By JIM PURCELL
In 1968, a 22-year-old young man was drafted into the Army. He went on to serve as an infantryman in the Vietnam War. He earned the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Combat Infantryman’s Badge. He also lost part of his right foot and sustained numerous leg injuries.
|Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rocky Bleier|
For most people, they would be satisfied with just surviving a war where so many young Americans were getting killed. But, not everyone was Robert Patrick “Rocky” Bleier, a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
IN THE BEGINNING…
Rocky was born on March 5, 1946, in Appleton, Wisconsin. He was the oldest of four children born to Bob and Ellen Bleier. He was a normal kid with a paper route, who graduated from Xavier High School in 1964. It was clear, though, that Rocky was a great athletic talent. He was a three-time all-state selection as running back. He was also the team captain for his school’s football, basketball and track teams.
Bleier played his college ball at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana. He graduated in 1968 with not only a business degree, but also getting chosen in the 16th Round of the 1968 NFL/AFL Draft by the Steelers.
Things were looking great for the Steeler’s running back when, at the end of his rookie season, Rocky was drafted into the United States Army in December 1968.
IN A NEW UNIFORM
Once in the Army, Rocky volunteered to serve in South Vietnam. So, in May 1969, the football-player-turned infantryman shipped out for Vietnam. Once there, he joined Charlie Company, 31st Infantry Regiment, 196th Light Infantry Brigade. After joining the unit, Rocky was assigned an M79, 40mm grenade launcher and served as his squad’s grenadier.
|Spec. 4 Rocky Bleier in South Vietnam|
Rocky got along in his unit and did a good job. But, on August 20, 1969, while his unit was on patrol in a rice paddy, near Heip Duc, Rocky’s platoon was ambushed. During the firefight that ensued, Rocky was shot in his left thigh by enemy rifle fire. While he was down, an enemy grenade landed near his position. The explosion from the grenade sent shrapnel into his lower right leg. The blast also claimed a piece of his right foot.
Though Rocky earned the Bronze Star during his final action, it wasn’t looking good for a possible return to football once he was out of the service. In fact, while he was recovering from his injuries in a Tokyo hospital, doctors stated that he would never play football again.
After several surgeries, Specialist 4th Class Rocky Bleier was finally discharged from the Army in July 1970.
BLEIER’S BATTLE ON THE GRIDIRON
|The 196th Light Infantry Brigade|
Even though Rocky couldn’t walk without pain, he rejoined the Steelers at their 1970 camp. His weight was also down to 180 pounds, which was light to play his position. So, he was put on injured reserve for the season. But, in 1971, Bleier’s weight rose to 212 pounds and he earned a spot on the Steelers’ special teams unit. For several season, Bleier pushed for more and more playing time on the field. He worked as hard as he could and, in 1974, he earned that coveted spot on the starting line-up for the team.
Though Bleier was a running back, he was not the primary running back for the Steelers. That honor went to future Hall-of-Famer Franco Harris. But, Bleier was often the lead blocker for Harris. And, in 1976, Bleier went on to gain 1,000 yards during a season.
Rocky would end up playing for the Steelers between 1970 and 1980 (as well as his rookie year of 1968). He would go on to become part of the Steelers’ world championship teams in 1975, 1976, 1978 and 1979, in Super Bowls IX, X, XIII and XIV, respectively.
AWAY FROM FOOTBALL
Rocky is the father of four and is married to Jan Gyurina. He is reported to be living in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania and is a radio personality for Pittsburgh station 104.7 FM, also known as WPGB. He is also co-owner of Bleier Zagula Financial.
Bleier may not be a football player anymore, but for scores of fans as well as his fellow players, he remains a study in determination for the ages.