One day during training camp in 1968, recent Pittsburgh Steelers draft pick Rocky Bleier had what he thought was the happiest day of his life — at least, at that point.
Then Steelers head coach Bill Austin approached Bleier, the former Notre Dame halfback taken with the 417th pick. Austin told him that he received Bleier’s 1-A draft status in the mail, deeming him available for service in the Vietnam War.
Austin told Bleier that the Steelers would “take care” of the letter for him, Bleier said.
But with three games left in the season, Bleier received another letter. This time around, it was his draft notification.
“I fell through the cracks,” Bleier said in an interview with The Observer.
Because the letter Bleier received was postdated, he had just two days to hop on a bus to report to basic training. About a year after making an NFL roster, the former Notre Dame national champion was deployed to Vietnam.
While in Vietnam, Bleier and his company were on security while on 24-hour alert when Bleier’s point man detected enemy activity out ahead in the rice paddy. Gunfire ensued, and the soldiers dove left and right into the paddy to get out of harm’s way. While in the paddy, Bleier was shot in the leg.
Soon after, while Bleier’s commanding officer probed the perimeter, a hand grenade flew in and bounced off the officer.
“[The grenade] rolls between my feet, and before I can jump out of the way, it blows up,” Bleier said.
Bleier’s company moved to a secure area before a helicopter transported him to treatment. He spent three weeks in the hospital in Tokyo before spending nine months in the hospital in the U.S.
The initial prognosis of the injury was that Bleier would never play football again. But Bleier, citing a human tendency to bounce back from injury, slowly began preparing for a return to the NFL.
“Maybe I was just dumb enough or stubborn enough to not believe what [the doctor] was going to say,” he said. “So my mindset was that, ‘Alright, I’m damaged, but I didn’t lose an arm, I didn’t lose a leg, I didn’t lose a foot.’ You spend time, you rehab, then you go out and play. And as simple as that may sound, that was kind of my mantra.”
Because he dropped from 200 pounds during his initial playing days to about 165 pounds during the war, his rehab process heavily relied on lifting weights.
After four and a half months in Vietnam, three weeks in Tokyo and nine months in the hospital at Fort Riley, Kansas, Bleier was out of the armed services and ready to return to football in July 1970.
Bleier returned to Steelers practice, but was not fully healed. He limped a little, and wounds would occasionally open up while he ran, he said. The Steelers kept him around until the last cuts before placing him on the injured reserve. The following year, Bleier was placed on the taxi squad, giving him one more year to return to full health.
He eventually earned a spot on special teams for the 1972 and 1973 seasons. He almost quit football following the 1973 season, but returned and became a member of four Super Bowl-winning Steelers teams.
Fitting back into the locker room after returning from Vietnam was not difficult, Bleier said.
“It was not that I wore that experience on my sleeve,” Bleier, an Appleton, Wisconsin native, said. “It was just a part of my experience, and I had to put that in perspective because you’re focused on coming back.”
The locker room mentality of a professional sports team was not altered by his experience, he said.
“It doesn’t change, and all the stupid jokes that we pulled on one another, all the pranks, it’s all the same stuff,” he said.
These days, Bleier serves as an honorary board member for the National Veterans Foundation (NVF). Started by his friend, Shad Meshad, NVF offers a lifeline for veterans dealing with a number of crises. Veterans reach out to the lifeline for help involving homelessness, depression and drug abuse.
The lifeline for veterans offers immediate help when they need it the most, Bleier said.
“What we want is that when we’re reaching out for help, we want somebody to help us. We want an immediate reaction,” he said.
Bleier said the nature of his return from Vietnam put him in a spot to start advocating for veterans. While he became a national story for returning to the football field, most veterans returned to a polarized society where they were poorly treated.
General attitudes toward veterans have become more positive since the Gulf War, but Americans should continue to be aware of the struggles veterans endure, Bleier said.
“I think the big thing about Veterans Day is just that, from the American people point of view, is the awareness of the veteran and being able to say thank you,” he said. “I think that acknowledgement has become so important within our culture, just to understand that there are a group of people out there that’s served the country and ultimately fight their wars.”
Contact Ryan Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org.