Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
After a grenade injured both his legs and sent him home from Vietnam, Army Specialist Robert Patrick "Rocky" Bleier made a full recovery and went on to win four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh steelers.
In college, Bleier played for Notre Dame and was a part of the ‘66 National Championship team. He was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 16th round draft pick, but was drafted by the US Army after the 10th game of the season.
Bleier was sent to Vietnam, where he patrolled the Hiep Duc Valley as a grenadier. During a firefight, he was shot, and then a grenade exploded right by his feet. Bleier had this to say about being evacuated by a sister platoon:
“All of a sudden a fellow soldier reaches down and picks me up and throws me over his shoulder and starts carrying me to the helicopter. And the helicopter was still a far way away. And so he would put me down, my blood all over him and he'd catch his breath and pick me up again and continue on until he got me onto that chopper. And I never saw him again and didn't know who he was or where he came from, where he lived or anything. But the interesting thing was that he was a soldier of color. Now, it may not mean much now in that society, but at that time, back in the sixties. I mean, a lot of things were going on from a social basis. I mean, there was segregation still going on in colleges that would not let Black students be there or sign up. And so now all of a sudden, here it is, you have a Black soldier picking me up, not because he's Black and I'm white, but it was like brother to brother. And it was the immediacy of the time. And you don't think about race, you don't think about anything. And I think that's one of the great things about the military. It just levels the playing field for human beings to react with one another and as a fellow soldier. And so that was like we became brothers in that brotherhood of war.”
SPC Bleier earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service, and was sent home after his injury. Upon arrival in 1970, he returned to the Steelers, and began intense training in order to fully heal from his leg injuries. In 1974, he finally earned a spot in the starting backfield. Bleier would go on to win four Super Bowls with the Steelers, in 1975, 1976, 1979, and 1980.
To learn more about Bleier and his incredible football career, check out his book, Fighting Back.
This Veterans Day, consider donating to help veterans in need. The National Veterans Foundation provides assistance to veterans with needs including medical treatment, PTSD counseling, VA benefits advocacy, food, shelter, employment, training, legal aid, suicide intervention and more. Visit nvf.org to learn how you can help.
Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. If you love listening to this show as much as I love hosting it, I think you’ll really like the Medal of Honor Podcast, produced in partnership with the Medal of Honor Museum. Each episode talks about a genuine American hero, and the actions that led to their receiving our nation’s highest award for valor. They’re just a few minutes each, so if you’re looking for a show to fill time between these warriors episodes, I think you’ll love the Medal of Honor Podcast. Search for the ‘Medal of Honor Podcast’ wherever you get your shows. Thanks.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, in a special Veterans Day episode, we’ll hear from Rocky Bleier. Bleier served in the infantry in Vietnam until an enemy grenade injured both his legs and sent him home. He made a full recovery and went on to win four SuperBowls with the Pittsburgh steelers.
So my name is Robert Patrick "Rocky" Bleier. I was 11 Bravo, spec four when I got back and served in Vietnam from May 1969 to August of 1969.
So the backstory is that I grew up in a small Midwestern town called Appleton, Wisconsin. Just to put it on the map, Appleton is about 25, 30 miles from Green Bay. So as we were growing up, and I'm saying this in the latter part of the fifties and into the sixties. And so when the Packers started to win and football became much more aware to a younger generation because of television. So we were Packer fans.
I grew up in a bar. My father owned a bar, we lived right behind it. We ultimately moved upstairs. So it was a two story building. And so we were one block from downtown. And so it was a neighborhood kind of a deal. You grew up with the school; the Catholic school in which we went to was a block away. And so your friends were all in the neighborhood, as they say.
And so, you look back on it was maybe somewhat of an idyllic time and you played organized sports because you organized it. There weren't any little leagues or Babe Ruth leagues or rec leagues by the Recreation Department or otherwise you would pick up your teams within the neighborhood. And then we started playing the latter part of junior high school, let's say, in an organized fashion at the Catholic grade school at that time then.
So it was the baby boomer move, and just to put things into perspective, at that time there was a growth that was taking place of us younger kids that were coming in. And so we had a brand new high school that was built called Xavier High School, a new Catholic high school that was in the area. And so a lot of kids from around the area that had gone to Catholic grade schools then morphed into this brand new high school. And we had much success during that period of time. And so we had won our championship and ultimately we were the number one ranked team in both football and in basketball during that period of time.
Because of that success, I get an opportunity to continue my education and I get to go to the University of Notre Dame. And there was a big change that took place at that level as well. And so that change was a coaching change. Ara Parseghian came in as my freshman year and all of a sudden he turns the program around, and by my junior year we win a national championship and I get to be captain of the football team my senior year. And during that period of time, I only lost five games. And so success was mounting one another. And because of that, I get to be drafted in the NFL by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
And as I tell people, just to put in perspective, I was not their first choice nor their top 10 list. I was the 417th person picked in the draft. I was the 16th round draft choice at that time, but I got a chance to be able to make the team and ultimately the rest of the story goes on.
So in high school, or at least in 1963, there was this conflict that was taking place over in the far east in Vietnam, and it's started to make the news. And we had gone over to help the French in that conflict because of a treaty that we had. So all of a sudden ... So high school was taking place, there was military action taking place, so it became part of the news. Then we go on to college, we get a deferment, and then things start to escalate. So through that period of time, from 64 to 68, my years in college, is that it was the somewhat center of attention. It was always in the news as it expanded and grew and you were part of that population that possibly could be drafted.
So now all of a sudden high school friends that had dropped out of school or didn't know what they were going to do, enlisted and/or got drafted, and the draft was a big issue. And then the war started to escalate, and because it escalated, became an unpopular conflict over there. Now, the soldier at that time was then identified with the conflict and not necessarily being praised as he is today. So it was just there. It was just always a part of your life. So when you talk about the military, yeah, it was kind of just, friends were enlisted into different branches and/or got drafted and were in Vietnam and served or came back. And so it was a part of your awareness factor that this conflict was going on. So it was always around you. I had friends that had dropped out of college and got drafted and weren't necessarily, they had gone to Vietnam but weren't necessarily in a combat unit. They were in support mechanisms or part of the service, but they were still there. And so then the student movement started to take hold, and that was college students getting involved in anti war demonstrations and et cetera.
Most of the feedback that I had received and to some degree was, anybody who was in the military I should say, was not really opposed to what was taking place. It was just a part of where they were at that time, that they were in the military, that they were serving. And so, I mean, at least that's the feedback that I received from those that I had talked to.
I got drafted as I had made mentioned by the Pittsburgh Steelers and I was their 16th round draft choice. And so you're in training camp and you're going through not knowing what was taking place, just trying to do your best and so on. And it was a latter part of the training camp. As I say, the happiest day of my life at that moment in time, which was the head coach after a meeting that I was in, Bill Austin was his name, and I was walking out of the meeting and he said, "Can I talk to you for a moment?" And so I said, "Oh, okay, fine." And so he pulled me aside and he said, "Listen, we got this letter in the mail. It was opened accidentally." It was to me, but it was open accidentally. And he said, "We think you're good enough to make this team and we will take care of this for you."
Well, the letter was my 1A classification, which just meant I lost my student deferment and I was now eligible for the draft. Whatever ‘take care of this’ meant in his mind it was like, ‘I'm good enough to make the team.’
So time goes by, a week goes by, two weeks go by, a month goes by. I hadn't heard anything from the Steelers and we're just doing our process. So unlike today maybe, but I go down to the Steeler office and talk to the general manager, and I go, "Have you guys heard anything about this taking care of this for me?" And he said, "We're having a little problem. The general retired, the congressman got defeated, all our contacts are... But we're working on it." Whatever that meant as well. So in my mind, see in my mind, which was that, and the only experience I had was through the Green Bay Packers. And so when I would be back home prior to going to training camp, there would always be an article in the paper about those players that were in the reserve. And so they would go to two weeks during the summer or they'd be on weekend calls as the regulation was at that time. So there are just little stories in the back of my mind and go, "Well, that's the possibility of what may happen if you make the team."
So anyway, as time goes on, all of a sudden I slip through the cracks and it was after the 10th game of the season and was down to training camp. We were at the stadium and I was sitting on my stool much like this, getting ready to go out to practice when one of the equipment men holler, "Hey, Bleier, there was a letter over here for you."
Now, you have to understand in the locker room, not any different than any other locker rooms, is that there was a table. And usually on that table was where all the fan mail would be deposited for the players. When you're not on a winning team, there's not a whole lot of fan mail. And when you're the 416th pick of the NFL draft and nobody knows you exist playing on a losing team, there's not a whole lot of fan mail. And so I was surprised that there was a letter, and I walked over there and I picked it up, opened it up, slipped out the paper inside, unfolded it, and said, "Greetings, we'd like to inform you that you've been inducted into the armed services of your country." Kind of came out of left field, let's say. And I knew it was hanging out there because I hadn't heard anything from the Steelers and it's a possibility and things were getting kind of tight. But the kicker was to report the next morning at 7:00 AM to be inducted into the armed services. Now, I thought, “They're supposed to give you a week, aren't they? At least?” Well, it was postdated a week before, got lost in the mail. By the time I received it was to report the next day. So there was kind of a panic at that time to say, "All right, fine, Holy man."
And so eventually, I did report the next morning they gave me 24 hours to get my stuff together. And so it really wasn't until the following morning when I was inducted. Now, part of that was, as I look back on it now, maybe part of the helpful thing was the reaction of having to be in a mode to deal with it immediately, meaning my life. Okay, I got to call my parents, I got to get this together, I got to get that together, talk to the Steelers, knowing that on that date, the following day, I was going to be gone. So I packed my bag, did everything they had to do, and went. Went to basic training and then went to AIT and ultimately got my orders. So part of it, you had to sit around thinking about what if this and so on. And so you were in that reactive mode of just dealing with the issues at that time and moving forward. And so that was it. I didn't have time to question or wonder why. And so I am now a buck private in the armed forces.
1968 was the height of the war in Vietnam. We had the most personnel that was over there. It was over 500,000 troops in Vietnam. So the escalation was to get more troops over there. So it came down and my MOS was 11 Bravo. Everybody in our group was 11 Bravo. And so that was it. It's always like your fate. Now, I got my orders. So I flew home, said goodbye, had a couple weeks after AIT to report in San Francisco to fly over to Vietnam.
I joined a unit. So we flew over. So yes, the airline was packed with young soldiers and just everybody had a seat. Your duffle bag was between your legs and you just sat there until you landed in Vietnam.
So we landed, and I didn't know what to expect. You landed, and I didn't know there was fighting or what to expect at the airfield where there was shooting back and forth and so on. And so we deplaned, grabbed our bags, got into a bus. The bus was taking us to registration, wherever that was at the time. And so there were bars on the windows of the bus, and I was thinking, "Wow, what's happening here? What was taking place? Was there fighting on the way down? Was there shooting?" None of that I knew. So somebody explained the fact that there were bars on it so that nothing could break or come through the windows as we were walking through. But that was my first experience. And so we got into where we needed to report and got to our bunks and dropped our stuff off and went through the process.
So when I got my assignment of where I was going to go, finally a helicopter picks us up and drops us off at the LZ, and I was with the Americal division, the 196th, the brigade, fourth of the 31st Infantry. I was a Charlie Company and I reported to Charlie Company. So I got to Charlie Company. And so we were on LZ West, one of the landing zones, and there was nobody there except for the artillery guys. All our guys were down on a sweep off the LZ. And so I was hanging around until they came back up. And I remember my first impression was they just all were haggard and they were tired, and they were climbing up the side of the mountain to come back after their sweep. And the image in my mind was every military picture I saw, every World War II picture I saw of these guys, some had that thousand yard stare just trying to exist coming in. And I'm going, "Oh, wow." I mean, that opened my eyes. And so I was the first new guy to come in three months to be attached to that unit. And so the first sergeant, he came in, he put me with first squad, and they said, "Okay, fine. And you're going to be a grenadier." Two days later he said, "Okay, fine. This is what you're going to be. You're going to carry the grenade launcher. And we were going to put you on the M60, but we don't need anybody over there. We need somebody to be a grenadier. So this is what your responsibility is." And so that was my first reaction at that time.
And so then part of that was, as I had said, we were up there for a period of time, and in the squad I was in, and we'd be taking sweeps off of the mountain and coming back up. And you just kind of got into the mode of just being there.
It was kind of interesting, and it is that ultimately the comparison is that it wasn't any different than any training camp I'd gone through from an experience point of view. And I say this to some degree, whether it be in college basically, and/or in my one year with the Steelers in training camp. But training camp is training camp. And so you're trying to survive, you're trying to make a team, you're trying to do what is expected of you. You got assignments, and so you focus on that aspect of it. Yeah, you might be tired, you have to run sprints, you got to do the conditioning, et cetera, et cetera. And so it's somewhat much like the military. Now all of a sudden you're focused in what you had to do. So there was a couple things as you're working through this, is that how other people respond to the situation or leadership? Now, I'm 23 years old, and I think my lieutenant's 24 years old. The other guys around me are maybe 18, 19, 20, 21. And so all we're doing is we're trying to survive and do our responsibility, whatever that may be. And you go through this process, going down on sweeps, coming back up on sweeps, you're tired. And now ultimately, whether this would be part of this answer, but ultimately you have to find a reason. You have to find a reason why you're there. You have to find a reason why you may be shot and/or die for something outside of defending our own land or being in our own home or whatever it might be. So now all of a sudden you're over there, and I don't know whether a lot of soldiers found that reason and whether or not it was the right reason, but you have to come up with why are you here and what are you willing to fight for or get out of this?
And so I guess mine was that in some of those sweeps coming off the hills, down in the villages, there were hooches, little villages and there were just mamasans and babies and older people. And so the way I can remember coming through a small little encampment and they were boiling a hoof, a steer hoof in a bucket of water, and that was their meal. And so you just thought, "Well, okay, if my presence here can help them maybe take one step forward rather than two steps backwards, maybe that is well worth us being here." Simple as it may be, and not in depth. But I think that it becomes important for each soldier to be able to find a reason outside of defending their country or for their country. A personal reason why they are there, and that they may lose their lives over. Not that that'll ever happen, but deep down inside, I think that somebody thinks about that. And so as simple as that may be, that became part of the reason, or at least for me, an acceptance of being there.
Your battalion, made up of four companies, had an area of operation in which they covered. So in that area, we operated from two landing zones: LZ West, as I'd made mention, and LZ Siberia. The landing zones were on top of hilltops or mountains. And that's where the heavy artillery was located. And so that's where supplies would come in for the troops also up there. So you would rotate. A company each would be security around those landing zones up on top. And two would be down in the field doing maneuvers and searching and trying to follow or find the enemy. So then they would rotate. So you'd be down in the field then up on a LZ, then down in the field, up an LZ. Usually maybe 10 day to maybe two weeks deployment of that kind of a nature.
So as you come to learn, is that on the sweeps, so when you're on an LZ, then every day you would take a platoon or a squad would go down, take a sweep down into an area of operation around that base, and then walk back up in the evening. And so then that would rotate while you're up there day after day after day after day after day. So you weren't doing it every day, but that was it.
Now, one of the things about it is that when you're on the LZ, you're in a stationary position. So the Viet Cong knew where you were, so they knew those coordinates. And so every day, just about every day, there was always some action that would take place. So every now and then as you're up there pulling security guard, someone would have a, what would you call it? A rocket grenade launcher. And then all of a sudden you'd hear an explosion. So the sound would be, "Incoming." Okay, everybody knows. And they would then walk the rockets up or the grenades up the side of the hill. And so it would hit one, explode, hit another, hit another, hit another, and then we'd return fire once we finally found where that location was. But that would happen sporadic while you were up on the mountain.
In the valley, when you're walking, now you're moving. So you're moving and the enemy's moving. And unlike today, because of the technology we have, you weren't as viable on the field or on the ground, doing those sweeps out on the field. And because if you happen to run across one another, you might. So we'd come into villages and we'd check out the villages and so on, and then move on and move on. And we'd have an area of operation. So your day would be, you'd get up, get a cup of coffee, you'd make it, then you'd move out, you'd get to a point where you would have a stop for "lunch", so to speak. And then you'd move out of that area after a couple hours into another area where you'd have a bivouac for that evening, you set up a security guard, and you would do that and repeat that day after day after day as you move through that area of operation. So it was different places and different expectations, but at every place, you had to pull guard duty within your platoon and/or within your area. So you'd switch. You'd be up for two hours, and then your teammate would be up for two hours, and then you have a third guy. And so you'd get four hours sleep if you could, and then you'd just rotate through the evening until we got up in the morning and moved out to the next location.
So now the details of that day was that we're up on LZ Siberia, our company is, and let's just say was over the weekend. All of a sudden we get a report that there's enemy activities. I'm a grunt, I'm a private. So all you do is get what's fed down to you. You don't know what's happening or why it's happening or whatever it is. So all of a sudden we're on 24 hour alert. Now, 24 hour alert is, "Whoa, there's some stuff happening out here." That means nobody's on break, everybody's alert. We're on 24 hours as best we possibly can to manage that. We may be moving out. So finally, as bits of information get down to where we are, and ultimately the story wasn't ...
I didn't find out all this until after the fact, but there was a movement by the NVA of North Vietnam. They had a whole regiment that was moving down into the Hiep Duc Valley. That's where we were located up in I-corp.
And so this movement was moving down of regimental soldiers. So a Bravo company was out in the field, Charlie company I was with, who was on LZ Siberia. We're on 24 hour alert. They got hit or were under attack. And all of a sudden we are ... helicopters were pulled together to get out and helicopter were flying down into the valley, and our mission is to get to Bravo company to give them the support they needed or whatever. So we're flying out in helicopters, we get out, assemble, we're moving out through the late afternoon into the early evening. There's a firefight taking place. Helicopters are coming in. I can see machine gun from the enemy. One of the helicopters got hit. So all this action, but it was taking place at night. Our mission was there to get and support Bravo company. So by the time we get to them, it is late at night, and bodies that did not get removed by helicopters, we were now going to move them out of that spot. So our responsibility was to pull front and rear security and carry what dead that were left and out of that area. So we're trying to move what was left of Bravo company.
So all of a sudden there was a body that was left. I grabbed another guy, I said, "Come on, we got to take him out of here." I threw my grenade launcher to one of my friends behind us. And so we picked the body up, and as we're moving out, we had to cross a stream. And so there was a machine gun position on the stream. Now all of a sudden it opens fire. And we're in another firefight very quickly. After a period of time, the word was let's leave the bodies, let's move out as best we possibly can. So eventually we did move out and we hook up with another company that was in the field. We set up a defensive position that night.
Next morning we're moving back. So our company was going to go back to retrieve the bodies that had been left behind. And so it was a reinforced platoon as we were moving forward. And the reinforced platoon was basically the command central. So our company commander was with us and a couple lieutenants and the radio guy and the rest of our platoon. So we had gone back and we were walking on an open rice paddy. So we're coming onto this wooded area onto an open rice paddy, when all of a sudden our point man saw movement across the berm, and shots broke the stillness. And the enemy started to run. And he started to chase them and pulling everybody out in the middle of that rice paddy when all of a sudden a machine gun starts to level the area. Bodies were diving left and right into the rice paddies that we were crossing. And so I jumped in one in front of me, got to the end of it, looked down, four other guys were pinned down in an open rice paddy as well. I did see the machine gun, or I could see where it was coming from. It was maybe 150 meters away up in the hillside. So as grenadier, my responsibility is get some firepower onto that position. So I rolled over my side, breached my grenade, and went to fire when I felt a thud in my left leg. And it started burn… and it bled. At the same time, Mike, the soldier behind me, had hollered at me, "Rock," to get my attention. And I thought that he threw a stone at me that hit me in the thigh, until it continued to hurt and hurt and hurt. And so I was hit for the first time that day. I discharged my round. Now I thought, "Okay, they hit you once. They're going to hit you again." So I moved behind some hedgerow that was to the left of me, get a little more protection. So I got enough firepower on that machine gun position so that the four guys who were pinned down in front of me got out of there and moved back. And eventually we had moved out of that rice paddy and back into the wooded area in which we had just came out of. And we set up another defensive position and they probed our perimeter basically over a period of time.
They probed our perimeter, got close enough, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a grenade come flying through the air end over end, over end, over end, over end. And it hit my commanding officer right in the middle of the back. He was lying prone, looking out over the field of fire. And boom, it hits him in the back, bounces off, rolls between my feet as I get up to jump out of the way, it blows up and blows up between my feet and my legs. And we're in another firefight until a sister platoon finally fought its way down to get us out of there.
They came down, there was a lull. So then they carried us out of there. So I can remember lying there, this reinforced platoon, as I said, came. The first guy that dove into where I was, he said, "Oh, you're all right. Yeah. Oh, we got a report that you'd bought it, that you and the lieutenant had got killed. I'm glad you didn't. Boy, we'll get you out of here." He said, "Don't worry, you'll be the first guy that I'll get you out of here." I said, "Okay, fine." Then he comes back to me, he said, "No, I'm sorry, the lieutenant's going to be the first guy. You're going to be the second guy." I said, Oh, oh, okay, fine."
So basically they dragged me out of there on a poncho liner. So four guys carried each corner and started carrying me through the evening. Now, we had a distance to go, I think about a klick or a couple klicks away to where the landing zone was that we had had secured earlier or that another company had secured. And that's where we're heading through the night. So they pulled me and pulled me and pulled me and pulled me through the night. Now they'd been up just as long as we had. They'd been in a firefight as well coming down to get us out of there. So they were tired. And then finally got to a point where they said, "Hey, we can't drag you any further. Don't worry, we'll send a stretcher back for you." And I said, "Okay, fine."
And then an amazing story had taken place at that time or in action, and you don't think about it until afterwards when all of a sudden a fellow soldier reaches down and picks me up and throws me over his shoulder and starts carrying me to the helicopter. And the helicopter was still a far way away. And so he would put me down, my blood all over him and he'd catch his breath and pick me up again and continue on until he got me onto that chopper. And I never saw him again and didn't know who he was or where he came from, where he lived or anything. But the interesting thing was that he was a soldier of color. Now, it may not mean much now in that society, but at that time, back in the sixties. I mean, a lot of things were going on from a social basis. I mean, there was segregation still going on in colleges that would not let Black students be there or sign up. And so now all of a sudden, here it is, you have a Black soldier picking me up, not because he's Black and I'm white, but it was like brother to brother. And it was the immediacy of the time. And you don't think about race, you don't think about anything. And I think that's one of the great things about the military. It just levels the playing field for human beings to react with one another and as a fellow soldier. And so that was like we became brothers in that brotherhood of war. So it was an interesting experience.
You know, people say, "Well, why did you do it?" I think the inner drive for me was to be able to come back and play football. I mean, because I wanted to. It was part of my identity or whatever it means. But it became a driving force.
Also, there were some lessons learned, I think, from my point of view as human nature. And as I tell people, I say, "One of the things playing sports specifically, or not even playing sports, but just playing in the neighborhood, is that we all have bumps and bruises as we grow up. You get scraped knees, you might sprain your ankle, twist your knee, God forbid that you break a finger or whatever it is, then you'd be in a cast. But there's a process that you learn and that process is that you get hurt, it hurts. You go see mom, she takes you to a doctor, doctor just says, 'This is what we do.' Then you rehab, it heals, and you're back out playing within a week or two weeks thereafter." And so it's that kind of a mindset.
So my mindset was that, okay, I'm injured. I didn't lose an arm, I didn't lose a leg, damaged as it may be. But I've been there before. So you just go through the process. And I think one of the things in that process is getting back, having an opportunity, getting back to work, getting back to your body, back in shape as you best possibly can, not knowing what the future may be.
The other thing is that I wanted to get to a point where I would erase those ‘ifs’ that we carry around with us. ‘If I would've done this,’ ‘if I would've done that,’ ‘if I would have worked out more,’ et cetera, et cetera, ‘it might have worked out.’
And so I went back trying to get my body back in shape as I was still in the military and went through that process. And I came back to the Steelers in 1970. I got out of the service and I went back to training camp in 1970. I had to write Mr. Rooney to see whether I could be invited. And he said, "Yes, come on back."
And so the interesting thing is that I was there for the whole period of time. Being the family that they were, they gave me an opportunity and basically that was it. I went as best I possibly could. I thought I was in pretty good shape. But two days takes its toll. And ultimately they put me on injured reserve. I have another operation, they buy me a year. I come back the following year and I go through training camp again, a little bit better this time. And I make the taxi squad or the developmental squad, as they say now. So they bought me two years. Two years to heal, two years to get bigger, stronger, faster to come back or whatever it is. And so I come back and now in 1972. And I come back in 1972, I'm the leading ground gainer during the exhibition season in 1972. And good enough to make the team. Played special teams. Never carried the ball the remaining part of the season. Came back in 73, a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger. And so in 1973, it was the biggest that I had been. I weighed 218 pounds coming back and in training camp I bench pressed 465 pounds. I squatted over 600 pounds. And again, I was the leading ground gainer during the exhibition season. Got to carry the ball once during that season.
But in our lives, what we decide or how we look at things, is that to come back the following year again, to come back in 1974, I would have to fight with every free agent, draft choice and rookie to do so. And I just didn't think it was fair. Not that life's fair, but I thought maybe it's a sign, maybe my life's going in another direction. We do this at times. I did come back, I did make the team, I got a chance to play. Maybe not to the level I thought, but hey, that wasn't part of the deal. And after the 73 season, I left the Steelers to find my life's work, not to come back.
And as that story goes, I get a call from Andy Russell, who was our captain of the time as the all pro linebacker. He was coming to Chicago, that's where I was living. And he said, "Let's get together." There's a sports banquet had taken place, sponsored by the NFL. “Guys are coming from all of our leagues. I mean, why don't you come, I hadn't seen you. It'd be great to get together." So I'm not going back, in my mind. I declined. He pushed, I declined. And then he asked me why. And I said, "Well, I quit. I'm not going back." And I remember him saying, "You can't quit." He said, "If you quit, what you've already done is you've already made a decision for the coaching staff. Do you like them well enough to make decisions for them?" He said, "No, your responsibility, if this is what you want to do, is that you make them make a decision, you back them in the corner. You give them every reason to either keep you or release you, but you don't cut yourself. The reality of this game is that we're all expendable. The reality of this game is we all can be cut at any time, but if this is what you want, then you don't cut yourself."
Maybe it was just the arm twisting I needed and I went back and everything that I had perceived did take place. I had a fight with every free agent, draft choice and rookie once again to make the team. And I made the team. The leading ground gainer during the exhibition season. Now, I say that just to put it in context. The reason I was a leading ground gainer wasn't because of the fact I was bigger, better, faster than all the other running backs. No, it was a simple fact that during that exhibition season, I played more than anybody else. I carried the ball more than anybody else because they're trying to make a decision on me. And given those two simple facts, I better be the leading ground gainer because all they were providing for me was an opportunity. And I made the team. Was the fifth running back out of four at the beginning of the season.
But things happen as we well know in our lives and especially in sports. An injury here, an injury there, and all of a sudden I find myself getting a chance to play. Then I find myself in a starting role. And the rest becomes history. And we go to the SuperBowl for the first time that year, 74, and we play six more years. Franco and I and Bradshaw on that backfield and we win three more Super Bowls. And so you become part of that, of the starting team because of an opportunity that somebody pushed you through the door, somebody gave you a chance to be able to do it, and you have to take advantage of it.
That was SPC Rocky Bleier.
In honor of Veterans Day, Bleier and I ask that you consider donating to help veterans in need. The National Veterans Foundation provides assistance to veterans with needs including medical treatment, PTSD counseling, VA benefits advocacy, food, shelter, employment, training, legal aid, suicide intervention and more. Visit nvf.org to learn how you can help.
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Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.
Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.