Rocky Bleier thought he made peace with
Posted: Thu Nov 21, 2019 10:47 pm
Vietnam on Aug. 20 , 1969.What the former Pittsburgh Steelers running back didn’t have though was closure until a trip back there last year.Bleier’s visit to Vietnam — the first time he had been back since being injured in battle — is the subject of ESPN’s “The Return”, which debuts Tuesday at 8 p.m. EDT on ESPN2. A shorter version began airing Saturday on “SportsCenter” as part of its weekly SC Featured series.“It was a different catharsis than I anticipated,” Bleier said. “Unlike the average veteran who returned after service and had to repress those feelings, I came back to a high-profile industry and became a story. In some regards it was cathartic (during his playing days) that I had to talk about it.”Bleier’s story remains one of perseverance. He was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 16th round in 1968 only to be drafted into the U.S. Army during his rookie season. Three months after being deployed, Bleier was shot through his thigh and suffered a grenade blast where shrapnel severely damaged his right foot and both legs when his “Charlie Company” unit was ambushed during a recovery operation in the Hiep Duc Valley.Of the 33 soldiers in the infantry unit, 25 were injured and four killed.Doctors were able to save Bleier’s foot but told him he would never play football again. Not only did Bleier recover from his injuries, but he was an integral part of the Steelers’ four Super Bowl teams in the 1970s.He remains one of the most beloved players in franchise history. The feature opens with Bleier’s induction into their Ring of Honor last year.“It’s a tragedy, I wish the war had never happened,” Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris says during the film. “But if we change anything would the Old Man (Art Rooney) have put Rocky on the team and would Rocky have worked as hard as we had, and would we have four Super Bowls?”Bleier acknowledges that the trip happened at the right time since his war and NFL experiences are intertwined.Getting Bleier to return to Vietnam was one of ESPN producer Jon Fish’s dream projects and happened after nearly 10 years of discussions. ESPN green-lighted it in March 2017 and the trip happened last August with Bleier, Fish, reporter Tom Rinaldi and a camera crew flying into Da Nang, which is 35 miles from the Hiep Duc Valley.Bleier kept telling Fish and Rinaldi not to expect a lot of emotion before the trip, but all of that changed when he finally got to the area. After giving Bleier time to walk around and take everything in , Rinaldi caught up with him and asked what he was feeling.At that point, Bleier began to break down and weep.“All of a sudden I had an overwhelming feeling of loss and sadness,” he said. “Why did we fight this war? Why did we lose 58,000 soldiers and in all honesty for what? Maybe for first time I can understand on a slight basis the impact that our soldiers go through and maybe just a little what post-traumatic stress might be and how the body reacts to all the emotions.”Shortly after Bleier was overcome emotionally, he collapsed while walking through the area due to heatstroke and was taken to a clinic to be evaluated. He returned back to the rice paddy two days later.Fish — who has been producing features for 22 years — said he was surprised that cameras were still rolling when Bleier collapsed.“We were extremely calm and worried about his well being. When you do a TV shoot it is very involved and planned hour by hour but all of that went out the window,” Fish said. “Here we are worried about Rocky and he wanted to go back and finish.”The heat and humidity didn’t just affect Bleier. Fish said that two cameras had their motherboards completely fried due to the conditions.On their second trip to the rice paddy, Bleier met a Viet Cong soldier who became a scout for the U.S. Army during the war. The former soldier had seen the crew filming, approached Bleier and said “4th to the 31st. America Division. Chu Li. Company B. Number 220.”The soldier was a scout for Bravo Company, which was ambushed in an earlier mission. It was Blier’s unit which was sent to retrieve the bodies of nine U.S. soldiers who were ambushed in an earlier mission.“Everyone we met was pro American. There is a whole generation that the war is for the history books and not an experience they were a part of. The viewpoint has changed,” Bleier said.There was plenty of time during filming where Bleier had time alone to reflect. Rinaldi said their hope was to let the moments develop while not being obtrusive.“It is no small request to ask someone to share their story and trust,” Rinaldi said. “We all have great respect for the physical strength and courage that Rocky has. For him to be willing to be that vulnerable is something we didn’t expect.”Bleier — who worked in television after he retired from the Steelers — has an appreciation for the process.“Their sense of detail, coming up with the end result and impact you are looking for, that takes a talent. For me it was interesting and intriguing,” Bleier said. “Tom is a wonderful writer in his own right and has this great charisma. Jon is creative. To keep this on track for 10 years you have to be a special person.“Out of this whole thing there is a relationship that has developed. It is so easy now to call them friends rather than acquaintances. Hopefully this film will help some veterans with some healing or closure possibilities. I hope that it is the case.”Steelers fans old enough to remember the glory days know it will never be seen again It’s no secret the Pittsburgh Steelers love to build through the draft. They’ve enjoyedunparalleled success in team building through this tried-and-true method. It all started in 1969 when they drafted a little-known defensive lineman from the University of North Texas named Mean Joe Greene with their first-round selection. This laid the foundation for the Steel Curtain Dynasty and remains the single most important development in Steelers history. But the pick seemed uneventful at the time and , quite frankly, left a lot of people questioning “who?” Can you imagine the chaos after such a pick in today’s modern age of social media? I feel certain there would be an angry mob of inconsolable fans descending on Steelers headquarters with torches and pitchforks. The next year, when the Steelers had the first overall pick in the 1970 NFL draft, they selected a strong-armed quarterback from Louisiana Tech named Terry Bradshaw. This pick was met with far less criticism, but the fans had no idea what the next four years held in store. While Bradshaw had one of the strongest arms the league had ever seen at the time, he was far from a finished product coming into the league. To say Bradshaw struggled during his first four years is an understatement. I dare say there has never been another first-round QB who struggled so mightily over their initial three or four seasons yet still remained with the team that originally drafted them — much less the first overall pick. Today’s wall-to-wall coverage and social media impact would never allow for an environment conducive to such a player’s development. Either the player would be gone, or the head coach would be fired — probably both. Bradshaw endured multiple benchings and a whole lot of tough love from Coach Noll. But in the end, he was a four-time Super Bowl champion. Terry’s epic story of perseverance, though, could never happen in today’s NFL.The 1970 draft also netted the team a future Hall of Famer and revolutionary, game-changing player when they selected cornerback Mel Blount from Southern University in the third round. Blount appeared to have been sculpted from granite and possessed world-class athleticism. He also had a mean streak a mile wide. He would so demoralize most opponents that he broke their will to compete. The NFL tried to level the playing field by implementing the appropriately named “Mel Blount Rule” which prohibited contact with a receiver after five yards down the field. Blount adjusted his game accordingly and remained a great player, but the game was changed forever. I’m glad I got to witness him at the height of his powers. The Steelers continued to build through the draft and struck gold with the 13th selection of the 1972 draft when they selected Franco Harris, a running back from nearby Penn State. Franco was an immediate success and a fan favorite. He was the freight train that drove the Steelers’ power running attack that controlled the clock and wore down the opposition. This allowed Noll’s marauding defense to be well rested and ready for destruction. Harris was named Rookie of the Year at the end of the season, and he helped lead the team to the playoffs. In the playoffs , Franco Harris made the single biggest play in Steelers history and — in one fell swoop — changed the team’s culture of losing forever. Maybe you’ve heard of it — The Immaculate Reception. But that play probably would never happen in today’s NFL. With the countless camera angles and instant-replay availability we may have gotten a definitive answer to John Madden’s eternal plea of “Who touched the ball first?” or whether the ball ever touched the ground, as many Raider players contest. I, for one, am thankful that the play happened before modern technologies because we might have been robbed of one of the greatest moments in NFL history. I concede I’m not a Raiders fan when making that statement.The Steelers were now a playoff team and a young team on the rise. They were close to becoming true contenders and they went into the 1974 draft looking to add an explosive element to their offense and also to the middle of their burgeoning defense. That draft was a huge success on all accounts. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 1974 draft class is unquestionably the greatest in NFL history. Drafting four future Hall of Famers in one year is hard to fathom and the likes thereof will probably never be seen again. The draft netted the Steelers two explosive playmakers on offense — wide receiver Lynn Swann from USC in the first round and wide receiver John Stallworth from Alabama A&M in the fourth round. While neither player set the league on fire right out of the gate, their enormous potential was evident every time they took the field. Eventually, they formed the greatest receiver tandem in league history and lifted the Steelers’ offense to a lofty status worthy of their league-best defense. The 1974 draft also added the final missing piece that finished tempering the Steel Curtain defense. The team drafted linebacker Jack Lambert from Kent State in the second round and he enjoyed immediate success in the middle of the defense, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year that season. If Mean Joe Greene represented the foundation of the dynasty, then Lambert was the heart and soul of the defense. His fiery disposition permeated throughout the defense and had an infectious effect on his teammates.The team was now loaded and would go on to win four of the next six Super Bowls. Eventually the 70s Steelers would succumb to injuries and Father Time. Incredibly, most of those Steelers greats would go on to retire having played only for the Steelers during their careers. Obviously, this was before the age of free agency. Those of us old enough to have watched the Steel Curtain Dynasty of the 70s had no idea the magnitude of what we were witnessing. Who could have predicted free agency and the corresponding movement of players from team to team? Or the financial prosperity enjoyed by the league and the explosion in player salaries, resulting in today’s salary-cap issues? No team will ever again approach the talent levels of those Steelers teams from the 70s. Free agency and the salary cap would never allow it. It truly had to be seen to be believed.