Rocky Bleier: Champion on the Gridiron, Battlefield

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Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

Rocky Bleier was a National Football League halfback for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1968 and 1970-1980, playing in four Super Bowl championships: IX, X, XIII and XIV.  

Bleier was also a soldier who was wounded in action in Vietnam. 

Bleier played college football at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and graduated in 1968. He was selected in the 16th round of the 1968 NFL/American Football League draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, 417th overall. 

After his rookie season with the Steelers, Bleier was drafted into the Army on Dec. 4, 1968, during the Vietnam War. He volunteered for combat duty and deployed to South Vietnam in May 1969. 

In Vietnam, Bleier was a squad grenadier, operating a 40 mm M79 grenade launcher. He was assigned to Company C, 4th Battalion (Light), 31st Infantry, 196th Light Infantry Brigade.  

On Aug. 20, 1969, while on patrol in Hiep Duc, Bleier was wounded in the left thigh by an enemy rifle round 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 and causing Bleier to lose part of his right foot in the blast. He was later awarded the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart.  

While Bleier was recovering in a hospital in Tokyo, doctors told him that he could not play football again.  


Those lessons we learned on the gridiron, as well as on the battlefield, are the same ones that we learn every day in our lives. And that is to take care of one another. Never leave a comrade behind and to fight for what is right and to do what’s right.”

Rocky Bleier, NFL & U.S. Army Veteran

Soon after, he received a postcard from Steelers’ owner Art Rooney that 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 kinds of people.”  

After several surgeries, Bleier was honorably discharged in July 1970, as a specialist 4, and began informal workouts with Steelers teammates. He couldn’t walk without pain and weighed only 180 pounds, down 30 pounds from when he was drafted into the NFL. He was put on injured reserve for the season. When he returned in 1971, his health and athletic ability were much improved.  

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. 

These days, Bleier is often asked what it’s like to be in combat. In an Oct. 21, 2015, visit to the Pentagon to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, he answered that question, saying: 

“We pray that we come back from war. We have to live with the scars, both visible and invisible. We have to live with the trauma. We have to live with what happens during that period of time. 

“But it’s a foundation. It’s an experience that we who have served in the military understand. And it’s the lessons that you learn from them that you incorporate into your own life. 

“Those lessons we learned on the gridiron, as well as on the battlefield, are the same ones that we learn every day in our lives. And that is to take care of one another. Never leave a comrade behind and to fight for what is right and to do what’s right.” 

Bleier said he’s not asked what it’s like to play football, since a lot of kids have had that experience in school or in backyard pickup games. 

But combat, they ask about, he said. Less than 1% of Americans are in the military and less than 10% of those find themselves in combat, he said. So, for most people he meets, “there’s really no reference point,” he said. 

Bleier wrote a book titled “Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story,” about his struggle to recover from his war wounds. It was made into a television movie of the same name in 1980. 

Bleier, who was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, March 5, 1946, is 78.

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