Many young football players work hard to make it into the NFL someday, with dreams of competing under the bright lights of the Super Bowl. They don’t have to worry about a draft sending them off to war before they get their shot at professional football, but for some NFL legends, that was their reality.
Robert “Rocky” Bleier had a promising football career ahead of him, going undefeated in high school and an impressive winning streak while playing for Notre Dame. In 1968, he was drafted into the NFL by the Pittsburgh Steelers. But during training camp, the team staff pulled Bleier aside and told them they received a letter that they accidentally opened.
“We think you’re good enough to make this team,” they told him. “So, we will take care of this for you.”
The letter was Bleier’s 1A classification notice for a much different kind of draft. In those days, it meant he would be headed straight to war in Vietnam.
He wasn’t sure what the team meant when they said they’d “take care of this for you,” but he figured they meant getting him orders to the Army National Guard or Reserve. Bleier said he’d heard that other players had received offers like that. But after some time went by, another letter arrived. The text of which Bleier still remembers to this day.
We’d like to inform you that you’ve been inducted into the armed services of your country. Report the next morning at 8:00 a.m. to be inducted into the armed services.
Bleier scrambled the next day to get his military physical completed, along with the paperwork. He had to quickly make arrangements for his car, apartment, and other housekeeping items before he shipped out.
“I got my orders to go to Vietnam, and then I was gone,” Bleier said. “You didn’t get a chance to reflect on it.”
His transition to the Army was familiar: Bleier said someone was always yelling or telling him what to do, whether at NFL training camp or going through basic training. He was still focused on football when he arrived in Vietnam and was assigned to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade in May 1969.
Bleier planned to put his time in and hoped to work in the rear, where he could still lift weights and train. But, not long after he arrived, he found himself on patrol through a rice paddy in enemy-held Heip Duc Valley. The point man saw movement on a berm in front and took off chasing what he thought was a singular enemy soldier, pulling the rest of the squad into the open.
The Viet Cong sprung their ambush led by a hillside machine gun team sending the opening salvo. Everyone hit the ground and crawled toward what little cover was available in the field. Bleier peaked over a small dirt mound and located where the machine gun was.
He was a grenadier and knew he needed to get his M79 grenade launcher into the fight immediately.
“I rolled over to my side, and I reached for a grenade. That’s when I felt a thud in my left leg, and it burned a lot,” Bleier said. “So, I discharged my round, dropped back behind protection, discharged some more rounds until eventually, we crawled out of there and set up a defensive position back under better coverage.”
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The Viet Cong advanced, probing their defensive line. Then, they were right back in a firefight with the enemy attempting to overtake their position. A grenade bounced off the commanding officer’s back and landed right between Bleier’s two feet and detonated before he could get out of the way.
Jets and helicopters hit the enemy forces, slowing their assault. Hours later, a sister company reached them and helped secure the casualties and assist the surviving members out of the area. They began the long haul through the jungle to get him and the other wounded better medical care.
“They dragged us — I couldn’t walk — throughout the jungle, throughout the evening, until we got out. It wasn’t ‘til later when it started to hurt, and so a medic came over, and I was pleading for some pain medicine,” Bleier said. “He said, ‘I can’t give it to you — only because you’re going to be airlifted out to the rear, and you have to be able to tell him what the damages are.”
It would be 14 hours from the first gunshot wound before Bleier received pain medications, and it wasn’t until he arrived in Tokyo that surgeons pulled over 100 shards of shrapnel from his maimed leg.
Some may think a major multi-system trauma would prevent someone from ever running again, let alone playing professional football. But Bleier was committed to proving to himself and everyone around him that his injuries wouldn’t stop him from playing football — the sport he credits for the mindset that got him through recovery.
“Now, my point of view is that ‘alright. I didn’t lose an arm. I didn’t lose a leg — damaged, yes — but we’ve been there before,” Bleier said. “So, given time, let’s see how things heal.”
The Army drew down its numbers as the Vietnam War slowed down, so Bleier took advantage and was discharged five months early. He immediately went to work, training hard despite the lasting effects of his wounds. He wrote the Steelers, and they invited him back to training camp.
Despite not performing as well as he and the coaches wanted, the Steelers added him to the injured reserve list. He credits the team for “buying two years” for him despite needing one more leg surgery. Bleier didn’t give up and built himself stronger every season. When he was drafted, he weighed around 200 pounds. Once he returned stateside after his combat injuries, he was down to 165 pounds.
“By 1973, I weighed 215 pounds. I could benchpress 465 pounds, squat 600, and had 18-and-a-half-inch biceps. You know how come I know that? Because I measured them myself,” Bleier recalled, laughing. “So I came back in and was a leading ground gainer during the exhibition series.”
He never let his injuries stop him despite extreme highs and lows post-military service. He even considered giving it all up, but a fellow teammate talked him into staying for one more season. Good thing he did; he and his team went on to win four Super Bowls. That’s a major accomplishment for any NFL player, but Bleier is just as proud of his military service as he was of being a critical part of the team’s Super Bowl success.
He said there were plenty of other veterans on the team with him. John Banaszak, Jon Kolb, and Andy Russell are the guys he could joke around with about interservice rivalries and the rigors of military service.
“They understood,” Bleier said. “At least they understood the military, all of us having gone through that experience.”
The locker room was similar to his old unit, with guys always joking around, pranking each other, and sharing a common bond born of pursuing the same goal. But instead of fighting on the battlefield, the mission was victory on the football field.
Several veterans have made it to the Super Bowl, including Kevin Greene, Chad Hennings, Roger Staubach, Phil McConkey, and Joe Cardona. They have all served their country before — or during — their triumphant climb to one of the world’s most celebrated sporting events.
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