Kevin Gorman: Steelers legend Rocky Bleier ‘Fighting Back’ again
Rocky Bleier smiled and posed for photographs with a line of Pittsburgh Steelers fans, showing them his Super Bowl ring while autographing copies of his book, “Fighting Back: The Inspirational Journey of American Hero Rocky Bleier.”
But Bleier stopped when Bryan Bullock shared the story of his father, Ronald, a Vietnam veteran who was wounded by grenade shrapnel in his leg, foot and lower back — the same injuries Bleier suffered in the war.
Bullock was thrilled to meet the Steelers legend Monday after making the trip to training camp at Saint Vincent from Reidsville, N.C., just north of Greensboro, and happier to get a personalized autograph of Fighting Back to take home to his father.
“I read it as a young kid,” Bullock said. “That’s how I got to know who Rocky Bleier was.”
That was the inspiration for Bleier to re-release his autobiography, which chronicles his growing up in Appleton, Wis., to winning a national championship at Notre Dame to fighting in the Vietnam War and the remarkable recovery that led to four Super Bowl rings with the Steelers.
The new edition, partnered with Leadership League, includes a foreword by Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan. It also has two new chapters written by Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier, who collaborated with Bleier on his one-man play he has performed.
Proceeds of his campaign, Fighting Back for Veterans, will benefit the Veterans Leadership Program, Joint Training Facility and Legacies Alive, organizations that provide services for veterans and their families.
So Bleier isn’t just fighting back. He’s giving back, too.
“My idea was that there are a lot of people who tell me, ‘The first sports book I read was Fighting Back,’ ” Bleier said of his biography, originally published in 1975. “Maybe there’s a whole new generation for grandfathers and fathers to pass on a story that made a difference in their life.”
That’s not the most impressive part. Bleier, now 72, leaves Friday to visit Vietnam for the first time in 49 years, since he was seriously injured in 1969. An ESPN camera crew will film Bleier for a documentary as he visits battle sites such as Chu Lai and Heip Duc, where his battalion guarded landing zones and where he was twice wounded, first by enemy fire and then by shrapnel from a grenade.
Vietnam veteran Keith Welteroth can’t imagine taking such a trip.
“I wouldn’t want to. I have no desire to go back there,” said Welteroth, 68, of Indiana, Pa., a Steelers fan who served in Chu Lai. “It was pure hell for a year. People think it’s hot and humid here? It was hot, with monsoons and big snakes, not to mention the enemy.”
Walt Yager was instrumental in bringing The Wall That Heals to Renziehausen Park in McKeesport last week to honor the city’s two dozen soldiers killed in action during the Vietnam War. It was quite a scene to see Yager and his wife, Lavonne, asking Bleier to autograph their jerseys – Walt’s a green Notre Dame replica with No. 28 and Lavonne’s a black Steelers throwback with No. 20 — and thanking him for serving as a voice for Vietnam veterans.
“He’s just a super individual,” said Walt Yager of North Huntington, who is almost halfway in his attempt to raise $58,318 – a dollar for each name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “I’m doing what he’s doing. Any amount of time you want, he gives. He personifies what it means to respect the sacrifices of those who gave their lives.”
Not that Bleier is expecting his trip to Vietnam to reopen emotional wounds, even though he lost friends with the deaths of fellow soldiers.
“No, I’m not expecting that,” Bleier said. “I don’t have any scars. I don’t expect any hidden emotions. The reason is, maybe unlike the majority of Vietnam veterans, I’ve had the opportunity to tell my story.”
Bleier knows he was blessed to return home to play for “one of the all-time great dynasties,” the Super Steelers of the 1970s. Instead, Bleier wants to use his visit to Vietnam “tell a story from the emotional point of view what it was like to be just a regular guy, a regular grunt who got drafted and went to Vietnam.”
“That story needs to be told,” Bleier said, “from the average guy.”
That’s the story of the Steelers fans, especially those who waited patiently in line to share their Vietnam War stories with Bleier.
Bullock got a personalized autograph for his father, Ronald, who earned two Purple Hearts but dealt with PTSD from the Vietnam War. Bryan didn’t understand why his father kept time with the Rolling Stones’ “Fade to Black,” pinching his leg or twitching until he was older. Finally, Ronald shared that it was how he trained himself to stay alert on overnight watch in the war zone.
As Villanueva notes in the foreword, the Army still uses the Vietnam War to teach its tactics to a generation of soldiers. Bleier is more concerned with a U.S. military that relies too heavily upon volunteers, noting we have been in the Middle East longer than Vietnam.
“The tragedies aren’t the number of deaths but really the deployment numbers,” Bleier said. “Soldiers are going back two, three, four times. That takes a toll on an individual and their family. There’s the stress of separation, higher rates of divorce and PTSD. It’s very easy to say, ‘Thank you for your service’ if you haven’t served.”
A Gold Star daughter, Noreen Doloughty has visited Vietnam in search of answers about her father’s life and death and is excited to watch the documentary, so that she can see Bleier visit places she didn’t go and how the places she did see have changed.
Vietnam holds a special place in her heart, as her father, Army Staff Sgt. James Cornelius Doloughty, was killed in Chu-lai in July 1969, when she was only eight months old. As Bleier signed autographs under a tent during a downpour, she shared her admiration for the Steelers legend.
“Rocky Bleier was the image of the Vietnam vet,” said Doloughty, 49, of Polish Hill. “I know he’s consistently done so much for vets. Everybody’s got a Rocky story.”
Now, Rocky Bleier is ready to tell a new one.
It promises to be super.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.