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LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD EVEN BEFORE HE WAS AN NFL AND VIETNAM HERO, ROCKY BLEIER WAS THE APPLE OF APPLETON'S EYE

Aug. 11, 1986
Aug. 11, 1986

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Aug. 11, 1986

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LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD EVEN BEFORE HE WAS AN NFL AND VIETNAM HERO, ROCKY BLEIER WAS THE APPLE OF APPLETON'S EYE

In the Sept. 8, 1969, issue of this magazine, there appeared a
''Mileposts'' item in the FOR THE RECORD section, sandwiched between
the news that Rick Barry had re-signed with the San Francisco
Warriors and a notice that TV wrestling shill Fred Kohler (an ''early
advocate of the Australian tag-team match'') had passed away. It
read:
WOUNDED: Former Notre Dame captain and Pittsburgh Steeler halfback
ROCKY BLEIER, in the left side and right hip, leg and foot by
Vietcong sniper fire and a grenade. Army Private Bleier underwent an
operation in Tokyo, and his football career may be over. However,
Steeler owner Art Rooney received a letter from Bleier saying he
would be able to play again.
Seventeen years later Rocky Bleier lights a cigarette and gazes
down from an Air Wisconsin plane at the farmland below. He had no
business writing that letter to Rooney. His Army doctor had said
flatly, ''Rocky, you won't be able to play again. It's impossible.''
Even with a sound body, Bleier had been a marginal NFL running back.
The bullet had dug a large chunk of flesh out of his left thigh, and
more than 100 pieces of shrapnel had pocked his legs and maimed his
right foot, making three of his toes almost useless. A sulfur coating
on the shrapnel had caused infection to dot each wound like frosting.
He would be lucky to walk properly again, the doctor had said. ''Ah,
I just disregarded that as soon as he said it,'' Bleier says now.
He draws deep on the cigarette. He is in the smoking section of
this plane over southern Wisconsin, heading back to his hometown of
Appleton, and the emerald and gold countryside stirs him. The
effluent that pours from his lungs swirls in vivid contrast to the
clear blue sky that stretches across the horizon. Bleier started
smoking in Vietnam because of ''nerves'' and has been hooked ever
since. His roommate on the Steelers was Jack Lambert, who smoked so
much that he had an ashtray bolted to the front of his locker.
Smoking was not always a cool thing to do around nonsmoking Steelers,
but, of course, nobody was going to mess with Lambert. ''Thank god
for Jack,'' says Bleier, smiling.
The 40-year-old Bleier's home now is suburban Pittsburgh, where he
lives with his wife, Aleta, and two children and runs Bleier &
Bleier, his marketing company, and Rocky Bleier Enterprises, which
handles his speaking and advertising endeavors. But home was, is and
forever shall be Appleton. He was born and raised there; he still has
dozens of relatives and friends there; he was shaped there.
He points out the Fox Valley below and some of the towns within
it: Neenah, Butte des Morts, Combined Locks. Over there is Lake
Winnebago. If we keep flying north, he says, we'll sail right over
Green Bay, where on fall Sundays the Packers help the farmers and
paper mill hands to the south work out their frustrations. Bleier was
a farm kid himself, wasn't he? ''No, no,'' he says. ''My dad owned a
bar a block from downtown, and we lived above it. I was a city kid
all the way.''
The plane banks for its descent. Bleier turns from the window. He
is wearing white pants, a magenta shirt, a white designer jacket with
shades in the pocket and white tennis shoes with no socks. Very
Miami Vice. Perhaps, in this TV age, it is very Appleton, too. We
shall see. One thing is certain: Neither Tubbs nor Crockett is built
like Bleier. He is 5 ft. 10 in., 197 pounds, with big arms, broad
chest, and thighs that strain his cotton pants. He retired from
football after the 1980 season, his 11th year in the NFL, all with
the Steelers, but he has continued to work out, ''just to keep fit,
to stay open for other possibilities.'' Would one of those, by any
chance, be Hollywood?
''Well, yes, it looks like I'll be doing some segments for The
A-Team, starting with an episode in August or September, that's
called 'The Quarterback Sneak,' '' Bleier says.
The plane lands and Bleier grabs his travel bag. The side reads:
INTERNATIONAL CIRCULATION MANAGERS OF AMERICA.
''I spoke to them last week,'' he says. ''I love the freebies
they give out at conventions.''
Rocky's fee for his motivational speech is $5,000 these days, and
he estimates that he speaks 80 or 90 times a year. Groups of
businessmen love to listen to Rocky talk, and what he talks about is
himself. His life is his message: the start in Appleton; the
all-American Catholic upbringing; the high school stardom; the 1966
national championship at Notre Dame; the battle to make the Steelers
as a 16th-round draft pick in 1968; the rookie year, culminating in
Army induction and followed by heroism in Vietnam; the fight back to
the NFL against huge odds; the four Super Bowl victories; the
successful business enterprises; the charity work; and the tranquil
home life.
''I am a breathing example of what you can do if you want to,'' he
says without arrogance. ''I just thought I could play in the NFL.
There are parameters, of course, and a certain self-knowledge that's
needed. I knew I would never be over 5 ft. 10 in. or run the 40 in
4.4. But I could be stronger than the other players, and in better
shape, and I could block better and be more consistent. Goodness,
they want consistency in the NFL, somebody they can depend on. I
didn't know back then how important that was.
''So when I speak to groups now, I tailor what I say to their
needs. What does it take to be a successful executive or a successful
salesman? If a salesman doesn't have his M.B.A. or doesn't look just
right or doesn't fit this or that image, well, I try to let them know
that it doesn't matter, as long as they believe they can do the
job.''
So the letter to Art Rooney sprang from a profound belief in his
own abilities? Bleier clears his throat. He fishes for a cigarette.
He is a warm and considerate man, but there is also an uneasiness to
him, a sensitivity seldom seen in a rugged athlete. Nerves.
''Well, yes,'' he says. ''Mostly from believing in myself.''
But not entirely?
''No, I guess not'' he smiles. ''Not entirely.''
There was, he will explain, the element of fear.
Things have changed in Appleton since Rocky Bleier was a boy. For
one thing, there probably are not many kids being raised here anymore
with the nickname Rocky. Bleier earned his handle when father, Bob,
brought customers from his saloon back to look at his newborn son
and said to the regulars, ''Look at this kid. The sonofabitch looks
like a little rock.''
Rocky's given name is Robert Patrick. At St. Joseph's grammar
school he always signed ''Robert P. Bleier, JMJ,'' the additional
letters standing for Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Bleier wrestled with
himself for a long time before deciding on a name for his own son.
''I thought about Robert Patrick Jr., because I was so proud of him,
but I wanted him to have his own identity, too,'' he says. The
infant was three days old before Rocky and Aleta, flipping through a
baby-name book decided on Adri, ''a Hebrew word meaning from the
rock,'' the Rock says. Now the nine-year-old's nickname is Whiz,
taken from a stuffed animal he carried with him as a toddler.
Bleier talks about his children as he climbs into his rented car
at the Appleton Airport. ''My daughter Samantha is 12. She loves to
play tennis, and she's not a bad little player. Adri is a big kid
and pretty easygoing. He'll strike out in a ball game and just
shrug. What he's really into is this Ninja stuff. He gets all these
martial arts catalogs and looks at them for hours. But, basically,
they're just good, normal kids.''
Bleier pulls away from the airport and across Route 41, the busy
interstate that heads south to Milwaukee or north to the wilds of
Michigan's Upper Peninsula. ''Wow, has this changed since I was a
kid,'' he says. ''The airport, everything. All this was farmland.''
He turns down College Avenue on the western edge of Appleton and
passes the fast-food chains and shopping centers that have sprouted
from the glacial soil like winter wheat.
''None of this was here when I was growing up. The first thing to
come was the Big Boy, with 50-cent superhamburgers.'' We pass the
Big Boy, and it looks tired and out-of-date. ''See Martine's next to
the Midway Motor Lodge? That used to be The Left Guard, Fuzzy
Thurston's place. Remember Fuzzy with the Packers? Green Bay was it
around here.''
Because of work obligations, Bleier returns to Appleton less and
less often these days. Seeing it now for the first time in a year, he
feels its hold on him. ''I talk about Appleton a lot,'' he says. ''It
was what it sounds like. No crime, quiet neighborhoods. The best
thing a kid had was his bike. You could ride all over the city, to
the swimming pool, to the parks, to Goodland Field where the Foxes
played. . . .'' With his sunglasses on, Bleier looks like a muscular
bodyguard or perhaps an aging marine on leave. There is, too, a
slight resemblance to Sean Connery, as if James Bond has tracked a
villain to America's heartland. Bleier drifts into silence as he
gazes at the passing scenery.
Earlier, from her home in Appleton, his mother, Ellen, a
pleasantly outspoken woman who used to run the kitchen at the family
bar, remembered Rocky as ''a very sensitive, very sincere boy who
never hurt anybody, a kid who always wanted you to think well of
him.'' She still marvels at the letters he sent the family from
Vietnam. ''They were very funny, and written so we wouldn't have to
suffer. That movie that came out about him?'' she said, referring to
the 1980 made-for-TV production of Bleier's book, Fighting Back. ''It
was awful. It didn't show the real Rocky Bleier at all. It didn't
get any of his thoughtfulness or suffering.''
Whoa! The suffering of a young Mr. all-American? Yes, said his
mom, the suffering of a person ''who hesitates, who thinks about
everything all the time.''
Bleier breaks the silence in the car by bringing up his son again.
''Last year he was playing in his first game in a kids' football
league, and the announcer said, 'Number 62, Whiz Bleier, son of Rocky
Bleier!' His team lost, and afterward kids started asking me for my
autograph. Then somebody asked Adri for his autograph, and he
freaked. When we were alone later he said to me, 'Dad, remember at
the beginning of the game?' I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'That
embarrassed me.' And I said, 'It embarrassed me, too. It won't happen
again.'
''You find yourself wanting your boy to be more aggressive, and
then you try to remember yourself at nine. You look back and say,
Jeez, I wish my son had what I had. Now at our home we don't have
sidewalks, there's no sense of neighborhoods, no groups of kids who
are always together. He plays football with boys he doesn't even
know. There were fewer hassles when I was a kid. It was a gentler
time. It really was.''
Bleier speaks often about how blessed his life has been. His
parents loved him. He was never that big or fast, but he always
succeeded in sports. At Notre Dame he wasn't a star, but still he was
elected captain of the team. He was able to make the Steelers as a
rookie because the team was weak at running back. He made it again
after his war injuries because Rooney took pity on him and gave him
time to rebuild himself. He played 11 years of pro ball at running
back -- with only five 100-yard games -- because he did the little
things well, and because, of course, he just happened to have joined
the most talented NFL team of the last quarter century.
Even his war trauma was a twisted blessing. Nobody else in the NFL
had gone to Vietnam and won a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star (which
he earned for firing grenades at the enemy while injured), and nobody
else had captured the hearts of so many little people who found in
Bleier a surrogate in the never- ending battle against the Big Guys
of the world.
''If I hadn't gotten hurt, my story would be boring, right?'' says
Bleier with a laugh. ''No book, no movie, no glory.''
He chuckles now about the book and the TV movie, but neither would
have been done had Bleier come one step closer to oblivion that
August day outside Chu Lai, South Vietnam. Not surprisingly, it was a
football move that saved him. In the midst of a firefight, a Vietcong
grenade floated through the air and bounced off the back of Bleier's
commanding officer. For an instant, Bleier, already injured by sniper
fire, studied the grenade as it rolled slowly toward him. Then he
sprang into the air, and the blast went mostly parallel to the
ground, underneath him. ''My reaction came from those old three-man
over-under drills,'' he says. ''If I had rolled, I would've been hit
hard.''
When Bleier was hit the first time, he started talking to God. He
knew that a lot of people in tough spots vowed that if God got them
out of there, they would become priests or build hospitals in God's
honor. Then he thought more about it. If you get out of here, you're
not gonna do that, he admitted to himself. ''So I made a deal.
'God,' I said, 'save me and I'll share the good times with you,
and I won't complain about the bad times ever again. That's the best
I can do.' '' When he was dragged to safety hours later, delirious
with pain, he lay staring at the blades of the helicopter and said,
''Thank you, Lord.''
The nuns back in Appleton had taught him well.
Bleier knocks on the door of his sister Patty's house and hollers,
''Anybody home?''
Nobody answers, so he lets himself in. Patty is the elder of
Rocky's two sisters -- his other sister is Pam, and he has a younger
brother, Dan -- and the only sibling who still lives in Appleton.
Patty married one of Rocky's best boyhood friends, Paul Rechner, and
coming here will give Rocky a chance to rehash the past. Shortly
Patty returns from grocery shopping, and she and her three children
sit down in the kitchen and begin chatting with Rocky.
''I like your hair,'' Patty says. ''What did you do?''
''Cut it short,'' says her brother, grinning. They discuss their
old home over Bob Bleier's Bar, so different from this modern
suburban house. ''Remember our roomers upstairs?'' says Rocky. ''John
Rizzi, who smelled like garlic, and Hammerhead and Joe with one
tooth, and Pete the traveling salesman? Pete was a great guy. His
office was his car, one of those big old Buicks, packed to the hilt.
I don't even know what he sold.''
As the roomers gradually died off, the Bleier children usurped
their bedrooms. Boarders and children shared the same bathroom down
the hall, and, indeed, the entire group was almost one big family.
''Many a night I'd hear one of those guys coming up the stairs,
drunk, and I'd get out of bed to help him,'' says Rocky.
''When Hammerhead died, I got his room,'' recalls Patty. ''He died
right in that room, in the bed I got, and I used to have nightmares
about him.'' They laugh, and the Rechner children seem spellbound by
these tales that might as well have occurred in another century.
Paul comes home on a break from his executive job at an Appleton
graphics company. He and Rocky swap tales from their days together at
Xavier High School. It was a charmed time: The football team won 31
games in a row; the basketball team won 49 games in a row; and the
band, in which Bleier played trumpet, won two national Catholic
school titles in a row.
''We were just in the right place at the right time, Rock,'' says
Paul. Later, in an aside to a visitor, Paul says, ''You can't believe
what it was like playing with him. He wasn't tall, but our whole
basketball press was built around him. He just had a way of making
everybody on his team play better.''
Of course, there was also a wild-man coach through it all, a
red-haired taskmaster named Eugene (Torchy) Clark, who pushed his
football and basketball players as far as he could. Torchy's most
memorable speech, Rocky and Paul agree, came when he burst into the
locker room during the last moment of halftime at a game Xavier was
losing to a weaker opponent and shrieked, ''You're nothing but a
bunch of chickenbleep motherbleepers!'' before storming out.
''I don't know, Rock, kids now don't seem to play baseball and
basketball all summer long like we did,'' Paul says. ''They've got
these other sports -- tennis, windsurfing, golf, soccer.''
''We had fun because we didn't have organized sports,'' agrees
Bleier. ''We had to get our own guys together. And that helped us
settle fights and make decisions.''
The group walks outside. A gentle wind is blowing, and Patty
screeches when she discovers that her brother's hair looks nice
because he is wearing a tiny hairpiece. Bleier started losing his
hair in high school, and it's only fair that he have a little now.
''It's even got gray in it,'' Patty marvels.
''It ought to,'' says Rocky. ''It cost enough.''
Standing on the driveway, Bleier reminds Paul of the great
backboard and hoop that hung over the Rechner family driveway years
ago.
''Rock,'' says Paul, pointing to the basket in front of them,
''this is the same backboard. I torched it off at my parents' house.
My brother got it for his 16th birthday. It's 27 years old, Rock.''
Bleier smiles at the news.
He stands in front of the trophy cases at Xavier High and looks at
the large black-and-white photo of the 1963 basketball team, the
Wisconsin Catholic Independent Athletic Association state champions.
No. 34 is himself, 23 years earlier.
A large man with glasses approaches. ''Hi, I'm Don Dineen, the
head football coach,'' he says.
''I'm Rocky Bleier.''
''Oh, hi.'' It is clear the coach did not recognize Appleton's
greatest athlete, but he recovers quickly. ''Normally, we have your
case all alone down here, but, uh, the girls' basketball team did
well this year, and they sort of took it over.''
Rocky moves down to the last glass case, and through the draped
girls' warmups and trophies sees a plaque that reads: ROCKY'S
HISTORIC RUN AGAINST PREMONTRE IN HIS SOPHOMORE YEAR. Etched on the
plaque is a photo of Bleier tiptoeing into the end zone in front of
shocked fans. Below that the inscription reads:
ROBERT ''ROCKY'' BLEIER
ALL CONFERENCE THREE YEARS FOOTBALL
ALL STATE TWO YEARS
SCORED AT LEAST ONE TD IN EVERY
VARSITY GAME HE PLAYED
OVER 1,000 YARDS LAST TWO YEARS
ALL CONFERENCE BASKETBALL TWO YEARS
TOP POINT GETTER TRACK SENIOR YEAR
PLAYED FIRST TRUMPET IN BAND
MEMBER NATIONAL HONOR SOCIETY
FULL FOUR-YEAR SCHOLARSHIP TO
NOTRE DAME
Below that is Bleier's bronzed left shoe, the one that stepped in
for the TD that iced the win over the hated Premontre Cadets.
''It was like Franco's Immaculate Reception,'' says Bleier.
''Nothing you ever do will equal it.''
It is hot today, and Bleier rests under the shade of an oak tree
at Pierce Park, staring out at the Fox River flowing gently in the
valley below. Pierce Park is an old traditional park with trees,
statues, historic monuments, ball fields and a great band shell at
its center.
As a child, Bleier and his chums would ride here on their bikes
and spend whole days playing. ''You'd just say, 'Mom, I'm going to
the park.' No problem.'' There were times when the boys would
play army in the ravines, hiding in ''foxholes'' that were just
depressions in the earth. ''I remember in Vietnam sitting in foxholes
and thinking, This is just like Pierce Park,'' he says. There were
times, even as a young boy, when he thought, as well, of the nobility
of doing combat on a battlefield; when he wished, like Stephen
Crane's soldier, that ''he, too, had a wound, a red badge of
courage.''
''It's sort of the feeling that there's no glory in being injured
on a practice field,'' Bleier says. ''I don't know if I can put this
into words, but the arena means something. The field of honor, where
an injury can be glorious. Knights of armor playing to ladies. At
Pittsburgh I had a signal for Aleta, where I would grab my face mask
and raise it up and down to show her things were fine. Like a knight
raising and lowering his visor.''
And saying that, Bleier also senses the banality of his point.
''We were just a bunch of guys wandering around in the woods . . .
,'' he wrote of his Army mates in Fighting Back. And when he fought
back to make it in football, a part of him knew he was not the hero
everyone made him out to be. Fear is not supposed to be the great
motivator of heroes, but it was fear, as much as anything, that was
driving him. ''I could deal with injuries,'' he says. ''The physical
part is not very hard, because that's what you know as an athlete. In
fact, pushing yourself physically is simple. But god, don't ask me to
make a decision. It's the unknown that's terrifying.''
Without football he feared he would be lost. In 1972, when it got
to the point that he was working out as much as 10 hours daily, he
wrote that his routine ''was only a diversion, an escape from my real
difficulties, but it was effective.'' What he had become was a rehab
junkie.
He says now, ''What you realize is that as an overachiever it is
very hard to quit, ever. And yet, you also know that it is admirable
to quit gracefully. And it just becomes very . . . hard.''
Bleier eats lunch at Trim B's restaurant, which used to be Bob
Bleier's Bar. Rocky's dad sold the place in 1973 and has since
retired, but the current owner acknowledges the establishment's
roots. On the wall hangs an old photo of Bob Bleier serving beer to a
couple of seedy-looking patrons. ''That guy there is Mousy Krause.
He was our resident -- well, what would you call him? -- hobo, I
guess,'' says Bleier.
He sits in the dining area, which was once his family's living
room, and considers the role he has earned for himself: that of
public hero and private questioner -- Rambo on the surface, Hamlet
underneath. His image and his essence circle each other like dancing
shadows. ''I remember my younger sister saying to me once, 'Who are
you? You're not my brother. Who are you?' ''
At the bar a man says, ''Rocky, I know what you went through over
in Nam. It took a lot of guts, and I'm glad you haven't cheapened
yourself doing those Lite beer ads.''
Bleier steps outside for some air, but the man continues inside.
''Rocky wouldn't do anything like those Lite beer ads,'' he insists.
''Not with the image he has, the way kids look up to him.''
Two young drinkers at the bar look at the man in confusion.
''Who was that?'' one of them says.
''That was Rocky Bleier. He got blown up in a jeep accident over
in Vietnam,'' says the older man. ''All guts and glory.''
''I was born in 1967,'' one of the young drinkers says. ''That's
before my time.''
''Well, I'll bet he's rich,'' says the other.
Outside, Bleier looks at the front of his old home. ''The reason I
haven't done a beer ad,'' he says in a conspiratorial voice, ''is
because I haven't been asked.''
Later, Bleier stops at his grandmother's house. Minnie Bleier, age
89, grabs him and gives him a bear hug. ''Oh, I'm so glad to see
you,'' she whoops. Minnie was one of 16 children and has relatives
''all the way from Little Chute to Green Bay. When I die they'll have
to put a list up and down the paper where it says, 'Survived by.' ''
She roars at her joke.
Her grandson goes to the kitchen for some icebox cookies, and when
he returns, the gold watch on his right wrist flashes in the
afternoon sun. The watch was a gift from Bill Ring, the veteran
running back for the San Francisco 49ers. Ring gave him the watch
after the 49ers won the 1982 Super Bowl, in appreciation for all that
Bleier had done for him. What Bleier had done was house, feed and
inspire the marginally skilled Ring after he had been cut during
tryouts with the Steelers in 1980. They now have six Super Bowl
rings between them.
''Believe me, he had absolutely nothing to gain by taking me in,''
says Ring. ''Heroes. We all need them. And he is that good guy.''
The noted cynic H.L. Mencken once wrote, ''The chief business of
the nation, as a nation, is the setting up of heroes, mainly bogus.''
Rocky Bleier has heard that statement and agrees with it. He has also
heard Joseph Conrad's comment that ''every age is fed on illusions,''
and he agrees with that, too.
''Heroic action, I guess, is mostly illusion,'' he says. ''Usually
you're scared, and you just react. Nothing out of the ordinary. But I
want to believe in the illusion, too. I like the concept of heroes. I
think we need the inspiration. And if I can be a symbol of something
good for some people, even if I'm not exactly what they think I am,
well, that's still O.K.''
The people of Appleton, Wis., like those in every other town in
America, need their illusions and their heroes, imaginary and real.
Rocky Bleier gives them one. Maybe someday they'll build a statue of
this man. END

This is an article from the Aug. 11, 1986 issue Original Layout

Photo(s):NO CREDIT NO CAPTIONLANE STEWART Bleier's NFL career was a ringing success, as his Super Bowl mementos attest.NO CREDITLANE STEWART That championship season was sweet (he's second from | left), as were his Scouting days.LANE STEWART Trim B's was once Bob Bleier's Bar, and its restaurant used to be Rocky's living room.JAMES DRAKE Even his Vietnam injuries couldn't keep Bleierfrom returning to a Steeler uniform.STEIN AND DAY The book became a made-for-TV movie.LANE STEWART Grandma waves goodbye from Appleton.