Rallied By Rock-Solid Faith
Pittsburgh Steelers great “Rocky” Bleier — the January Summit East’s opening night keynote speaker — relied on his Catholic foundation as he struggled to overcome war injuries, to become a four-time Super Bowl champion.
In the stifling heat and humidity of Vietnam, Rocky Bleier walked through the grass and brush of the remote Hiep Duc Valley, 35 miles from Da Nang, stirring up memories of a half-century before. It was August 20, 2018, 49 years to the day since Bleier was badly wounded when his Army platoon, vastly outnumbered and surrounded By Viet Cong, came under intense fire there. Four U.S. soldiers were killed in the attack, and Bleier was among the 25 wounded.
Revisiting the battle scene for the first time as part of an ESPN special, The Return, which aired earlier this year, Rocky found himself overcome with emotion.
“I think about those guys that got killed,” he said. Among them was a 19-year-old infantryman nicknamed Hawaii, engaged to be married, whom Rocky had come to know well. “He’s down, and he’s not moving,” Rocky remembered. “He took two rounds…and he dies.”
Bleier, who was drafted into the U.S. military during his rookie season as a running back with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was among the fortunate ones who returned home alive. But his wartime injuries, said doctors and everyone else, would prevent him from ever playing professional football again.
Rocky was determined to prove them wrong. Aided by the strength of his faith, he would do just that.
A Catholic Upbringing
Robert “Rocky” Bleier – the nickname dates to his infancy – grew up in Appleton, Wis., the oldest of four children of Bob and Ellen Bleier. The family lived above the tavern his father owned, Bleier’s Bar, just a halfblock from St. Joseph’s Parish. His paternal grandparents belonged to that parish, and so his father and siblings all attended St. Joe’s grade school.
“When I was growing up there were only two kinds of kids in my world, public school kids and Catholic kids,” Bleier recalled, “so being Catholic was the only thing I knew.”
Rocky sang in the choir, served at the altar, and learned “some of the toughest lessons” from the Notre Dame Sisters at St. Joe’s and, later, the Christian Brothers at Xavier High School. That Catholic education and upbringing “set a foundation and belief that became essential throughout my life,” he said. “It set an order and discipline that got me through the toughest of times.”
Bleier was a three-time all-state selection at running back at Xavier, and although not a “blue chip” recruit he garnered interest from a number of college coaches. After visiting three campuses, he made his decision. “I did what every good Catholic boy was taught to do, and that was to go to church and pray for guidance,” he said, “and then like every good Catholic boy I did what my mother wanted me to do — and that was to go to Notre Dame.”
It proved to be a good choice for him. “College can be an age of question as you are trying to figure who you are, where are you going, what is important in life, what you believe. During this period you need solitude, a time for reflection, a place to go,” Bleier said. “I found that solace in walking the lakes on campus and ending up at Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine,” the famous grotto near the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. That’s where he would stop to pray in preparation for every Notre Dame football game and at countless other moments in his years in South Bend.
At 5-10 and 177 lbs., Bleier was small for a Fighting Irish halfback, but in his junior year he became a starter for Notre Dame’s undefeated 1966 national championship season – the year the #1 Irish tied #2 Michigan State 10-10 in the season’s penultimate game to secure the title in what has been dubbed “The Game of the Century.”
In 1967, he was a team captain as the Irish went 8-2. Although injury forced Rocky to miss the final game — a 24-22 win over the University of Miami — his team and coach Ara Parseghian awarded him the game ball.
Pittsburgh … And Vietnam
Selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 16th round of the NFL-AFL draft, Bleier made the final roster in 1968 but played sparingly his rookie season. Then his life took a dramatic turn: with the Vietnam War raging, he was drafted into the U.S. military. At season’s end, he was inducted into the Army, and following advanced infantry training his unit was shipped out to Vietnam in May 1969.
The following August, Bleier’s unit was on a recovery operation in Hiep Duc when they were ambushed by Viet Cong soldiers. Several of his platoon mates would be killed or wounded in the attack, and Bleier himself was shot in the left thigh. After crawling 200 yards behind a hedgerow, “I said the most fervent prayer of my life,” he wrote in his 1975 memoir Fighting Back. A short time later, an enemy grenade landed near him and blasted shrapnel into his lower right leg, blowing away part of his foot and leaving him in agonizing pain. It would take several excruciating hours and heroic efforts from some of his fellow soldiers to carry him two miles to a helicopter for evacuation.
While Bleier was undergoing treatment for his injuries in Tokyo, doctors told him it would be “impossible” for him to play football again. But soon he received a postcard from Art Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers: “Rock, the team’s not doing well. We need you. Art Rooney.” With several surgeries and a long rehabilitation ahead of him, Rocky was determined to “fight back” and return to the gridiron, even in the face of near-unanimous skepticism.
Field Goal: Back To The Team
But return he did, through sheer determination, perseverance, and hard work. In 1970, the Steelers placed him on injured reserve. He was waived twice, but always re-signed by Pittsburgh. He spent the next three seasons playing on special teams, amassing just four carries from scrimmage and eight kick returns in that time. In 1972, he was on the sidelines when Franco Harris scored on the controversial “Immaculate Reception” play in the closing seconds of a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. When he signed his one-year contract for the 1973 season, Rocky briefly contemplated retirement, but instead focused on strength training and bulked up to 216 lbs. In 1974, he became a starter alongside Harris. In 1975, he won the first of his four Super Bowl rings with the Steelers.
During the 1976 season, Bleier and Harris became only the second backfield duo ever to rush for more than 1,000 yards apiece in a season. Perhaps his greatest moments came in Super Bowl XIII against the Dallas Cowboys, when he caught a second-quarter touchdown pass from quarterback Terry Bradshaw and later recovered the Cowboys’ last-minute onside kick attempt to seal the 35-31 victory.
The Rooney family was Catholic, as was Steelers head coach Chuck Noll, which gave a certain ethos to those years in Pittsburgh. “There is a certain belief foundation of doing what is right that prevailed,” Bleier said of the Steelers organization in the 1970s. “No one wore their religion on their sleeves, but it made it easier to feel a part of the family.”
Bleier retired after the 1980 season, ending his career as the fourth-leading rusher in Steelers history. His remarkable story and his grit on the playing field had won him the admiration of football fans everywhere. That same year, his book was made into a TV movie, and last spring it was reissued with two new chapters. Today, Bleier is a popular motivational speaker and operates a retirement planning firm in Pittsburgh.
Amid all the daunting challenges of his life, Bleier credits the “foundation” of his Catholic faith for carrying him through.
“I didn’t have to ‘turn’ to my faith, it was always there,” he reflected. “As a famous football coach once said, ‘You pray to God as if it is up to Him, and you prepare as if it is up to you.’ Praying, wishing, wanting, and hoping aren’t enough to succeed, although they are an essential part of that foundation. One still has to put the time and effort into it.”
Return To Hiep Duc
Bleier’s return visit to Vietnam was unexpectedly emotional, as the ESPN special reveals. In the muggy Vietnam heat he remembered the events of August 20, 1969, and wept openly for the men who died that day.
“After 50 years, I saw the changes in Vietnam — the growth, commerce, buildings, townships, cities, the natural progression of time,” he said. “Not as I left it: villages, jungles, rice paddies, trails.”
Vietnam is “still a police state, a communist country, so I asked myself: ‘for what?’” he said. “We lost that war, [but] more importantly we lost 58,000 soldiers…. Not that they died in vain, but we should never had been there to begin with.”
Yet his takeaway from that visit was positive, too. “I am more proud today of having the opportunity to serve my country,” Bleier said, “because no matter what injustice one might feel they have to endure, there is not a better country to live in.”
GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine staff writer