At 5 foot, 9 1/2 inches tall and not terribly fast, there doesn’t seem to be one thing in destiny’s playbook that would put Rocky Bleier in the National Football League for a dozen years or see him earn four Super Bowl rings.
Especially not after he took a bullet in the left thigh in a Vietnamese rice paddy in August 1969 and had an enemy grenade tear through his right foot, knee and thigh on that same day.
And not after military doctors told him a normal life might be within his reach, but professional football – no, not anymore.
And not after the 1973 season, with five years of service with the Pittsburgh Steelers and eligible for an NFL pension, when Bleier would briefly leave professional football and was selling insurance in Chicago.
But Bleier believes in choice, and in responsibility, and he turned Monday night to the words of famed American orator William Jennings Bryan: “Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”
Bleier, 73, a guest in the Indiana State Speaker Series, charmed a Tilson Auditorium audience with a mix of self-deprecating humor, tales of his football career at Notre Dame, recovery from his combat wounds, and the long, slow road he traveled to become a starting member of a four-time world champion.
Sprinkled throughout Bleier’s presentation were moments when it looked all but impossible that he’d be able to push on or make the cut, let alone have the career he did.
For instance, lying in a Tokyo hospital waiting to be shipped home to the U.S. — where he’d spend many more months in hospitals and undergo many more surgeries — Bleier noticed a soldier who’d lost three limbs. Every day while being taken to therapy, that man insisted on stopping at every bed and offering words of encouragement to every other patient on the ward.
That man, said Bleier, “chose to make a difference, he chose to have a positive attitude, he chose to have that effect” on the men around him.
In another instance, Bleier decided not to return to football after a year on injured reserve, a year on the practice squad and two years playing nearly exclusively on special teams — and getting next to no time as a running back.
But then he got a well-timed piece of advice from a teammate: “You can’t quit. That means you’ve already made a decision for the coaching staff. You make them make that decision. You push them into a corner. You do not cut yourself.”
So Bleier returned to again fight with every kid, draft choice, rookie and free agent for the fourth and final running back spot.
What seemed setbacks, Bleier explained, were actually opportunities.
The year on injured reserve and the year on the taxi squad were two chances, two years in which he could regain strength and weight.
The two years he led the team in exhibition season rushing only to touch the ball once as a running back in the regular season were two chances to show he belonged on the roster.
And Bleier’s next chance would arrived unexpectedly. The No. 1 and No. 2 running backs (No. 1 being now-Hall of Famer Franco Harris) went down in the first half of the same game.
That meant the No. 3 and No. 4 running backs — Bleier and Preston Pearson — were suddenly up. Pearson would score a touchdown, which allowed the two to start the second half together, which allowed them to start a second game together, said Bleier.
When Harris returned a game later, head coach Chuck Noll would pair Harris and Bleier in the backfield. In 1976, Harris and Bleier each rushed for more than 1,000 yards, making them the second pair of NFL teammates to accomplish the feat.
Bleier retired after the 1980 season. He’d gained 3,865 rushing yards, caught 136 passes for nearly 1,300 years, and scored 25 touchdowns. At the time of his retirement, he was the Steelers’ fourth all-time leading rusher.
If anything besides the ability to choose, Bleier said, he had one skill to a nearly unique degree: He was an exceptional blocker.
And if choosing to push on and being a good blocker should be how he’s remembered — if he’s remembered — that’s fine with Rocky Bleier, who said, “It is the success of the team that will get you noted for you contribution.”
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