Grit has been a common theme throughout Rocky Bleier’s life.
Whether it was recovering from gunfire and grenade wounds he suffered during the Vietnam War, running through gaps in the Steelers’ offensive line, or speaking to the younger generation, Bleier has always put his best foot forward.
A list of Bleier’s life achievements include the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, four Super Bowl rings and being one half of the Steelers’ 1976 backfield, forming the second ball-carrier duo to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season – though, if you ask Bleier, he’ll say he and Franco Harris were the first.
On Sept. 14, Bleier, who served in the United States Army, will add another achievement to his name as the ninth recipient of the Semper Fidelis Award at the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation Steel City Awards Dinner at the Fairmont Hotel Downtown Pittsburgh.
“It’s a great honor to receive the Semper Fi award from the military because I know what [Semper Fidelis, latin for ‘always faithful’] means to the Marine Corps,” Bleier told the Post-Gazette.
Money well raised
While Bleier is honored to be on the receiving end of the award, the impact of the ceremony is the greater triumph to him.
All of the proceeds raised from the sold sponsorships and tickets will go toward the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, which provides scholarships to the children of Marine Corps and Navy veterans.
The fund was originally started in 1962 but has ballooned into the country’s largest and oldest military need-based scholarship program. Since its inception, the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation has handed out more than 50,000 scholarships worth $185 million.
The Steel City event alone has raised $3 million in the 10 years of its existence.
The scholarships haven’t gone to waste, either. Recipients of the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation graduate at a 90% clip, with 40% of recipients being first-generation college students and 45% pursuing STEM degrees. On average, scholarship recipients achieve a 3.43 GPA, which trumps the national average 3.15 GPA.
“We’ve been growing that impact over time over our 60-year history, and it’s very much our desire and mission to increase that impact even further,” said Dana Mills, the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation’s director of communications.
According to Mills, the Semper Fidelis Award is given to those who “have demonstrated recurring commitment, ethical behavior, and a good moral compass — and decades of selfless service — to an effort which contributes to the betterment of our society.”
Bleier certainly fits the description.
Getting off the mat
He was drafted by the Steelers in the 1968 NFL/AFL Draft. Unbeknownst to Bleier at the time, he would also be drafted to the U.S. Army during his rookie season, sending him to Vietnam.
About four-and-a-half months into his service, Bleier was shot in the leg and had a grenade blow up between his legs during a fight against Vietnamese forces.
“My goal was to come back and play with the Steelers, and the primary reason is I didn’t want to give up,” Bleier said. “Part of that dream was, ‘OK, I’ve been injured. I’ve been damaged. But I’ve been injured before.’”
Bleier’s silver lining was that he didn’t lose a limb, so when he got out of the service in 1970, he headed to Steelers training camp.
Bleier didn’t make the team in 1970, but the Steelers put him on injured reserve, which allowed him to recover for another year. A year later, Bleier made the Steelers’ taxi squad.
For the next three seasons, Bleier made the Steelers’ roster but only carried the ball a combined four times for 17 yards. Prior to the 1974 season, Bleier left the team because he thought his life was going “in another direction.” Bleier, who could squat 600 pounds and bench press 460 pounds at the time, was talked back into rejoining the team for the 1974 season.
At the start of the 1974 season, Bleier was listed as the fifth running back on the depth chart. The outlook of Bleier’s season took a 180-degree turn when Harris went down with an injury during the first game of the season, which made Bleier the backup fullback. When Frenchy Fuqua, Harris’ replacement, went down early in the season, as well, Bleier found himself in a starting role.
According to Bleier, Steelers’ head coach Chuck Noll pointed out to the team’s backfield coach Dick Hoak that they were weak blockers. When Noll asked Hoak who was the best blocker in the Steelers’ backfield, Hoak replied, ‘Bleier.’ Noll told Hoak to start Bleier after that.
In 1976, Bleier recorded his career-best 1,036 rushing yards in a single season. Harris tallied 1,128 rushing yards in the same season, making Bleier and Harris the second tandem to eclipse 1,000 yards in the same season. As of the date of publication, only seven duos have accomplished that.
Bleier played with the Steelers until he retired after the 1980 season, compiling 3,865 career rushing yards in the process.
However, his career may have ended sooner if he didn’t have a talent for blocking, or if he had given up when he was wounded or when he was riding the taxi squad. Those are both messages he shares when he speaks.
“I was very fortunate to be in a position … having the experiences that I had to be able to share a story with other people,” Bleier said. “We all have ups and downs. You all have experiences, but what you don’t want to do is quit.”
Now, Bleier is a founding and managing member of RBVetCo, a contracting company he started in 2004 to help serve disabled veterans.
Bleier also started Rocky Bleier, Inc, where he’s available to be booked to motivationally speak. According to Bleier, a man once stopped him as he was walking into a venue to speak to tell him he “saved his life.”
Because of Bleier’s life experiences, he feels a sense of responsibility to use his platform to help people. On Sept. 14, Bleier hopes his honoring will help the service community and its children.
“From a military perspective, we’re all in the same boat,” Bleier said. “If I’m selected to receive this Semper Fi award and that, because of my presence, makes a difference in [the kids’] success by allowing more kids to go to school, then it’s worth it.”