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Rocky Bleier: The heart of a champion

rocky bleier

Robert Patrick Bleier didn’t remain Robert Patrick for long. As a little tyke, his proud father bragged about his first-born’s muscles and nicknamed him “Rock.” The nickname stuck and today, Pittsburgh Steelers’ fans know nothing of this Robert Patrick fellow. They do know Rocky Bleier. 

Born and raised in the bucolic setting of Appleton, Wisconsin, Bleier was a multi-sport star. It can’t be coincidence that the bar his father owned (the family lived upstairs) would place him exactly into the societal strata his future fans thrived in, and his sports ability held endless possibilities.

Rocky Bleier was born though in those years immediately after World War II, putting him in the crosshairs of the draft by the time Vietnam was heating up. The muscled-up fireplug managed to play one year for the Steelers in 1968 and at the end of the season, his draft number came up. He shipped out as a member of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.

In the spring of 1969, while on patrol in a rice paddy, Bleier was wounded by a bullet in his hip and then an exploding grenade mangled his foot. 

This is really where the legend of Rocky Bleier begins.

In the hospital in Tokyo, Bleier was told by doctors that his football days were over. (Tell that to the Oakland Raiders!) 

At a complete loss as to which direction to take in life—he would hobble down the streets at night distraught over the end of his career, the only thing he knew how to do—Bleier then received a lifeline from a legend. Art Rooney, the hardboiled owner of the Steelers, sent his young fullback a postcard. It read: “Rock—the team’s not doing well. We need you. Art Rooney.”

Rocky Bleier in 2017
Rocky Bleier, Vietnam Veteran and Super Bowl Champion, addresses the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore’s 35th Annual Awards Dinner, Arlington, Va., March 21, 2017. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill)

He reported back one year later, in 1970, weighing 30 pounds less than his playing days. Struggling to walk properly, Bleier failed to earn a roster spot. And this is where the grit and blue-collar ethic of his upbringing come into play. Bleier worked mightily to get back, and was rebuffed twice more by the Steelers. But Rooney knew something no one else did – maybe not even Bleier himself. A wounded man that will get up off the battlefield and defy expectations by attempting to become a pro football player is a man with a heart big enough to do just that.

Interestingly, he managed to make it all the way back just as the Steelers’ young pups like Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and others were coming into their own. The mediocre program was about to become a franchise. Rocky Bleier’s muscles would help propel them to greatness.

In his first two seasons back, Bleier carried the ball four times and lost three fumbles. Now really discouraged, he vowed to quit football. But just as Rooney had given him just enough of a push a few years before, now Steelers linebacker Andy Russell virtually bullied Bleier into not giving up. Sure enough, by the next season he was getting more playing time.

In a game that typified what type of player he was, Bleier earned his first Super Bowl ring in 1975 and his very nice game against a brutal and iconic Minnesota Vikings defensive line meant he was back to stay. Finally, at 30, Bleier gained his first thousand-yard rushing season. Keep in mind, the average “lifespan” for a pro running back is about 3.5 years. Rock was just hitting his stride

In Super Bowl XIII against Dallas, Bleier caught the winning touchdown pass from Bradshaw. And at age 33, he busted loose for the longest score of his career, a 70-yarder!

Today, Bleier is a motivational speaker. In a way, he is the very definition of a motivational speaker. His Purple Heart and Bronze Star and glittery sports rings cause people to sit up and listen to his every word.

Perhaps the centerpiece of Bleier’s playing career was the Championship. As in, five of them. During his junior year at Notre Dame, the team won the national championship. And of course, there was the matter of those four rings won years later at Pittsburgh.

“The heart of a champion” was a phrase coined for men just like Robert Patrick—sorry—“Rocky” Bleier!