One-on-one with Rocky Bleier
As a motivational speaker, former Steelers running back Rocky Bleier shares personal experiences from both the football field and battlefield.
Bleier said he’ll talk about a pair of related topics – sacrifice and courage – when he honors fallen Marine Albert Gettings of New Castle in a halftime speech Saturday night at Slippery Rock University’s N. Kerr Thompson Stadium.
The minor-league football game between the New Castle Thunder and the Beaver County Warriors, which begins at 7 p.m., has been dedicated to Gettings.
A New Castle High School graduate who attended Slippery Rock, Gettings was 27 when he was killed last year in Fallujah, Iraq, while protecting a fellow Marine after both were wounded.
Bleier can speak to being wounded and under fire in combat.
After graduating from Notre Dame in 1968, Bleier first was drafted by the Steelers, and then by the army following his NFL rookie season.
Soon after arriving in Vietnam, his platoon was ambushed and Bleier was wounded in his left thigh. While he was down, a grenade sent shrapnel into his right leg.
His Steelers comeback was dramatized in a book, and the 1980 television movie “Fighting Back” starring Robert Urich as Bleier.
Bleier, who couldn’t walk without being in pain, was released twice by the Steelers and played sparingly until an offseason training regimen in 1974 brought him back to 212 pounds.
He won the job as Franco Harris’ lead blocker and drove himself to become an effective runner. Both Harris and Bleier rushed for over 1,000 yards in 1976.
Bleier played in four Super Bowl victories, catching a touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw that gave the Steelers the lead for good in Super Bowl XIII.
Bleier is a motivational speaker who talks to corporate clients about how ordinary people can become extraordinary achievers. He spoke to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review earlier this week.
Q: What will you say during your halftime speech on Saturday?
A : The first thing I hope to convey is how honored I am to be there. People are making great sacrifices every day for the freedom of this country and for the quality of life we take for granted in our communities. All of us, young or old, in the sports world or the real world, should appreciate our men and women in military service. They make this a better place to live. In the service, it can be a life or death situation, and sometimes we forget what some of them are going through. What I hope to say is that this Marine, Albert Gettings, like many other of our soldiers, had the courage to stand up for what we believe in. He gave up his life, and maybe his story, his sacrifice, may change someone else’s life.
Q: You’ve been an inspirational speaker for over two decades. Is your theme, “Be the Best You Can Be,” still relevant today?
A: It’s universal. We all face obstacles and challenges in our lives. What remains relevant is that we all have the power to face those obstacles. I have a story. We all have a story. Every day there are new stories of people who overcome great odds to accomplish things. Those stories can change other people’s lives. And when you tell those stories, you never know how they will affect someone else’s life. It’s very gratifying when people come up to you and tell you that you once said something that changed their life. When we make a difference, then we’ve done something.
Q: In May, the National Football Foundation announced you had won its Distinguished American Award. How does it feel to join previous winners such as Vince Lombardi, Bob Hope, Pete Rozelle and the late Pat Tillman?
A: When I was first notified, I thought it was a wonderful honor. As I learned more about the award, it has taken on a much deeper meaning than I first anticipated. The award isn’t given out every year. I don’t know if I’m deserving. It is a great honor and I’m very appreciative.”
Q: The Distinguished American Award honors an individual who applied the lessons of football to life. Can you share a character-building lesson from your football days?
A: I don’t want to give you a list of football cliches. But you know whatâ¢ The ones about teamwork, they’re all true. But I’d have to say the one lesson that stands out is that you can change perceptions. The game of football taught me it’s more important how you see yourself, than how others see you. You CAN change the perception of what you can and cannot do. We all have our shortcomings. What matters is our contribution.
Q: What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome when you returned to the Steelers after earning the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star in Vietnamâ¢ The severe leg injuriesâ¢ Or the fact you were always considered too small to play in the NFL?
A: Both. When you see me, I’m not that big. I was 5-foot-9 and maybe 200 pounds when I came back. I didn’t have great speed. I ran a 4.8 or 4.7 in the 40. So now, I came back to the Steelers and I’m damaged goods, and I’m still 5-9 and under 200 pounds. Everybody told me it just won’t happen. That was the perception. You see, if you’re 5-9 and 230 pounds, they tell you that you might be big enough to take the pounding. If you 5-9 and run a 4.3 in the 40, they tell you that you might be fast enough to make it. I had to change both perceptions.
Q: How did you convince a stubborn coach like Chuck Noll to change his perception?
A: This is what I tell young football players: If you are aggressive, if you are smart and don’t make mistakes, and if you prove to your coach that he can count on you, they’ll find a place for you to play. I had to bring all those qualities, because the Steelers’ running game was built around Franco before I got there. Chuck was looking for someone to fit the system. I wasn’t afraid to block and I was willing to complement what they were already doing.
Q: Noll released you twice. Did you ever thank him for giving you a third chance?
A: I thanked him several times over the years. He’s not the easiest guy to talk to. It was like a father-son relationship he had with most of his players, and a very strict father at that.
Q: Have your Steelers teammates basically gone their separate waysâ¢ Do you ever dine with Harris, hunt with Terry Bradshaw, or golf with Jack Lambert?
A: Nobody retires at the same time, so suddenly you’re no longer part of the team. Brad retired two years later, Franco three years after I moved on. Periodically, I’ll get together for dinner with Franco and his wife, Dana, and Mike and Beverly Wagner. The Wagners and Hams are close. When we can, we’ll have a lunch here, a game of golf there.
Q: You retired in 1980, just after winning your fourth Super Bowl ring. Glad you went out on topâ¢ Any regrets?
A: In all honesty, no regrets. I played 12 years and that’s a nice, round number. I was beat up. The Steelers had young running backs coming in. I wasn’t going to make the Pro Bowl next season. What else could I accomplishâ¢ My television work (for WPXI) helped me make the transition from the Steelers, because I was working on the sidelines at training camp the next summer.
Q: Speaking of Super Bowl rings, you had three of your four championship rings stolen by a burglar in 2004 during a motivational speaking trip to North Carolina. Were they ever recovered or replaced?
A: I got them replaced. I still wear them all the time. As much as I can, I like to share the rings with people and especially Steelers fans. That’s what it’s all about. Fans enjoy seeing them and talking about the rings.
Q: Plan to participate in the Steelers’ 75th anniversary celebration this year?
A: I’ll be involved in any way possible. Whatever they want. Whatever they need. (Laughs) Whatever it takes.