For those who didn’t grow up watching the Pittsburgh Steelers play in the 1970s, it might be easy to overlook Rocky Bleier, who was the team’s number two running back through their dynasty years behind Hall of Famer Franco Harris. A Vietnam War veteran, he was originally a 16th-round pick by the team in 1968.
After being wounded in combat, he would not return until 1971, and would not regain his status as a significant contributor until 1974. His greatest season would come in 1976, already at the age of 30, rushing for 1036 yards with five touchdowns, plus another 294 yards receiving. He rushed for nearly 4000 yards for his career with 25 total scores before retiring after the 1980 season.
Those who know anything more about him, however, know that being a member of the Steelers was just one chapter in his life. Even outside of his military service, there is so much more to his life that won’t be found on a stat sheet.
So it’s fitting that he is set to be honored tomorrow as the 2020 recipient of the NCAA Inspiration Award. In fact, it was his military service, and the injury that he suffered, that served as inspiration to many others like him who went through similar experiences.
Returning to be a successful football player after suffering partial loss of his right foot and injuries to his lower leg due to shrapnel from a grenade, and following several surgeries, was a long and grueling process that was far from a guarantee, but he felt indebted to pursue that path.
“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”, Bleier told the NCAA’s website.
Bleier was actually cut in the first year that he attempted to return to the Steelers, after the team had invited him back. But Dan Rooney personally called him and encouraged him to get himself as healthy as he can and come back the following year. He did, and he made the team, and was a valued contributor to four Super Bowl champions.
He has used his own personal journey as a springboard through which to motivate and inspire others to overcome obstacles, particularly those pertaining to a physical injury or disability, and has used his platform well in the intervening years.
The NCAA Honors Celebration will be held in Anaheim, CA tomorrow, where Bleier will be in attendance to be the recipient of the Inspiration Award. He may not be going into the Hall of Fame like his former teammate, Donnie Shell, but it’s a fitting honor.