From wounded warrior to gridiron great, Rocky Bleier never forgot a promise he made in the heat of battle.
Illustration by Jordan Merchant
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Hot chocolate and cold beer. That’s what Rocky Bleier remembers most fondly.
The four Super Bowl rings he won as a Pittsburgh Steeler and the Bronze Star he earned for bravery in Vietnam are important mementos. But when he remembers his life now (at age 65), Bleier most fondly recalls drinking Swiss Miss and Iron City with two very different sets of comrades.
The beer was savored during the glory years of the 1970s when the Steelers were running rampant over the NFL with Bleier leading the way. The hot cocoa was shared with his buddies in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade when they’d return to Landing Zone Siberia for some respite after day-long field patrols in the blistering heatsink of the Hiep Duc Valley.
“As silly as it may seem for East Asia, the temperatures would drop at night, and going from 110 to 80 degrees seemed chilly,” Bleier says. “So, I would always ask my family to send me packets of instant hot chocolate. It became like a sixth sense. Somehow, everybody knew when you were getting a care package—so then you had to share.”
Bleier had to rely on those same comrades when his foot was severely wounded by a grenade that exploded during a North Vietnamese attack in August 1969. Pinned down by enemy fire and missing his weapon, he talked to God as medics tried to reach him.
Though he was drafted by the Steelers a year before being drafted by the U.S. Army, the conversation never turned to football. Instead, Bleier promised that he would spend his life helping others and sharing his success—if he lived to see better days.
After an hour-and-a-half of heavy artillery whizzing overhead, reinforcements finally arrived. Unable to walk, Bleier’s exhausted comrades carried him to the evacuation zone. When the poncho that they improvised into a gurney ripped in half, one of the soldiers—who Bleier never saw again—hoisted him up in a fireman’s carry and dragged him to the chopper. While he was recovering from his wounds at a hospital in Japan, doctors told him that his football career was over. Mercifully, Art Rooney Sr., scion of the Steelers, sent a very different message across the Pacific.
“It was a postcard that said, ‘The team’s not doing well. We need you,’” Bleier explains. The ensuing years of grueling rehab and weight training laid the groundwork for one of America’s most famous comeback stories, but it all started with Rooney’s inspiration. The Chief, it turned out, knew more than the doc.
Despite his fairytale success on the gridiron, Bleier kept his battlefield promise. While he never was an all-pro, he became one of the most beloved Steelers in franchise history by being all-class. Today, he works as a spokesperson for returning veterans, and in May, he was honored with the prestigious Hance Award by St. Barnabas Heath System for his service to the community.
Pittsburgh magazine recently sat down with Bleier to talk about fake teeth, six-packs, Jack Splat on Ice and The Chief.
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