Steelers' Rocky Bleier continues to live his American dream

Steelers legend makes emotional return to Vietnam (7:26)

50 years ago Tuesday, Vietnam Veteran and 4-time Super Bowl champion Rocky Bleier was shot and wounded in the war. This is an excerpt from the SC Featured documentary 'The Return' airing Tuesday August 20 on ESPN2. (7:26)

PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- Rocky Bleier isn't sure how his valiant story -- from Purple Heart honoree in the Vietnam War to four-time Super Bowl winner with the Pittsburgh Steelers -- would have played out had it happened this decade.

More media coverage, he figures. More opinions about the merits of war, thanks to social media.

And maybe even a Hollywood mega-star eager to portray him. "I probably could have gotten Dwayne Johnson to play me in a real movie," Bleier joked.

But Bleier wouldn't change a thing about a script he's still writing.

On a lazy Sunday in August 2019, Bleier is looking energized. The 73-year-old is wearing a tan Hawaiian shirt and black sunglasses, sipping wheat ale in a downtown Pittsburgh restaurant and generously chatting up random fans who approach him. Save a few knee surgeries and wiry gray hair, Bleier moves and acts like a 50-year-old, telling stories with the pace of a dive play up the middle for a quick 10 yards.

Those who know him wouldn't expect any less tenacity from a modest athlete who ascended from special-teams contributor to Franco Harris' lead blocker to owner of a 1,000-yard season with Pittsburgh.

"There's no one like him," said Hall of Famer Joe Greene, Bleier's teammate on the Steelers' famed 1970s teams. "He's special. He always captures your attention."

Just a year ago, though, it was a different story for Bleier. He visited Vietnam with ESPN to honor the 50-year anniversary of his tour there, returning to the spot where he absorbed an enemy rifle shot to the left thigh and grenade injury to his right leg and foot in a 1969 platoon ambush. He didn't eat much on the day of his return, so low blood sugar coupled with the raw emotion from the site dropped his blood pressure and he briefly passed out. After being attended to by ESPN producers, Bleier, as always, was quickly back on his feet.

There was a sense of closure in Vietnam that Bleier found, even though he didn't know he needed. Mostly, because he was too busy living his best life to ever wallow in it.

Also, the war was never something that Bleier kept from others, as we hear with so many other veterans. He decided decades ago he would openly discuss his experiences as therapy, and he turned that openness into a successful nationwide speaking engagement business. He's supported veterans by spreading the word about non-profit programs such as Veterans Guardian Angels Inc., designed to aid post-traumatic transitioning.

When he's not at a speaking engagement or running his Pittsburgh-based construction company, he might be starring in his one-man play, "Rocky Bleier's The Play," which he calls an intimate portrait of his multifaceted life as Super Bowl champion, wounded warrior, family man and community activist. The next show is in his hometown of Appleton, Wisc., in September. Sure, Bleier hustles for a financial cushion, but there's also that feeling of gratitude that continues to push him.

"Opportunities exist in life," Bleier said. "They come across your path. You have to at least explore them."

That approach has guided Bleier in a life that always seems to work out. As a 5-foot-10 16th-round pick, Bleier was hardly a lock to be a factor in Pittsburgh's offense. His odds worsened after being wounded in Vietnam, which required diligent rehab to both legs. In fact, he now admits today's game would probably phase him out, with increasingly little need for a blocking back without 4.4 speed. Yet Bleier's toughness and production earned a Steelers Hall of Honor nod, and despite countless collisions in the open field, he says he never suffered a concussion during his 11-year career.

Recently, Bleier started a series of Facebook videos to increase his social media platform, and last fall he ripped the Steelers organization for losing too many close games. "I'm done. I mean, they've ripped my heart out," Bleier said. "With the talent they have, how can they lose three out of their last four games, and in the manner they did?"

But he wasn't done. He tells the story of appearing at Heinz Field for pregame autographs when team president Art Rooney II approached him. "He said, 'I think we need to get you your own podcast,'" Bleier said with a smile.

Ben Roethlisberger said then that Bleier was "obviously entitled" to his opinion. Coach Mike Tomlin said he respected and appreciated Bleier's criticisms despite the ex-Steeler taking aim at him.

Bleier never had a passion bigger than football. He didn't want to run the family's bar business back in Appleton. He wasn't going to be a doctor or lawyer. He always loved the way a locker room united, and he's been trying to draw people together ever since.

"I use what I do best -- talk to people," Bleier said.

Greene sees the duality in Bleier, who was once so purple from head to toe after a game that teammates swore he wouldn't practice. When he did without complaint, "that set the tone for our football team," Greene said.

There's Bleier's deep desire to contribute, and his desire to laugh about how he did it. Bleier might take 30 minutes recalling a play that took 9-10 seconds, and his story might include a generous 36-inch leap on a reception (the vertical was more like 2 inches, Greene says, but that's not the point).

"Rocky had the ability to smile and laugh at himself, but he had the greatest admiration for other people," Greene said. "He can always see the better part of any given situation. And he can hold your attention."

Talking with veterans about their transitions appeals to Bleier, who wants them to know resources are available. Bleier considers his return to Vietnam important for the raw perspective of post-war trauma, but he has no desire to go back now. He mostly asks himself what the point of the war really was.

Nowadays, Bleier would rather adapt to his current surroundings, just like he says he would if he tried to make it onto a team in today's game, channeling his "Boulder Bleier" nickname from teammates for his penchant for weightlifting.

"I wouldn't be me," Bleier said. "I'd be 6-3, 225 pounds with more speed."