Heart of a Champion: The Story of Rocky Bleier

Bryn Swartz@eaglescentralSenior Writer IIIDecember 27, 2008

Rocky Bleier's story is one of the most gripping tales of courage and determination that I have ever heard. Had Bleier been a Philadelphia Eagle, he would probably be my favorite athlete of all time. As it is, he is still one of my heroes, despite playing for a franchise I despise—the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Robert Bleier was born in 1946, but earned the nickname "Rocky" as a baby when his dad used to bring people over to the crib to see his newborn "rock." Someone came up with the nickname, and it stuck.

Bleier played running back and defensive back in high school, earning All-State honors three times on offense and All-Conference twice on defense.

Bleier accepted a scholarship to Notre Dame, where he led the Fighting Irish to the National Championship in 1966. His teammate and quarterback, Terry Hanratty, would later be his teammate on the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bleier wasn't drafted until the 16th round of the 1968 NFL draft—the 417th overall pick—by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He received very little playing time as a rookie, carrying just six times for 39 yards, and catching three passes for 68 yards, including a 54-yard screen pass. He also returned six kickoffs and two punts.

Bleier was drafted into the United States Army in December of 1968, as his rookie season was ending. He shipped out to Vietnam after five months and served with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.

On August 20, 1969, Bleier was on a routine patrol in Heip Duic when his platoon was ambushed in a rice paddy, wounding his left thigh. He was also seriously injured when an enemy grenade sent shrapnel into his right leg.

Bleier was sent to a hospital in Tokyo to ensure proper treatment. While recovering from his injuries, he was informed by doctors that he would never play professional football again.

Bleier says he remembers walking the streets late at night, crying because his world was completely turned upside down. As he says, “Playing football was the only thing I knew how to do.”

Then something happened that changed Bleier's life forever. He received a postcard from Art Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The postcard read “Rock—the team's not doing well. We need you. Art Rooney.”

Bleier had a great deal of respect for Art Rooney.

“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.

Bleier reported to the Steelers' training camp one year after being wounded. He weighed 180 pounds, having lost 30 pounds in a year. He couldn't even walk without being in pain and, not surprisingly, didn't earn a spot on the Steelers' roster.

Bleier spent two full seasons trying to gain a spot on the active roster and was waived twice by the organization.

But he never gave up. He worked for five to six hours a day to get himself into supreme physical shape.

"Some time in the future you won't have to ask yourself 'what if'?” said Bleier of his hard work habits. "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.”

Bleier finally made the Steelers' roster in 1971. He played in six games, but only on special teams.

"It was enough to get credit for the year,” said Bleier.

Bleier played in all 14 games in 1972, but again mostly played on special teams. He carried the ball one time—for 17 yards, but fumbled at the end of his run.

He played in 13 of the 14 games in 1973. He carried the ball three times, but gained zero yards rushing. He also fumbled twice, meaning he fumbled on three of his first four carries in the National Football League.

And after the season ended, Bleier made the hardest decision of his entire life. He decided to quit professional football.

Then he got a call from Andy Russell, a linebacker for the Steelers, inviting him to a pro football players dinner. Bleier rejected the invitation, telling Russell that he had decided not to come back to professional football.

“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.”

Rocky Bleier reported to training camp in 1974.

In 1974, Bleier finally received some playing time at running back. He carried the ball 88 times for 373 yards (4.2 yards per rush) and two touchdowns. More importantly, he only fumbled two times.

The Steelers finished first in the AFC Central Division and won Super Bowl IX, during which Bleier carried the ball 17 times for 65 yards against one of the greatest defensive lines in NFL history—the Purple People Eaters.

Bleier began to earn national recognition for his comeback. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated on June 9, 1975, with the headline, “Rocky Bleier's War: A Pro Football Player in Vietnam.”

Bleier made the first 11 starts of his NFL career during the regular season, at the ripe old age of 29.

He rushed for 528 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Steelers to a second consecutive Super Bowl victory. He rushed for 51 yards in the 21-17 victory against the Dallas Cowboys.

The greatest season of Rocky's career occurred in 1976. At an age when most running backs have hung up their cleats for good, Rocky rushed for 1036 yards and five touchdowns (4.7 yards per rush).

He did all this despite not making a single start. He joined teammate Franco Harris as the second set of teammates to each rush for 1000 yards in the same season and earned a reputation as one of the best blocking backs in the league.

Bleier began to show his age in 1977 and 1978. Although he carried 300 times, he gained only 1098 yards. He did score 10 touchdowns, but his 12 fumbles were cause for concern. He did lead the Steelers to a third Super Bowl victory in 1978. His touchdown reception in Super Bowl XIII proved to be the winning score in a 35-31 defeat of the Dallas Cowboys.

Bleier led the Steelers to an unprecedented fourth Super Bowl victory after the 1979 season. He rebounded to set career highs in rushing average (4.7) and receptions (31). He also scored the longest touchdown of his career, a 70-yard romp.

Bleier retired after the 1980 season, at the age of 34. He retired as the Steelers' fourth-leading rusher, with 3865 rushing yards. He scored 30 touchdowns in his 11-year career—25 in the regular season, four in the playoffs, and one in the Super Bowl.

Bleier played in 14 postseason games in his NFL career. His teams won 13 of them. They cemented their legacy as the most dominant dynasty in the history of the National Football League.

Almost 30 years after his final game, Rocky Bleier remains one of the most popular players in the history of Pittsburgh sports. He wrote a book called Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story, which was made into a TV movie in 1980.

Bleier currently tours the United States, talking to high school students as a motivational speaker.

Bleier epitomizes what it means to truly have the heart of a champion. By never giving up, no matter the odds or the enemy, Bleier proved that ordinary people can become extraordinary achievers.

From winning the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, to finally earning a spot on the Steelers roster, to earning four Super Bowl rings, Rocky Bleier proved that he is truly the definition of success in the 20th century.