Rocky’s Road

From wounded warrior to gridiron great, Rocky Bleier never forgot a promise he made in the heat of battle.

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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Q+A with Rocky Bleier

Q: What would you have done if you hadn’t received that postcard from Art that encouraged you to make a comeback?
A: Well, it wasn’t a big dream of mine to go back to Wisconsin into my father’s bar business. I never wanted be an entrepreneur or a lawyer or a coach. My only drive was to be a Pittsburgh Steeler again. Even when the doctor told me my foot was too damaged to play professionally, I never thought about anything else but football. I had a one-track mind.

When you look back at the days of the Steelers dynasty, what do you miss the most?
Mostly the brief period of time after games when all the players were together. There was a sauna in the locker room at the old Three Rivers Stadium. After we came off the field, Chuck [Noll] would give his analysis of the game, and then before the reporters stormed in, we would take off our jerseys and shoulder pads and go into the sauna where there would be cold beer waiting for us. Everybody would stop in and talk about the game—whether it was a win or a loss. It was more about friendship. I miss that a lot.

Which teammate made you laugh the most behind closed doors?

Frenchy Fuqua and Dwight White were extremely funny. Dwight never stopped talking. He was very animated and he’d go into character. But as he got ready for practice, he would take out his teeth. You know how sometimes people put a mask on, and they become a different person? Dwight would take his teeth out, and he would change into someone else. Terry Hanratty was the practical joker—typical sophomoric pranks. He put a glass of water in Lambert’s shoulder pads one day, and when Lambert pulled them down, he got a surprise.

Speaking of Jack, he was your roommate on the road. Was he anything like the myth?
Well, I can’t tell you any Lambert stories because he’s still alive. [Laughs] Everybody likes the gunslinger, and Jack was certainly tough, but people don’t realize how intelligent he is. He is extremely well-read. The reality is a bit different than the image. He’s a big hockey fan, actually. After he retired, Jack started playing for a traveling celebrity hockey team, and I used to go watch the games. It was like a throwback to the old days in the locker room: I’d give Jack some crap [and] tell him how bad he played out there.

What are your favorite memories of The Chief?

Mr. Rooney knew something about each and every one of his players—and all aspects of his business. It was the little things that counted. I remember there was a production team that came in to film Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story, and he was showing them around Three Rivers Stadium. Everywhere he went—the locker room, the hallways, the stands—when he walked by every water fountain, he pressed the button. Afterward, the production team said, ‘Well, thanks very much, Mr. Rooney. It was wonderful, but one question: Why did you keep pressing the buttons on the water fountains?’ And Art said, ‘Because it’s my business.’ If they don’t work, what else doesn’t work?”

Your life is essentially The Great American Comeback Story. Does it ever seem surreal?
You know, my story could not have happened any place else but Pittsburgh. If I didn’t have Franco Harris or Terry Bradshaw or Joe Greene or Jack Lambert, or if I didn’t have Art Rooney as an owner or Chuck Noll as a coach, where would my life had been? Two or three years in the league maybe—then I’d have faded into the past. Luckily, the Steelers had the patience to give me a few years to rehab, and I became part of a team that was a dynasty. It couldn’t have happened in any other place at any other time.

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Read more about Rocky’s efforts in the community, including a special visit he made to World War II veterans at St. Barnabas.