military personnel had died during the Vietnam War and I wondered for what. It was very difficult being back there but it did give me a sense of closure.
I hope that out of this documentary, other veterans can be helped. That it can provide them some closure as well in their own experience.
What advice do you have veterans that are going through struggles in their life?
One of the things that has taken place in our military today is that the majority of people don’t understand how war can impact the men and women that serve. There’s also a tremendous impact on the families of these service members.
So I would encourage people to just try to be understanding of the experiences veterans may have had. And for service members, I would encourage them to have a strong belief in themselves. Focus on what you want to accomplish in your life.
There’s really no magic to any of this. There is hope out there and there is help if you are willing to reach out. You’re not going to make the right choices all the time but hopefully you are able to make enough right choices that you are able to live the life you want to live.