Rocky Bleier is a tough nut. Right down to the nub, the nitty-gritty. That’s it. That’s all. That’s Rocky. Heart-and-soul tough to whom giving up would be anathema, unfathomable inconceivable.
There are many strains of toughness, several gradations and a wide nuanced range. ‘Tough’ can mean a lot of different things. It can mean putting food on the table when there’s no money. It can be about battling terminal illness or disability with a steely resolve and positive attitude. It can mean getting out of bed when depression is poised to suffocate you. It’s about being bullied or victimized and rising above it. Maybe it means simply staying the course and continuing to breathe, in an effort to live to last and to outlast.
To Rocky Marciano, Rocky Graziano, Rocky Lockridge, Rocky Juarez, Rocky Kansas and Rocky Balboa, it may be about experiencing a savage, blood-soaked physical beating and enduring it, only to raise arms triumphantly in the end.
Rocky Bleier could speak to that with great authority and conviction.
THE BEST YOU CAN BE:
“What does it take to reach that pinnacle of success? It is the courage to take the first
step, hard work, determination, singleness of purpose, passion, and sometimes just
“I didn’t want to face the truth. As you must know by now, I have a certain self-discipline,
an ability to persuade myself that reality is not what it seems. During that training camp,
I convinced myself that I actually had a chance to make the ball club. I forced myself to
ignore that I still had a noticeable limp.”
“Dear Lord, get me out of here, if You can. What I will do is this: I’ll give You my life…to
do with whatever You will. Here it is. I’m not going to complain if things go wrong. If things
go good, I’ll share my success with everybody around me. Here it is. Whatever You want
to do, wherever You want to direct. This is the best I can do.”
“Don’t lose what makes you the person you are. Don’t settle for mediocrity. Don’t lose
sight of your dreams. Too many people get tired and give up. If you give up you’ll forfeit
the opportunity to realize the dreams you have for your life. Why not strive for something
“Be clear about your dream & vision. Do not worry. Just think about all the great possibil-
ities and act upon them.”
“Heroes — Real Heroes — have one thing in common: Character. It’s self-evident. You know
it when you see it. Enormous depth, right to the bone, brother.”
“I know that every generation has said: ‘Listen to me; Learn from me.’ I add my voice to
theirs. As with generation upon generation, we tend, with bullheaded stubbornness to
find our own way…to learn from our own lessons…to formulate our own experiences.”
“More than anything else, an attitude of complete acceptance got me through Vietnam.
I never questioned. I kept my emotional stability. I simply did each day’s work, never
debating my part in the cosmic issues of war and peace, life and death, or politics.”
“Courage is simply that moment in time in which we take what information we have and
implement it to take action, to move forward.”
“Maybe a simple story, of one man’s life, from another generation, can help you see what
the human spirit can overcome and accomplish. To all of you, I dedicate my life.”
“Believe in yourself and what you know you can accomplish. Don’t let doubt and un-
certainty rob you of the successes you’ve had in the past and steal the great things to
come. Truly believe that greatness is on the horizon and your best days are ahead of
“Act on what we want to do, regardless of any fear we may have. Disregard worry.
Choose to do right, to pursue our dreams, to be successful people, to lead the way
Sage words from Rocky Bleier, born Robert Patrick in 1946 in Appleton, Wisconsin where the family lived above his father’s tavern. His dad would bring friends over to the crib to see his newborn “rock,” a nickname that stuck like flypaper. But let’s not start at the beginning. Let’s go from the back forward.
On August 20, 2018 — just over a year ago — then 72-year-old Rocky Bleier stood in Hiep Duc Valley about 35 miles south of Danang in Vietnam. Three months into his deployment to Vietnam about fifty years prior, Bleier was shot through the thigh and suffered a grenade blast to his foot in a rice paddy. Shrapnel severely damaged his right foot and both legs when his “Charlie Company” unit was ambushed during a recovery operation. Of the 33 soldiers in the infantry unit, 25 were injured and four killed. Doctors were able to save Bleier’s foot but told him he would never be able to play football again. He had been selected in the 16th round (417th overall) of the 1968 NFL Draft out of Notre Dame — he was team captain — by the Pittsburgh Steelers only to be drafted again, this time by the U.S. Army during his rookie season. At 23 he did what he had to do. And by the grace of God and with the support of Steelers owner Art Rooney (who saw to it that Bleier was placed on injured reserve and not cut) he defied the odds. In fact it was Rooney who sent Bleier a postcard while he was lying in a Tokyo hospital that proved more effective than medicine. It read, “Rock, the team’s not doing well. We need you.” Bingo. His life was forever changed yet again. He returned to football and became a very good if not a superstar running back on the “Steel Curtain” Steelers teams of the 1970s — 4-time Super Bowl Champions — cementing his legacy. Certainly the only war veteran with four Super Bowl rings, he remains one of the most beloved players in franchise history.
Noteworthy is the fact that Bleier spent two full seasons trying to gain a spot on the active roster and was waived twice by the organization before all of his hard work finally paid off. He never gave up. “Some time in the future you won’t have to ask yourself ‘what if?’ I didn’t lose a leg. I didn’t lose a foot. I was going to come back and play. That was my desire. I wasn’t going to go back and run my daddy’s bar.” And it’s not as though he burst on the scene. Making the team in 1971 he played in just six games and only on special teams. He recalled in typical Rocky fashion — glass half full — that “it was enough to get credit for the year.”
He played in all 14 games in 1972 mostly on special teams. He carried the ball once for 17 yards but fumbled at the end of the run. In 1973 Bleier played in 13 of the 14 contests carrying the ball three times for a net rushing yardage of zero. He also fumbled twice which meant he fumbled on three of his first four NFL carries. At season’s end he decided to quit. That is until linebacker Andy Russell got his meathooks in him. “You can’t quit Rock. You’ve got to come back,” Russell cajoled. “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.” In ’74 Bleier at long last got some meaningful playing time — 88 carries; 373 yards; 4.2 yards per carry; 2 fumbles — and the rest is history. He retired after the 1980 season at 34 as the Steelers’ fourth-leading rusher with 3,865 rushing yards. He scored 30 TDs in his 11-year career — 25 in the regular season, four in the playoffs and one in the Super Bowl. And Bleier played in 14 postseason games; his teams won 13 of them. Not too shabby for Franco Harris’ lead blocker.
Self-effacing as the day is long, Bleier describes himself when others ask this way: “Listen, have you heard of Terry Bradshaw? Have you heard of Franco Harris? I’m the other guy.” The ‘other guy’ whose career as a running back included a college football national championship with Notre Dame in 1966; a touchdown pass he leapt and caught in the end zone from Bradshaw in Super Bowl XIII with defenders draped, giving the Steelers a lead over Dallas they never relinquished; and of course those four rings. Inspirational though he may have been to his teammates, fans and the organization, Bleier’s singular focus was to get back on the field and stay there as a Steelers contributor. “It’s all about being in the right place at the right time, fitting in,” he said. “You work hard and things happen. It wasn’t as if I was an All-American running back or even the running back at Notre Dame, or even the star running back with the Steelers. That was fine, and when you look back you go, ‘Wow. I got to play and be an integral part of those successful seasons and become part of a dynasty.’” That’s Rocky.
It’s also Rocky to agree to return to the war site 50 years later — albeit after some persistent prodding — with a full camera crew to film a documentary for ESPN (“The Return”). It was not an easy thing to do. One day he collapsed due to heatstroke and on another was flooded with a torrent of emotions, breaking down and weeping while standing on the site of his injury. “All of a sudden,” he recalled, “I had an overwhelming feeling of loss and sadness. Why did we fight this war? Why did we lose 58,000 soldiers [Americans were dying at a rate of 350 per week] and in all honesty for what? Maybe for [the] 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.” He also acknowledged how fortunate he was in another way upon his homecoming in 1969. “It was a different catharsis than I anticipated,” he reflected. “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.”
Rocky Bleier’s tale is one with several iconic touchstones, a story of grit and glory. It is told through the prism of history — social, cultural, military and personal — one man lived over five decades. It is about perseverance and will. Determination and focus. It is about positivity in the face of long and daunting odds. It is a gripping saga of courage. With the heart of a lion, of a true champion Rocky Bleier — by never throwing in the towel — demonstrated that ordinary people can become extraordinary achievers, overachievers really.
A powerful and compelling lesson for all of us to learn and embrace.