If an athlete competes long enough in sports, he or she will inevitably get injured.
Whether the injury is severe or something minor, the athlete will have to overcome the immediate physical or mental limitations.
In the best case scenarios, the athlete won’t miss much playing time due to injury.
Worst case, they are out for a season or more.
Unfortunately for pro athletes, the longer they are out with an injury, the worse it is.
If and when the athlete does recover, their replacement might have performed so well that they are now the starter.
That means the formerly injured athlete is relegated to the sidelines or released from the team.
There are the outliers, of course.
Some athletes sustain such terrible injuries that it is doubtful they will ever return to the game.
In fact, it is hoped that they can simply function normally again in their everyday life.
If they do return to the playing field, they are an inspiration not just to fans, but to injured athletes everywhere.
Former Steelers running back Rocky Bleier was one of these athletes.
Bleier began his NFL career in 1968.
He was then drafted to serve in the military during the Vietnam War.
While serving overseas, Bleier was seriously injured by enemy forces.
It looked like his career was over.
Fortunately, Bleier was strong willed and supported by an organization that believed in him.
After two years away from football, Belier defied the odds and returned to play the game he loved.
His return coincided with an amazing period of success for the Steelers organization.
This is the story of Rocky Bleier.
Here’s Rocky Bleier who received the Purple Heart while serving in Vietnam. pic.twitter.com/zEzcpHVQhD
— . (@BoutilierDan) September 16, 2020
Robert Patrick “Rocky” Bleier was born on March 5, 1946 in Appleton, Wisconsin.
He was the oldest of four children to Bob and Ellen Bleier.
His parents owned a bar called Belier’s Bar and it was there that Bleier got his permanent nickname.
“As the first born of the family, my dad was proud, as all parents are. And the guys would come into the bar and say ‘Bob, how’s that new kid of yours?’ And my dad would go, ‘Aw, you should see him, guys, looks like a little rock sitting in that crib. He’s got all these muscles.’ So they’d come back in the bar and they’d say, ‘Hey Bob, how’s that little rock of yours?’ So after that, that’s how I got it. It stuck,” said Bleier.
Bleier was a three-sport athlete at Xavier High School in Appleton, competing in football, track and basketball (he was a captain for all three sports).
As a running back, Bleier was an all-state selection three times.
He showcased his versatility on the other side of the ball as well.
During his time at Xavier, Bleier was an all-conference selection as a linebacker and defensive back.
Bleier made such an impression as a prep star that he was sought by nearby colleges.
Staying near home, he accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Notre Dame.
Fighting Irish Career
As a collegian, Bleier was underutilized, but still made an impression on his teammates and coaches.
As a running back for the Irish, Bleier was used as both a runner and receiver out of the backfield.
Bones Taylor on Rocky Bleier~ "Makes the big play for Notre Dame without much credit..catches the ball in crowds & runs well ..keep an eye on this boy, he is a classy ballplayer…has the potential for running back or flanker…size is a big problem at 5-10, 185 lbs" @RockyBleier pic.twitter.com/fpAyWDPSuQ
— Starless Steelers (@1947Steelers) July 21, 2020
In 1965, he carried the ball 26 times for 145 yards and two touchdowns.
He also had three receptions for 42 total yards.
The Irish posted a 7-2-1 record for the year.
During the 1966 season, Notre Dame finished 9-0-1 and won the national championship.
That season, Bleier rushed 63 times for 282 yards and four scores along with four receptions for 17 yards and one touchdown.
Bleier’s teammates voted him team captain during his senior year in 1967.
That season, the Irish went 8-2. Bleier contributed with a career-high 77 rushing attempts for 357 yards and five touchdowns.
He added 16 catches for 171 yards and two more scores.
#ND #FightingIrish https://t.co/qCiDYSvqW8 Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame’s Rocky Bleier pic.twitter.com/wfmLuLWrQq
— Fighting Irish #1! (@NOTREDAMENO1) August 22, 2019
Before the last game of his senior year, Bleier suffered a torn ligament.
He missed the contest and it looked like that would be the end of his time as a football player.
However, a few months later, Bleier was having dinner with friends when some of his buddies overheard some exciting news.
An area sportscaster was announcing a list of local college players who had been selected during the third day of the 1969 NFL Draft.
As it turned out, Pittsburgh had selected him with the 417th pick of the 16th round.
Bleier was inexplicably a professional athlete.
As thrilling as it must have been for Bleier to be drafted by an NFL team, it might not have been so thrilling realizing who drafted him.
The Steelers were founded in 1933 and had not experienced success (save for two decent seasons) in their history.
1968 would be no different.
Pittsburgh stumbled to a 2-11-1 record in what would be head coach Bill Austin’s final year.
No doubt Rod gets the nod here. But interesting fun fact about the Steelers and #26: Rocky Bleier was #26 for his 1st season. Then he went off to Viet Nam. More on that in 6 days I assume. But when Rock returned to the Steelers, Preston Pearson was wearing #26 so Rock wore #20 pic.twitter.com/juzqZw3UGf
— Dan Carson (@Uncle_Blooney) August 18, 2021
As a rookie, Bleier didn’t get much playing time.
He toted the rock a measly six times for 39 yards and had three receptions for 68 yards.
Then, his first season was cut short due to an unexpected letter.
Drafted for a Second Time
The Steelers and Bleier were wrapping up the ‘68 season and getting ready for the holidays.
In early December, Bleier received a letter informing him that he was drafted for the second time.
This time, however, he had been drafted by the U.S. Army to serve in the Vietnam War.
Bleier informed the Steelers and then volunteered for duty in South Vietnam.
He was ordered to report for basic training immediately.
Normally, professional athletes would be drafted and placed in the reserves.
However, this did not happen to Bleier.
“I fell through the cracks,” Bleier said in a 2017 FOX Sports interview, noting that many athletes who were drafted at that time were put in the reserves.
“You wonder how that happens, but it was a different time at that point, and I got drafted. There were a handful of players who had been drafted in their career, and I got drafted in the latter part of the year. Next thing I knew I was in basic training and my world had kind of been turned upside down. Then eventually I found myself in Vietnam (in May 1969), like all replacement soldiers at the time shipped over because they needed bodies.”
Without much time to think, Bleier packed and was off to serve his country.
After just eight weeks of basic training and another eight weeks for advanced infantry training, Bleier was shipped off to Vietnam in April of 1969.
He was in-country for only a few months when his unit received a call that would greatly affect his life.
Bleier was stationed with the 169th Light Infantry Brigade at Hiep Duc Valley, near Danang, from a post called LZ Siberia.
His company got a call from their sister company in August 1969 saying they had been ambushed by North Vietnamese soldiers.
Not long after getting the call, Bleier and his unit were flown to help the ambushed company.
OTD 1969 American Badass Rocky Bleier is wounded in Vietnam. Thankfully, he survives. You know the rest. pic.twitter.com/McoqJ24ndI
— VintageSteelers (@VintageSteelers) August 20, 2021
As fate would have it, the fighting in Hiep Duc that summer was some of the worst in Vietnam that year, if not the entire war.
Both the U.S. and NVA troops were attempting to get a stranglehold on the area.
The result was a fierce tug-of-war that claimed the lives of over 400 U.S. servicemen and countless NVA troops.
“We didn’t get to them until late at night and when we finally got there, we had to extract,” Bleier said. “Some of the wounded were out, but we had to carry some of the dead bodies out, and on the way out that evening, we ran into an ambush and had to leave the bodies. So then two days later, we came back to extract those bodies we left behind.”
When Bleier and his unit did return two days later, they ran into a buzzsaw.
“Obviously, we knew there was some enemy in the area, and we had just taken a break early in the morning and were moving out on an open rice paddy,” Bleier said.
“So we’re moving out into that open rice paddy and all of a sudden we kind of ran into, accidentally, enemy soldiers. Our point man got excited and opened up fire, and then they started to run. We started to chase them, the machine gun leveled the area, and now we’re in a firefight in open rice paddies and that’s when I got hit the first time.”
A bullet from an enemy rifle pierced Bleier’s left thigh, thankfully leaving only an entry and exit wound.
Although the bullet did not come in contact with bone, the injury was still significant to Bleier.
“It felt like somebody punched my leg,” Bleier said. “It was the first time I’d ever been hit in my life. I didn’t know whether I could run, walk, crawl. It hurt but the adrenaline was pumping, I had gauze tied around it, then we got back to our commanding officer and the rest of the platoon finally came back in.”
As Bleier was tending to his wound, the NVA had circled back around to probe the U.S. soldiers.
One of the enemy soldiers threw a grenade that landed where Bleier and his commanding officer were crouched down.
“It hit my commanding officer, who I was lying next to,” Bleier said. “It bounced off his back and rolled between my legs, and by the time I jumped to get up, it blew up. I was standing on top of it and it blew up on my right foot, knee and thigh and my commanding officer caught a lot of that shrapnel as well.”
The damage to Bleier’s lower right leg and foot were extensive.
Part of Bleier’s right foot was gone from the blast.
As U.S. soldiers returned fire, the NVA force briefly retreated.
That gave time for Bleier and other injured troops to be evacuated from the area.
Rocky Bleier…”He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”#Team pic.twitter.com/xraGODlVnh
— JIM BOONE 🦁 (@CoachJimBoone) January 20, 2020
It took a while, but Bleier was eventually placed on an evac chopper and flown to a nearby hospital.
At the time, Bleier was thankful to be alive, but he was more concerned with another matter.
Initially, Bleier was treated at an aid hospital in Vietnam.
He was then flown to Tokyo for further treatment.
While in Japan, Bleier had to undergo several surgeries to remove over 100 pieces of grenade shrapnel from his right foot and leg.
Since a portion of his foot was missing, walking was difficult, let alone trying to jog.
Pittsburgh Steelers RB Rocky Bleier was wounded in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. #VeteransDay pic.twitter.com/pT4I5na4BN
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) November 11, 2020
However, this setback didn’t matter to Bleier.
He was hopeful to recover from his injuries and get back to the playing field.
Needless to say, his doctors didn’t share his optimism.
“I asked the doctor at one time, when I was in Tokyo, and he said, ‘No, I don’t think you’ll have the strength and the flexibility, given the damage that was done, to be a running back in the NFL,'” Bleier said. “But his perception of what it took to be a running back didn’t fit my perception and what I knew. So I always wanted to come back and play.”
Bleier was discouraged with the feedback from his doctors.
He loved the game of football, but his injuries likely signaled the end of his career.
While rehabbing in Tokyo, Bleier would walk the streets at night crying because his life had dramatically changed.
“Playing football was the only thing I knew how to do,” said Bleier in a Bleacher Report interview.
However, that’s when he received an unlikely source of inspiration.
A postcard arrived from Steelers owner Art Rooney.
The message to Bleier was simple and straightforward.
“Rock—the team’s not doing well. We need you. Art Rooney.”
Bleier was greatly encouraged by Rooney’s thoughtfulness.
In turn, it gave him the impetus and desire to try his best to return to Pittsburgh.
“When you have somebody take the time and interest to send you a postcard, something that they didn’t have to do, you have a special place for those kinds of people,” he said.
Once the doctors did everything they could for him in Tokyo, Bleier was then transported to a hospital in Kansas.
It was there that he began his comeback.
While continuing treatment on his legs and foot, Bleier began his own workout program.
In the mornings, he would run as far as he could (not far during the early days of treatment).
In the afternoons, he would lift weights.
Then, in the evenings, he would try sprinting.
Slowly, but surely, Bleier got in shape and was able to maneuver through his injuries.
In June of 1970, Bleier was medically discharged and he was invited back to Steelers training camp.
The two-a-days in camp were excruciating for Bleier.
Countless drills during practice required him to put weight on his injured foot.
Bleier just gritted his teeth and played through the pain.
Numerous times he would return home from practice only to find his right sock filled with blood.
OTD 1970 Vietnam veteran, and living legend, Rocky Bleier reports to Steelers training camp. He would not make the team but Mr. Rooney puts him on Injured Reserve. Rock would make the taxi squad in ‘71. The rest is history. pic.twitter.com/tI5MV98AuW
— VintageSteelers (@VintageSteelers) July 31, 2021
As camp ended, the coaches told Bleier that he would be cut.
However, they liked what they saw and asked him to keep rehabbing and return to camp in 1971.
Bleier thanked them and drove home distraught from the news.
Fortunately, the following day, Dan Rooney called Bleier and told him the team would be officially placing him on injured reserve.
That enabled Bleier to receive a regular salary which would help him with his ongoing rehab.
The following year, Bleier survived training camp and made the team.
He played in six games but only on special teams.
“It was enough to get credit for the year,” said Bleier.
Bleier made enough progress in 1972 to play special teams and be placed on the depth chart as a running back.
He received only one carry that year for 17 yards, but he was determined to continue pushing himself.
“The ability to play was up to me,” Bleier said. “Making the team was out of my control. That was somebody else’s decision, but I was going to do whatever I possibly could to get myself in the shape to possibly come back. Time is a big healer in all that, and thankfully for me, I was with an organization that gave me that opportunity and that time to get stronger or bigger or faster, or whatever I needed to do to be able to compete.”
In 1973, Bleier made the team again only to see three total carries for no yards.
After the season, he considered calling it quits. In his mind, Bleier could see no point in working so hard only to sit most of the season.
However, he was talked into giving it another go in 1974 by linebacker Andy Russell.
“You can’t quit, Rock. You’ve got to come back,” said Russell to Bleier. “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.”
As Bleier was immersed in his world of rehab, and fighting to get his body back in playing shape, Pittsburgh had gotten better.
No longer a laughing stock, coach Chuck Noll and the front office had assembled a roster for the ages.
Beginning in 1969, the Steelers drafted a who’s who of future All-Pros and Hall of Famers.
The list included quarterback Terry Bradshaw, receivers Lynn Swan and John Stallworth, running back Franco Harris and defensive stalwarts LC Greenwood, “Mean” Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Dwight White and Jack Lambert.
In 1972, the team finished 11-3 and made it to the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history.
After dispatching the Raiders in the Divisional round, the Dolphins ended the Steelers season in the AFC Championship game.
The team returned to the postseason in 1973 but lost to the Raiders in the Divisional Playoffs.
Everything came together for Bleier and the team in 1974.
While the Steelers were rolling through a 10-3-1 regular season, Bleier was finally seeing time as a running back.
He was primarily Harris’ backup, but Bleier still carried the ball 88 times for 383 yards and two scores.
In the postseason, Pittsburgh defeated Buffalo 32-14 in the Divisional Round.
They then beat the Raiders 24-13 in the AFC Championship game and were on to the first Super Bowl berth in franchise history.
As Bleier was waiting in the players tunnel before the start of Super Bowl IX, he took stock of how far he’d come.
“I thought, ‘Wow, you’re standing in a place where hundreds of ballplayers stood before you. Big names of championship games stood in this tunnel and were introduced as a participant in a Super Bowl team,’” he says. “‘And you’re now one of them. You’re part of that.’”
During the biggest game of his professional career (at that point), Bleier rushed 17 times for 65 yards.
The Steelers beat Minnesota and their “Purple People Eater” defense 16-6. Bleier was on top of the world.
Super Bowl IX rushing yards:
Franco Harris: 158 yards
Rocky Bleier: 65 yards
Terry Bradshaw: 33 yards
Minnesota Vikings: 17 yards pic.twitter.com/2vZo3z415V
— VintageSteelers (@VintageSteelers) July 28, 2021
The good times kept coming for Pittsburgh in 1975.
With essentially the same core nucleus of players, the team ended the season with a 12-2 record.
Bleier’s carries and rushing totals increased as well.
Along with 140 attempts and 528 yards with two touchdowns, Bleier also caught 15 passes for 65 yards.
After beating the Colts and Raiders in the first two weeks of the postseason, the Steelers faced the Cowboys in Super Bowl X.
During the contest, Bleier had 15 rushing attempts for 51 yards.
The game was a test of wills for both teams, but Pittsburgh’s 14 points in the final quarter turned into a 21-17 victory.
Bleier and the Steelers were back-to-back Super Bowl champs.
Happy Birthday 4x Super Bowl Champion Rocky Bleier! #HereWeGo pic.twitter.com/m0JHdxAi6H
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) March 5, 2021
Milestone in 1976
The Steelers were well on their way to a third consecutive appearance in the Super Bowl.
As the team finished with a 10-4 regular season, Bleier was having a career year.
Even though he did not start any games during the season, Bleier and Harris were an effective one-two punch. Bleier rushed for 1,036 yards (a career-high) and five scores.
He also hauled in 24 passes for 294 yards. Meanwhile, Harris ran for 1,128 yards.
That made Bleier and Harris only the second running back duo in league history at the time to rush for over 1,000 yards in the same season.
Happy Birthday to the Legendary Rocky Bleier, Notre Dame; National Champion 66, Team Captain 67, 4X Super Bowl Champion, lost part of his foot in Hiep Duc, Vietnam; United States Army Specialist 4, Awarded Bronze Star And Purple Heart; True Hero: 73 Today.. pic.twitter.com/ZtdojLKAB8
— Larry in Missouri ( Leisure Suit Larry) (@LarryInMissouri) March 5, 2019
In the ‘76 playoffs, the Steelers rolled over the Colts.
Then, they faced the Raiders for the sixth postseason in a row and the third time in as many years for the AFC Championship game.
This time, it was Oakland who would have the last laugh.
Pittsburgh seemed to be stuck in neutral during that day and the Raiders advanced after their 24-7 win.
The Steelers’ quest for a three-peat was over.
Two More Super Bowls
In 1977, Bleier came back down to Earth.
While his rushing total dropped to 465, the Steelers had a 9-5 season and were dispatched by Denver in the Divisional Playoffs.
The team rebounded the following year.
They rolled through the regular season with a 14-2 record.
Then, they hammered the Broncos and Oilers in the first two rounds of the postseason.
In Super Bowl XIII against Dallas, Bleier caught a seven-yard touchdown pass from Bradshaw late in the second quarter.
The tense game ended with a 35-31 Pittsburgh victory, giving the team its third championship in five years.
1979 saw the team return to the playoffs after a 12-4 season.
After taking care of Miami and Houston, the Steelers moved on to Super Bowl XIV to face the LA Rams.
During the game, Bleier contributed 25 rushing yards as Pittsburgh won 31-19.
Remarkably, the team had four championships in six seasons.
Only a decade after fighting in Vietnam, Bleier himself was a four-time Super Bowl champion.
Chris Mad Dog Russo show open w/Rocky Bleier-Vietnam,Notre Dame,Steelers,protesters,lots more https://t.co/Vgi7fwiz8v pic.twitter.com/zRSMdfZdLr
— SUPERBOWL2018 (@SuperBowl2018US) February 24, 2018
Final Season and Retirement
Going into the 1980 season, Bleier was perhaps feeling his age.
Despite doing his best on the field, he was being used less and had a continuous case of fumblitis.
In the previous three years alone, Bleier had coughed up the ball 16 total times.
In ‘80, Bleier had 78 carries, his lowest total since 1973.
He gained just 340 yards rushing with one touchdown and had 21 catches for 174 yards and another score.
Pittsburgh posted a 9-7 record and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1971.
Once the season concluded, Bleier decided to call it a career.
He had overcome significant injuries in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Bleier, as an NFL player, was rewarded for his diligence and hard work by playing with a team that hit its stride just as his health improved.
In 11 seasons, Bleier rushed for 3,865 total yards with 23 rushing touchdowns and 1,294 receiving yards with two more scores.
🏟️ OTD 1980: Steeler legend Rocky Bleier played his final game at Three Rivers Stadium & scored the GW TD in the 4th to give Pittsburgh a 21-16 win over KC! With :07 left in the game, Bleier was removed from the game & received a standing O from the 50,000+ fans. #HereWeGo pic.twitter.com/cDKqsBAVXm
— 80s Football Cards (@80sFootballCard) December 14, 2019
Post Retirement and Return to Vietnam
While he was playing for Pittsburgh, Bleier wrote a book about his experiences called “Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story.”
The book was made into a television movie in 1980.
Bleier became a public speaker on the topics of retirement and financial management.
He has also become a motivational speaker, talking to audiences about his life story.
In 2019, ESPN traveled with Bleier back to Vietnam to revisit the area where he was injured.
Bleier assured ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi not to expect an emotional return to the country.
However, as Bleier arrived at the site of the firefight that injured him, he was overcome with emotion.
“All of a sudden I had an overwhelming feeling of loss and sadness,” he said. “Why did we fight this war? Why did we lose 58,000 soldiers and in all honesty for what? Maybe for first time I can understand on a slight basis the impact that our soldiers go through and maybe just a little what post-traumatic stress might be and how the body reacts to all the emotions.”
“It was a different catharsis than I anticipated,” said Bleier. “Unlike the average veteran who returned after service and had to repress those feelings, I came back to a high-profile industry and became a story. In some regards it was cathartic (during his playing days) that I had to talk about it.”
After hearing about Bleier’s return to Vietnam, former backfield mate Harris put a positive spin on Bleier’s wartime experience.
“It’s a tragedy, I wish the war had never happened,” Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris says during the film. “But if we change anything would the Old Man (Art Rooney) have put Rocky on the team and would Rocky have worked as hard as we had, and would we have four Super Bowls?”
Former teammate, Greene, also commented on his thoughts about Bleier as a person and what he brought to the team.
“There’s no one like him,” said Hall of Famer Joe Greene, Bleier’s teammate on the Steelers’ famed 1970s teams. “He’s special. He always captures your attention. “Rocky had the ability to smile and laugh at himself, but he had the greatest admiration for other people,” Greene continued. “He can always see the better part of any given situation. And he can hold your attention.”
Since returning from his second trip to Vietnam, Bleier has continued to be an inspiration to everyone he meets.
Those who don’t know him are amazed when they learn about his story.
In 2020, he was honored by the NCAA with their Inspiration Award.
As always, Bleier remains humble, yet reflective, on his contributions to the Steelers and how his life turned from tragedy to triumph.
“When I look back on my football career, it was all worth it to go through those early years and the uncertainty of what might happen,” Bleier said.
Tom Levell says
I’m just a few months younger than you Rocky. And dreamed of playing for my I-R-I-S-H. Unfortunately my grades were not strong enough but I did play for a Catholic College while rooting for you and my I-R-I-S-H every Saturday. Like millions of others who followed your career, I was heart broken when hearing of your fate while fighting in Vietnam. Amazing how strong willed you are. Not only a tough individual with an “I CAN DO IT WILL”, but a strong man who gives his life as a Christian (Catholic) as well. Even though you have me by a few months Rocky (October 1946) you have ALWAYS been a positive influence on my life. We are I-R-I-S-H true and true Rock we are the CHAMPIONS of NOTRE DAME. God bless you brother. Tom in Oklahoma