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Forty-five years since both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the U.S. Army drafted him, Rocky Bleier continues be the ultimate teammate – and one who recognizes his fellow veterans.
Rocky Bleier gained fame as a key member of the storied Pittsburgh Steeler teams that won four Super Bowls and personified determination and courage in the 1970s. Military service, however defines the way he sees the world today.
“I am very proud to have had the opportunity to serve our country and to have fought in Vietnam,” he tells ESPN in a recent interview. “And to have that experience that my fellow combat veterans have gone through as well, and to be identified as one of them because of the importance of the military in our country.”
“I was apolitical at the time, but now I've become more pro-military over the years,” he adds.
True in the spirit of taking care of all veterans, Bleier helped support the establishment of the Southwestern Pennsylvania WWII memorial, served as Honorary Chairperson of the National Veteran Wheelchair Games in 2011, and currently serves on the board of the National Veterans Foundation.
And ever a loyal teammate, he works with football brethren in supporting the sacrifices shouldered by the 9/11 generation. Teaming with his former backfield mate with the Steelers, Franco Harris, Bleier has helped raise funds for a 9/11 memorial at the site of the Pennsylvania crash of United flight 93, as well as Soldier’s Angels, a 501c3 founded by the mother of an Iraqi vet.
“Our soldiers have done a wonderful job. And it's very difficult -- especially the injury ratio of IEDs, and how do you combat against that when you can't really see an enemy that you're fighting?” Bleier said.
Drafted in the National Football League’s 16th round in 1968 after playing college ball under the legendary Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame, he was drafted again, this time by the Army, before he could prove himself as a rookie. Severely wounded in a firefight in Vietnam on August 20, 1969, both legs riddled with shrapnel from a grenade, his biggest challenge was to regain use of his legs.
For two years he struggled to walk, then run, then play and star as a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The story of his agonizing battle to overcome his injuries is told in the book Fighting Back, which also was the basis for the 1980 ABC-TV movie of the same name.
Following a twelve-year stint with the Steelers, which included a thousand-yard rushing season, Bleier has created a career as a motivational speaker, focusing on the themes of how ordinary people, by pushing their limits, can become extraordinary achievers.
He credits the military.
“I learned that sometimes you had to take on more responsibility than you wanted to, and did things you didn’t like in order to get the job done; that you couldn’t shirk your duty when it fell to you to take the lead; and that if you had the training and the inner character, you’d always react properly when a crisis arose,” he says on his website.
A successful businessman, Rocky Bleier also has been active in many other charitable endeavors over the years. He has been active in the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the International Special Olympics. He was a board member of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which sponsored the competition and raised the funds to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. He has been honored with dozens of awards, including the Whizzer White Humanitarian Award, the Vince Lombardi Award, and the Most Courageous Athlete of the Decade Award.
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