September 27, 2017
The Pittsburgh Steeler's current military veteran made me recall a different one who I do not believe would have either been asked to - or would apologize for - standing for the National Anthem.
In the famous 1970s championship years of the Pittsburgh Steelers, they had a running back who was a wounded Vietnam veteran who rehabilitated and won a starting
backfield position. If you are of a certain age, you may have heard of him. His name was Rocky Bleier.
Born and raised in Appleton, Wisconsin, Bleier was the oldest of four children of Bob and Ellen Bleier, who ran a tavern - Bleier's Bar - while the family of six lived above it. He had a paper route as a youth, and graduated from Xavier High School in 1964, where he starred in football and basketball. In football, Bleier was a three-time all-state selection as running back, and won all-conference honors at both linebacker and defensive back. He was a team captain in football, basketball, and track.
Bleier played college football at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and graduated in 1968 with a degree in business management. During his junior season in 1966, the Fighting Irish won the national championship and he was a team captain as a senior in 1967. He was selected in the 16th round of the 1968 NFL/AFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, 417th overall.
After his rookie season with the Steelers, Bleier was drafted into the U.S. Army in December 1968 during the Vietnam War. He volunteered for duty in South Vietnam and shipped out for Vietnam in May 1969 assigned to Company C, 4th Battalion (Light), 31st Infantry 196th Light Infantry Brigade and assigned as a squad grenadier operating a 40mm M79 grenade launcher. On August 20, while on patrol in Heip Duc, Bleier was wounded in the left thigh by an enemy rifle bullet when his platoon was ambushed in a rice paddy. While he was down, an enemy grenade landed nearby after bouncing off a fellow soldier, sending shrapnel into his lower right leg. He lost part of his right foot in the blast as well. He was later awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. His rank was Specialist 4.
While he was recovering in a hospital in Tokyo, doctors told him that he could not play football again. Soon after, he received a postcard from Steelers owner Art Rooney which read "Rock - the team's not doing well. We need you. Art Rooney". Bleier later said, "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 kind of people". After several surgeries, he was discharged from the military in July 1970 and began informal workouts with Steeler teammates.
Bleier rejoined the Steelers in camp in 1970. Upon his return, he couldn't walk without being in pain, and weighed only 180 pounds (82 kg). He was put on injured
reserve for the season, but returned in 1971 and played on special teams. He spent several seasons trying to get increased playing time, and was waived on two occasions. But Bleier never gave up, and said that he worked hard so that "some time in the future you didn't have to ask yourself 'what if?'". An offseason training regimen brought Bleier back to 212 lb (96 kg) in the summer of 1974, and he earned a spot in the Steelers' starting lineup.
Since Preston Pearson was wearing number 26 (the number Bleier wore his rookie season before he went to Vietnam), Bleier switched to number 20 when he returned to the team. After Pearson was traded to the Dallas Cowboys in 1975, Bleier kept the number 20, with which he had become associated.
In addition to being a great lead blocker, Bleier was the second of the Steelers' rushing weapons (Franco Harris was the primary back), but was effective nonetheless at both blocking and rushing. In 1976, both Harris and Bleier rushed for over 1,000 yards, making this the second NFL team to accomplish this feat, after Mercury Morris and Larry Csonka of the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
Bleier played in the first four Steeler Super Bowl victories, and caught the touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw that gave Pittsburgh a lead it would never surrender in Super Bowl XIII. He also recovered Dallas's onside kick in the closing seconds, sealing the Steelers' victory.
Bleier retired after the 1980 season with 3,865 rushing yards, 136 receptions for 1,294 yards, and 25 touchdowns. At the time of his retirement, he was the Steelers' fourth all-time leading rusher.
Bleier wrote a book of his struggle to recover from his war wounds called Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story, and it was made into a television movie in 1980, with Robert Urich starring as Bleier, Richard Herd as Steelers coach Chuck Noll, Art Carney as team owner Art Rooney, and many of Bleier's teammates (including Matt Bahr and "Mean Joe” Greene) as themselves. Bleier is featured in the 2014 feature documentary "Project 22", which chronicles the cross-country motorcycle journey of two young veterans exploring alternative treatments for PTSD and TBI.
Bleier has four children. He has two children from his marriage with Aleta Giacobine Whitaker, from whom he was divorced in October 1996. He also has two adopted children with his second wife, Jan Gyurina. As of 2011, he lived in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania.
Bleier has become an author and speaker on retirement and financial management. He has authored the book Don't fumble your retirement and is the co-host of a
weekly radio show The Rock on Retirement on Pittsburgh radio station 104.7 FM WPGB. He runs Bleier Zagula Financial with his business partner Matt Zagula.
You can watch the two hour Rocky Bleier made for tv movie for free on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAmMP3MusDs
I tried to load "Project 22" as a free view on PBS at http://www.pbs.org/video/soptv-stories-service-project-22/ but had a problem with my computer. Here is a
description of the film:
After tragedy struck home last year, two combat-wounded veterans set out to end a little-known epidemic in America. Their 6,500-mile cross-country mission was to raise awareness of the high rate of suicide amongst Veterans and show their brothers and sisters-at-arms that there is hope for them. During their journey, they interviewed researchers, healthcare providers, and Veterans. Many of those they encountered had either contemplated or attempted suicide and were able to share the life-saving alternative sources of hope that they had found. Asking hard-hitting questions and opening up about their own struggles, and painfully spurred on by recent estimations that 22 veterans are taking their own lives every single day, Daniel and Doc will stop at nothing to reach tomorrow’s twenty-two.
Project 22 includes interviews with veterans who have found help and support for problems they faced after coming home through various therapies and programs.
Some which they found effective in easing their pain are shown in the film and include: Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy, Equine therapy, Military Therapy Dogs,
Meditation, Veteran Sailing Groups, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, and more.
MAKING OF PROJECT 22
Project 22 was a 22 day, 6,500 mile motorcycle awareness campaign from San Francisco to New York City to raise awareness of the high rate of suicides within the Veteran community. As we traveled across the country, we spoke with many Veterans who had contemplated or attempted suicide and asked them for their stories; what led them to it and what brought them out of it. The responses regarding the challenges were in remarkable unison although the hope they found came in many different forms. We were able to explore the therapeutic potential behind sailing, pottery, education, activism, family, service dogs, painting and more.
We also spoke with leading researchers of Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress, mental health clinicians and educators, as well as, leading experts in warrior culture and combat stress. Coupled with the insightful and potentially life changing information we captured in interviews, we filmed the motorcycle awareness campaign, including camping, several organized rides and our final ride being escorted into World Trade Center by the Port Authority Police Department. We gathered incredible footage and news coverage in multiple cities, including Pittsburgh and New York.
Doc flew back to Dallas with a small crew to film three interviews missed during the trip due to inclement weather. Medicinal Missions continued the awareness campaign, through events and social media, leading up to and following the release of the documentary. Project 22 screened by request more than one hundred times around the United States, before the television premier hosted by Southern Oregon Public Television and the subsequent international, online release on PBS.org.
Project 22 was entirely crowd-funded via an IndieGoGo campaign and private donations. In addition, the crew was offered food, lodging and assistance wherever we rode, helping keep production costs low. Medicinal Missions is a production company and social enterprise co-owned by Daniel Egbert & Doc King. Their first production, Project 22 is fiscally sponsored by From The Heart Productions, a 501(c)3 non-profit.
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