Rocky Bleier confronts his past in ESPN’s ‘The Return’
Rocky Bleier still isn’t used to being the center of attention, despite all he has accomplished in his documentary-worthy life.
“I think that the majority of people don’t know [my story], unless you’re an old Steelers fan,” he said. “I now am introduced to people outside of this area or even younger people in this area, and their parents or friends will say he played for the Steelers. I get that blank look, so then I have to put it in perspective.
“I go, ‘Listen, have you heard of Terry Bradshaw? Have you ever heard of Franco Harris? I’m the other guy.’ ”
Bleier’s story is about to be thrust into the national spotlight again due to “The Return,” a 30-minute documentary chronicling Bleier’s life from his days winning Super Bowls with the Steelers to him going back to the spot where he was injured as a soldier in Vietnam 50 years ago.
The full Tom Rinaldi-hosted documentary will debut on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 20, with a shorter version airing as part of “SC Featured,” a weekly series on “SportsCenter” Aug. 17-18.
“It’s a very powerful story,” producer Jon Fish said. “It’s an important story. Rocky was wonderful sharing himself with us and being so open. … “[I]t was really great and it’s one of those stories you’re proud to be a part of.”
Bleier’s career as a running back included a college football national championship with Notre Dame in 1966 and four Super Bowl rings with the Steelers . His most famous play as a Steeler was a touchdown he caught in Super Bowl XIII that gave the Steelers a lead over the Dallas Cowboys they never relinquished.
The lesser known part of Bleier’s story involves his time in Vietnam. He was drafted into military service in 1968 and came home a year later after suffering a severe injury to his legs while on patrol in Vietnam’s Hiep Duc district. Bleier was shot through the thigh and suffered a grenade blast to his foot.
He was told he could never play football again, but Bleier worked his way back into health and form enough to help Franco Harris anchor the backfield during the Steelers’ dynastic run. In “The Return,” Bleier goes back to the place where he was hurt 50 years ago and tries to make sense of his experiences since and the Vietnam War itself.
“What I did not expect was the strong emotional overtones that took over while in the rice paddy in Vietnam,” Bleier said. “I couldn’t understand where that emotion came from. Partly, I’m sure it was my visualization that when we went from Da Nang to Hiep Duc and how it had changed and grown in 50 years, how prosperous it had become.
“Maybe that became a subconscious feeling, because as I stood in that rice paddy recounting what had taken place … it was like, what for? Fifty-eight thousand Americans died, for what?”
It’s a hard concept to understand even all these years later, and the documentary includes multiple scenes of a raw, emotional Bleier being unable to hold back his feelings as they overwhelm him. Despite how hard it was for him to relive his trauma, Bleier is thankful for the opportunity to represent the voices of Vietnam War veterans in the 21st century.
“The thing that I had told [Tom] Rinaldi and Jon Fish was, it’s not as if the majority of Vietnam veterans specifically ever had an outlet to be able to talk about their experiences because of the way the war was perceived and the soldiers were perceived in that war,” he said. “There was nobody to talk about it, so the majority of soldiers had to repress those feelings. It wasn’t until years later that the American people finally warmed up or accepted veterans for serving their country and not necessarily identifying them with the war they served in.”
Fish had wanted to work with Bleier on this project for a decade. He remembered calling Bleier while the former Steeler was watching Notre Dame take on Princeton in the first round of the 2017 NCAA basketball tournament and finally getting him to agree to make the documentary.
“This was a story that everyone was on board with doing, so it was nice to finally be able to tell it,” Fish said. “It all kind of came together, but the most important piece was Rocky allowing us to tell his story. We just wanted to get it right and honor his story as best as possible.”
Rocky Bleier talks to ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi about his experiences during the Vietnam War as part of “The Return,” a documentary about his football career and his time as a soldier.(Screenshot courtesy of ESPN)
In addition to his war recollections, the documentary also includes plenty of archival footage of Bleier’s football exploits and a few of his former teammates talking about how inspiring they found his will to play football despite everything he had been through. Bleier, of course, never saw himself as an inspiration while he was trying desperately to get back on the field and then maintain his spot as a Steelers contributor.
“It’s all about being in the right place at the right time, fitting in,” he said. “You work hard, and things happen. It wasn’t as if I was an All-American running back or even the running back at Notre Dame, or even the star running back with the Steelers. That was fine, and when you look back you go, ‘Wow. I got to play and be an integral part of those successful seasons and become part of a dynasty.’ ”
Since his heyday with the Steelers, Bleier has moved into the world of entertainment. He’s written a book about his life — “Fighting Back,” which recently came out with a reprint featuring two new chapters written by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier — did a one-man autobiographical show called “The Play” and has a small role in an upcoming production of “A Few Good Men” opening Sept. 12 at O’Reilly Theater Downtown.
He’s still paying close attention to the Steelers, as well. Bleier has faith in Ben Roethlisberger and the offensive line, and expects big things out of James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster in their first seasons as undisputed starters. As is usually the case when discussing this Steelers, his questions are about the defense.
“What we’re watching and hoping for is that the veterans who are there will step up and play up to their potential and that some younger guys will be able to have an impact this year,” he said. “We’re counting on [rookie linebacker Devin] Bush to fill in that middle linebacker spot and the secondary to step up and play more cohesively. Given all that, I really believe we’ll win the division this year and do what we were supposed to do last year and get into the playoffs and championship game.”
Fish is hoping that Steelers Nation and beyond will watch “The Return” so Bleier can receive the proper appreciation for the obstacles he overcame throughout his long, storied career.
“Rocky Bleier in many ways is the perfect Pittsburgh Steeler for that time period,” he said. “As Pittsburgh goes forward, he’s one of the guys that created the reputation and DNA of the franchise you know today. If you want to tune in and learn more about his story, here you go.”
Joshua Axelrod: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @jaxel222