Inspirational Athletes

Rocky Bleier

“Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success. They quit on the one-yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game, one foot from a winning touchdown.” H. Ross Perot

Rocky Bleier (Illustrator: Thomas Mesenbring Field)

Suddenly, Rocky Bleier felt a thud and a sharp sting in his left thigh. He looked down, and saw blood flowing through two holes in his pants—he had been shot, but had little time to attend to a gunshot wound in his thigh, as he continued fighting off the enemies.

This was a distant world to where Rocky had been just months earlier, playing running back in the National Football League for the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was fighting to stay on the team he had just made in his rookie season.

Now he was on the other side of the world; and instead of fighting off linebackers, linemen, and safeties on the football field, he was fighting the fight of his life against a no-holds-barred North Vietnamese Army on the Vietnam battlefields—and as the day’s battle continue, it seemed like the North Vietnamese had the major advantage, as casualties continued to pile up in Rocky’s unit.

Suddenly, an incoming enemy grenade flew towards Rocky and detonated as he quickly tried to scramble away, knocking him out for a few seconds, but luckily doing no major damage. But just minutes later, a still-dazed Rocky spotted yet another enemy grenade flying towards him—and this time he would not be so fortunate.

The grenade landed at his feet and exploded as he frantically tried to spring forward and out of the way. The ensuing explosion rendered him unconscious, and when he finally came to, his right leg was shaking, his pants were full of blood, and an intense and piercing pain was coming from his foot—a pain that would grow progressively worse.

The situation looked extremely bleak for Rocky’s unit, which had incurred many casualties, and was now surrounded and greatly outnumbered. And matters were especially desperate for the badly injured Rocky, who could barely even stand or walk.

But as chance would have it, the North Vietnamese Army was unaware of their advantage, and did not launch a major attack for the rest of that day.

Another American platoon later arrived to rescue Rocky’s ailing unit. However, those soldiers, weakened from their own day of long and exhausting battle, struggled to help transport Rocky to the helicopters waiting two miles away. In fact, it took Rocky six excruciating to travel the distance, as different soldiers alternated helping him across the way with various methods of dragging, pulling, carrying, or using their shoulders as support while Rocky pivoted off his bullet-wounded left leg, which was more functional then his grenade-wounded right foot.

All the while, Rocky remained in agonizing pain, and had to endure his already severe wounds get frequently caught in or hit trees, bushes and rocks. Plus he had not eaten for nearly a day, and was physically exhausted.

But after completing the grueling two-mile journey, the ailing Rocky belatedly made it to the helicopter and to safety, escaping his near brush with death. Not long afterwards, he had surgery to remove hundreds of bits of painful shrapnel that had entered his wounds.

A doctor then examined Rocky’s condition—and when Rocky asked him his chances of making an NFL return, the doctor bluntly told him, “It’s impossible.”

With severe damage to multiple portions of his right foot and toes, a bullet wound through his left thigh, and various other lower body injuries, it seemed unimaginable that Rocky could find his way back onto an NFL roster. In fact, he seemed to have a long road of therapy ahead of him just to be able to regain the ability to walk normally again. Playing pro football seemed out of the question.

And even before Rocky had went to Vietnam and been wounded in battle, he was a marginal NFL player who was fighting to maintain a spot on his team’s roster.

When Rocky entered the 1968 NFL Draft after a solid college career playing for Notre Dame, NFL scouts considered him too small and too slow to be an NFL running back. But for the paltry price of a sixteenth round draft pick, the Pittsburgh Steelers feel the 5’11” 180 pound Notre Dame standout was worth a gamble.

That rookie year, Rocky barely managed to make the cut and secure a spot on the Steelers roster, and he ended up playing mostly special teams before he was drafted and ordered to report to the US army for duty.

Now returning from Vietnam officially listed by the army as 40 percent disabled, Rocky seemed like would have to look outside of pro football for a career. Other doctors examined him, and most seemed to echo what Rocky heard the first time his war injuries were examined: an NFL return was simply out of the question.

But despite their bleak views and despite Rocky’s own doubts, he still decided to at least attempt a comeback rather than just calling it quits without even trying.

About half a year after receiving his wounds, somewhat healed and rested Rocky eagerly embarked on his first post-war workout—and soon discovered just how far he was from being the well-conditioned athlete he was accustomed to being. His running motion was awkward and painful even after trying all kinds of adjustments in his running technique, and his much-digressed conditioning left him quickly out of breath and gasping for air. He eventually fell to the grass, crying in disbelief.

But Rocky didn’t quit. He embarked on a diligent step-by-step training routine of jogging, weight lifting and sprinting, while also completing his army service requirement; and despite his poor initial condition, he made significant improvement rehabilitating his injuries.

But Rocky was still damaged goods, and with a foot that did not seem to be getting much better, and a running motion that remained awkward it still did not seem as if this one year NFL play turned Vietnam vet really had any realistic chance to return to pro football.

Nevertheless, he still reported to the Steelers after completing his army duty, in hopes of somehow making the team. The Steelers management, understanding to his situation, and adhering to rules designed to assist returning veterans, gave their injured former sixteenth round pick every opportunity to participate and make the team. Privately, however, almost everyone in and out of the Steelers organization felt that Rocky was far from being a pro player, especially considering how his 40-yard dash time, which was sub-par to begin with even before his war injuries, now hovered near six seconds—a mark not anywhere even remotely close to NFL standards for a player his size and playing his position.

The Steelers trainers tried different methods to improve Rocky’s running motions, but none of them seemed to work; and though he stuck around during practices, he really seemed to be getting nowhere in his comeback. Other team members observed his struggle and wondered why he was even wasting his time and effort putting himself through the rough practices and workouts.

Various trainers, doctors and coaches soon told him to quit; and eventually, team head coach Chuck Noll cut the struggling Rocky from the team.

However, Steelers owner Art Rooney and his son Dan signed him back the next day and put him on the injured reserve list—most likely as an act of loyalty and generosity, rather than an effort to help the team. The Steelers gave Rocky a $19,000 salary, and paid for additional surgery to remove more shrapnel and repair scar tissue in his toes.

He ended up being activated for only one game that season, and did not even play a single second in it.

Still un-phased, Rocky persevered and made great efforts to prepare for the next season. However, his second post-war season ended up being much like the first: Art Rooney and the Steelers organization allowed Rocky to hang around on the team, and Rocky completed yet another uneventful season, playing in only a few special teams plays, and struggling with additional injuries he suffered that year.

Again people clamored for Rocky to quit after that season—and again, he did not. This time, after a thorough off-season program of three running sessions per day and yoga, he arrived at training camp in incredible condition—so incredible, in fact, that on the very first day of practice, he shocked everyone by running a 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds, a time that beat his pre-Vietnam mark by 0.2 seconds! However, even despite his greatly improved speed, Rocky was once again passed on at running back that season, but did manage to become an active special teams player.

While preparing for the following season, a still determined Rocky added major strength and size gains to his speed, and by training camp, was a much-transformed athlete. And that preseason, it seemed as if he had much reason for optimism when he led his team in preseason rushing yards.

However, when the regular season came, he became the odd man out among the team’s running backs. But, while he got almost no reps at the running back position, he did establish himself as one of the league’s premier special teams players, and he had clearly made amazing progress from the time he rejoined the Steelers after the war.

But by then, Rocky had grown thoroughly dejected at being passed up as a running back, and knew that he faced a similar scenario the following year: with the Steelers having a projected lineup that would once again put him on the short end of the lineup, it seemed as if Rocky would once again be passed up as one of the team’s feature running backs.

Uneager to go through another season where opportunities would be scarce, Rocky contemplated quitting football that off-season. It took the urging of teammate Andy Russell to persuade him to return for the 1974 NFL season; but Rocky did, and once again showed up at Steelers training camp, now in his fourth year since making his comeback.

As expected, Rocky’s 1974 season began much the same as the previous one, as he put up a strong preseason showing at running back, but found himself deep in the depth charts for the start of the regular season.

However, as injuries mounted up on the other Steelers running backs, Rocky was finally given his opportunity—an opportunity he had doggedly fought for and pursued for so long. *

An eager and spirited Rocky took the field and soon made an impressionable impact—so much so that it solidified him as a starter alongside running back Franco Harris. And after taking the reigns of his starting position part-way into the season, he ended up rushing for 373 yards, and also proving to be a valuable blocking back who paved the way for Franco Harris’s 1000+ yard rushing season.

But the he and the team’s success did not just end there. After finishing with a 10-3-1 record, they worked their way through the playoffs and all the way to a Super Bowl victory—the first ever for the Steelers franchise.

It seemed as if Rocky, the player who everyone encouraged to quit football a few years ago, turned out to be the final piece the team needed to become a championship caliber team—an assessment that was further evidenced when Rocky helped them repeat as Super Bowl champions the following season, and then continued to be a fixture in a dominant Steelers dynasty that won four Super Bowls. And in doing so, Rocky became a Pittsburgh icon and legend with his tremendous and unlikely story of triumph.

In his first four post-Vietnam seasons with the Steelers, Rocky totaled only 17 yards rushing and 0 yards receiving. But after retiring from the Steelers and the NFL following the 1980 season, he finished his stellar NFL career with over 5,000 combined rushing and receiving yards, and with a reputation as an elite blocking back. Along the way of his amazing transformation from injured Vietnam veteran to NFL legend, most people not only expected Rocky to quit, but also encouraged him to do so on numerous occasions. They wondered why he was seemingly wasting his time and effort training, struggling, and just taking up a spot on a roster. And Rocky himself even had doubts at times.

But through his own initiative he stuck with it, and eventually made himself a force to be reckoned with on the football field, and an unforgettable example of the power of perseverance.

Inspirational Athletes