The incredible career of Rocky Bleier, running back on one of professional football’s greatest teams, was nearly preempted by a North Vietnamese Army attack on Aug. 20, 1969. Bleier’s amazing perseverance in overcoming severe wounds and going on to win four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers is the stuff of legend. After football, Bleier became a successful businessman and motivational speaker. He is an outspoken supporter of veterans and is on the board of Boulder Crest, a retreat for wounded warriors in Bluemont, Va. Bleier recently recounted his wartime experience and unlikely path to the NFL. Find much more of this interview at HistoryNet.com.
Growing up in Appleton, Wis., near Green Bay, did you dream of being in the NFL?
No, it was a different time in the country then. People were more involved in local sports. We really had a great high school coach, Torchy Clark, who coached football and basketball. In three years we never lost a football game and only lost four basketball games. My senior year I was on the Parade All-America team.
How did you get to Notre Dame?
I visited Notre Dame, the University of Wisconsin and Boston College. So I had to make a decision and did what every good Catholic boy was taught to do: Go to church and pray for guidance. Then I did what my mother told me to do and chose Notre Dame. It was the right decision. I got to play with great guys, and we won a national championship.
Did you expect to go pro?
I didn’t think about pro ball until my junior year in college when I went to a Packers game and looked at a program to see if anyone my size was playing. It was a Steelers game, and they had a back, Jim “Cannonball” Butler, who was 5 feet, 9 inches, 190 pounds—about my size. In 1968, the Steelers, the worst team in the league, were the only team interested in me. I was the 417th guy picked.
So, during your first season, how did you get drafted into the Army?
I was a rube from Wisconsin. I figured, if you make the Steelers, they will get you into the Reserves or Guard. But it was 1968. The Reserves were full, and when I asked the Steelers if they were going to do anything, they said they had talked to my draft board and I wouldn’t be drafted until the end of December. For some reason, my draft notification was delivered a week late, so when I opened it I found I had to report the next morning! I really had no time to react.
What was your first impression when you arrived in Vietnam?
When I got to my company at Chu Lai in May 1969, they were just coming in from patrol. They looked like old grizzled vets, not 19-year-old kids. I was this new meat, the first new guy in four to five months. They made me a grenadier.
Did you have any feelings about the war?
I wasn’t politically inclined. I was just trying to get through life. All through that period I was just reacting, in survival mode. But ultimately you had to find a reason to be there, a core reason you were doing what you were doing, so if you were going to die there you would know why. I think those who couldn’t find that found other things like alcohol or drugs to survive. For me it came when we were on patrol and came across a couple of hooches, not even a village, and there was a papa-san, his daughter and a couple of naked kids. They were boiling a buffalo hoof in a pot of water on a flame outside. I thought, I suppose that if my being here can help these people take one step forward in their lives instead of two steps back, maybe that’s why I’m here. That may have been naive or simple, but it was at least something I could grasp on to.
What were you doing in the four months before you were wounded?
I was in Company C, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry, 196th Light Infantry Brigade. We were in the area of LZs West and Siberia. We rotated between them, pulled bunker guard, then went in the field for 10 days, then back to the LZ for 10 days.
How were you wounded on August 20?
We were on LZ Siberia. Company B was on a sweep when about half of the company went out to search for a weapons cache. Those left behind were hit hard with mortars. By the time we were moving out to help them, it was dark. We could see flares and hear the gunfire, but when we reached them it was quiet. Some of the wounded and dead had been helicoptered out, but several bodies were still there. I gave someone my grenade launcher so I could help carry the last one out on a stretcher. We were waiting on the berm of a rice paddy to cross a stream when all of a sudden a machine gun opened up downstream. We dropped where we were. Gunshots were coming in, and mortars fired on the machine gun position. It seemed like an eternity, but it was probably a half-hour before all went silent. We were ordered to leave the bodies and move out so we didn’t get pinned down. We finally got back to our location, and we set up an encampment that night.
The next day a platoon from Delta Company came in to help us go back and retrieve those bodies. We were humping back to where we’d been, when a machine gun suddenly started to level the area. Guys were diving into the paddy. Most everybody went to the right. I jumped with the radioman to the left. I saw where the machine gun was, and it was my responsibility to get some fire on it. When I rolled over to get a grenade, I heard the medic behind me hollering “Rock! Rock!” As I turned around, I felt this punch in my leg and it started spurting blood. The medic threw me a gauze, and I wrapped it around that leg, then discharged my round. I had some cover from a little hedgerow. I could still see the machine gun and lobbed grenades. On the radio I could hear people yelling for help and guys were getting hit.
How did you get out?
Finally, the medic and I were able to crawl back to where the rest of our guys were set up. The enemy got close enough to lob a grenade that hit my commanding officer. It bounced off and blew up my right foot. We were then in a firefight, and with the captain, lieutenant and forward observer taken out of action, a sergeant took over. He called in a gunship, and the enemy dropped back. Another platoon was sent in to pull us out of there. These guys had been out as long as we had, and now they had to drag us out. I was wrapped in a poncho liner, and every 50 yards they had to rest. In the meantime the adrenaline’s wearing off, the pain is starting to pound. At some point, a black guy reached down and said, “I got you buddy,” and threw me over his shoulder. He carried me to the base of a hill, and they got a stretcher for me. Six hours after being wounded, I got my first morphine shot. I got a staph infection in the field hospital, and in Tokyo the doctors thought they might have to amputate the leg. The infection cleared up, but they weren’t able to do any reconstructive surgery.
How much did your desire to return to the NFL help your recovery?
My focus was to come back. I started working out as soon as I could. It was just a matter of going through rehab and then building my body back up.
Your experience was quite different from what most vets had coming home.
I was a story: “The kid back, fighting to overcome injuries to rejoin the Steelers.” I was in a supportive environment that allowed me to talk about things, unlike other vets who never had the opportunity to talk about the war and their feelings because nobody asked them. But people didn’t look down on me. They helped me deal with any anger and insecurities.
Still, your saga nearly ended in 1970.
Dan Rooney, the team owner, wanted his doctors to work on my foot before training in 1970, but I was so bullheaded I said, “I want to make the team.” I wasn’t ready, but they kept me through camp, then the coach released me. But Dan put me on injured reserve and gave me another operation. I made the taxi squad in 1971. Then I made the special teams in 1972. I was just trying to hang on.
Your story must be an inspiration to other veterans.
Everybody faces his own challenges and has to live his own experiences. But stories are important. A good friend of mine died recently at 96. He had served with the 31st Infantry on Corregidor, was on the Death March and in a POW camp until rescued. Then for three years he helped retrieve the bodies of Americans left behind. What he went through was a source of inspiration, yet the only way I could really relate was by going through my own trials.
Do Vietnam vets have a special role to play for young veterans?
I think just being a Vietnam vet is good enough, but we’ve been on the forefront of getting all vets recognition and making changes in Veterans Affairs. Our experience might be different, but it is important to relate our stories to young veterans, and increasingly Vietnam vets are getting better at telling their stories.
Why are private endeavors such as Boulder Crest Retreat so important?
We’ve learned since Vietnam that the Department of Defense does a great job of turning young men and women into soldiers, but it doesn’t do a good job of helping them become civilians again. That transition is critical, especially with the things vets face: multiple injuries, PTSD, traumatic brain injury and family distress. Boulder Crest Retreat can provide soldiers and their families—at no cost to them—a place where they have some healing and peaceful times to help them make the transition from warrior to civilian.
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.