ROCKY BLEIER - PURPLE HEART AND BRONZE STAR
There are many Steelers’ players that your editor has appreciated over the years, but Robert “Rocky” Bleier has to be one of my favourites.
At 5-9, 210 lbs, Bleier was on the small side to be considered as a pro football player and he wasn’t particularly fast. His potential was confirmed when he was selected by the Steelers in the 1968 draft in the lowly 16th round.
After his rookie season with the Steelers, when he had only 6 rushes for 39 yards, Bleier was drafted and eventually posted to Vietnam, where his football career should have finished in a rice paddy near Chu Lai.
On August 20, 1969, his platoon was ambushed and Bleier was wounded in his left thigh. While he was down, a grenade exploded nearby, sending pieces of shrapnel into his right leg and foot.
His doctors told him that he would be lucky to walk again normally and his future as a football player must have appeared very bleak during his traumatic recovery.
While he was recovering in a hospital in Tokyo, he received a postcard from the Steelers’ owner Art Rooney. “I was pleased he took the time,” said Bleier. “The card said something like ‘We’re still behind you. Take care of yourself and we’ll see you when you get back.’ That was nice.”
Bleier reported back to the Steelers’ training camp in 1970 and was 30 pounds under his previous playing weight. He could not walk, let alone run, without pain and had a noticeable limp.
He was waived on two different occasions by Chuck Noll, but he would not give up, and hung around until he had a chance to reclaim a spot on the roster.
After the 1973 season, Bleier decided to quit. He told Sports Illustrated, “I didn’t think I’d go back to Pittsburgh. I had been the leading ground gainer in the preseason schedule in both 1972 and 1973. I think they were playing me so they could cut me.
It was obvious to me that in 1974 the starting backs would be Franco Harris and Steve Davis with Preston Pearson and Frenchy Fuqua as backups. I was going to be on special teams again, at best.
I was in Chicago during the off season selling insurance. I saw the writing on the wall. I thought this might be what the good lord wants you to do. I thought it was time to get on with my life’s work.
You have accumulated five years and you will qualify for a pro football pension one day, and maybe it’ll be the best you’ll ever do. Maybe it’s time. That’s the way I was thinking.
I got a call out of the clear blue from fellow Steeler Andy Russell. He was coming into Chicago for a dinner that was associated with the pro football players association. He said, ‘Let’s get together.’ He wanted me to come to the dinner and see some other players.
I said, ‘Andy, I’ve decided not to come back. I’ve decided to quit. Andy said, ‘You can’t quit. You’ve got to come back. You go back to camp and you make them make a decision as to whether to keep you or cut you. Don’t make it easy for them.' It made some sense to me. I didn’t need a lot of arm twisting.”
In 1974, after a weightlifting programme that had built him up to a more realistic 212 lbs and with his incessant training (immortalised in the TV movie, “Fighting Back”), he was finally given an opportunity to show his courage and dedication.
The Steelers’ draft that year put the final pieces in place to the team that was to dominate the NFL for the rest of the decade. Bleier began to become more an integral part of the team.
Although he won four Super Bowl rings during those glory days of the seventies that created a football dynasty, the highlight of his career was probably 1976 when he rushed for 1,036 yards.
Not only did he become only the third Steelers to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season; along with Franco Harris the pair became the second NFL backfield to have two runners surpass 1,000 yards each.
Reflecting his modesty, Rocky Bleier later remarked about his success, “I was fortunate, I had important people in my life who made a difference.”
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