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2020 NCAA Inspiration Award: Rocky Bleier

Former Notre Dame standout rebounded from war wounds to thrive in NFL

Just as Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rocky Bleier was about to wrap up his rookie season in 1968, a teammate called him over to the table the team reserved for fan mail. The former Notre Dame standout was surprised. He wasn’t a high NFL draft pick or a well-known player and, in a few months with the team, had yet to receive any letters of support. When he opened the envelope, though, he realized that was still the case: In his hand was a notification that he had been drafted by the U.S. Army, which was immersed in the Vietnam War. He was due to report the next day.

In combat the next year, he suffered grisly injuries that would reshape his life, but, improbably, not nudge him off course. The football player turned soldier turned injured veteran fought his way back to a professional football career that spanned more than a decade. In turn, he has used that story to inspire countless others not to yield in the most difficult circumstances, and he has donated time and energy to helping veterans like him reacclimate to the jarringly different lives they faced when they returned home.

“One percent serve our country. One percent. So there’s 99% of us who don’t know or understand what the military service is all about,” Bleier says. “I felt a certain responsibility, being able to give back, and be an awareness mouthpiece of issues that now become very predominant — especially for the Vietnam veteran, but now all veterans.”

Rocky Bleier

Bleier, a running back, helped lead the Irish to a national championship in 1966 and was named team captain as a senior. He missed the last game of his senior season with a torn ligament, rendering a professional football career uncertain. But when he and his friends went to dinner the following February and were busy making plans for spring break, they heard a local newscaster announce the college players in the area who had been selected in the third day of the NFL Draft: Bleier was shocked to learn he had been selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 16th round.

After graduating in 1968 with a degree in business management, Bleier attended training camp with the Steelers and earned a spot on the roster, but his stint with Pittsburgh was cut short when that letter from the Army arrived in the mail.

With little time to process how his life had changed so suddenly, Bleier told the team he needed to leave and reported for duty. He was deployed to Vietnam in April 1969 after only eight weeks of basic training and another eight weeks of advanced infantry training. A few months later, Bleier was shot in the left thigh when his unit came under machine-gun fire. Soon after, his right foot and leg were badly injured by a grenade blast.

After the harrowing experience, he was pulled from the battlefield and evacuated to Tokyo, where he spent three weeks in the hospital. Doctors removed 100 shards of shrapnel from his leg and foot and told him he would be fortunate if he could ever walk without a limp. In fact, they nearly amputated his leg to stave off a staph infection.

Bleier was transferred to an army hospital in Kansas, where he would undergo several excruciating surgeries to detangle ligaments in his leg from the scar tissue that had formed in the injuries’ wake. In early 1970, having lost 30 pounds after the injuries, he began training every day to get back in shape. He would run as far as he could in the morning — a mere mile, on the best of days, at the beginning — lift weights in the afternoon and then run sprints after dinner. In June, Bleier, who received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his heroism in battle, finally was cleared medically and discharged. Despite the injuries and the time away, the Steelers invited him back to training camp.

That time in camp took a toll: Two-a-day practices and endless drills that required him to push off on his injured foot sent him home each day with blood in his socks. At the end of the camp, the Steelers cut Bleier, but encouraged him to get healthy and return the next year. On the drive home, Bleier wept.

The following morning, Steelers executive Dan Rooney called to inform Bleier that the team would place him on the injured reserve list, enabling him to earn a salary, and that the team would pay for additional operations that year to further loosen the scar tissue and remove shrapnel in his foot.

In 1971, he returned to camp and made the roster. He played on special teams, but he never carried the ball during the regular season. The next year, he earned one coveted carry. The year after that, only three.

Before the next season, Bleier considered walking away from football. The thought of another grueling training camp where he would be forced to compete with young, healthy draft picks for a roster spot seemed daunting. At a teammate’s behest, though, Bleier returned and made the team — as the fifth running back.

That season, several Steelers on the depth chart in front of him succumbed to injuries, finally giving Bleier a chance to contribute. He didn’t waste it and would go on to be a key piece of Steelers teams that would win four Super Bowls before his retirement in 1980.

He has spent the intervening years relaying his journey from a grave injury in Vietnam to the pinnacle of the nation’s most popular sport by working as a professional speaker and donating time to organizations that support veterans who have faced comparable challenges.

While he was standing in the tunnel before his first Super Bowl, about to be introduced on national television as a starting running back in the year’s biggest game, Bleier reflected on all he had done to earn that moment. “I thought, ‘Wow, you’re standing in a place where hundreds of ballplayers stood before you. Big names of championship games stood in this tunnel and were introduced as a participant in a Super Bowl team,’” he says. “‘And you’re now one of them. You’re part of that.’” 

Rocky Bleier will be honored with a 2020 NCAA Inspiration Award on Wednesday, Jan. 22, at the NCAA Honors Celebration in Anaheim, California. The award is presented to a coach or administrator currently associated with intercollegiate athletics, or to a current or former varsity letter winner at an NCAA institution. It is reserved for people who used perseverance, dedication and determination to overcome a life-altering situation and, most importantly, are role models giving hope and inspiration to others.