364: Valuable Lessons of Teamwork, Leadership and Legacy from 4x Super Bowl Champion, Rocky Bleier
Today, I’m talking to former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Robert “Rocky” Bleier. Rocky is a 4x Super Bowl champion, the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart recipient, and the author of Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story and Don’t Fumble Your Retirement.
Rocky has made a massive impact on people’s lives as a parent, grandparent, serviceman, and Pittsburgh Steeler–and it was an honor to talk to him today in anticipation of his upcoming speech at his alma mater, Notre Dame.
In our conversation, we get into the big lessons Rocky learned about teamwork and leadership from his college football days at Notre Dame, how his experience in the army translated to his life in the NFL, and how we build a legacy through our actions–and what we teach–for future generations.
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In this podcast interview, you’ll learn:
- How the fundamentals for successful football teams translate into fundamentals for success in life.
- Why it’s so important to take care of the basics–both financially, and in who you are.
- Rocky’s story of being drafted in the NFL by the Pittsburgh Steelers and then by the US Army in his first NFL season and how he handled it.
- How Rocky survived getting cut after coming back from Vietnam too weak to play football, transformed his mind and body, and broke into his team’s starting lineup.
- Taking care of the basics and laying a solid foundation will make the challenges in life (and business) easier.
- "Those fundamentals of successful teams are as important as the fundamentals in no matter what you may do in your life." - @RockyBleier
- "Being a part of a successful organization, not because of me, but because of that leadership, because of that team attitude, because of a support mechanism, and all of a sudden you start to win. And the more you win, the better you feel about yourself and what you can accomplish." - @RockyBleier
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- Fighting back by Rocky Bleier and Terry O'Neil
- Don't Fumble Your Retirement: New Money Lessons Learned By Four-Time Super Bowl Champion Rocky Bleier Hardcover by Rocky Bleier and Matt Zagula
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- Daniel Rooney
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Casey Weade: Welcome to the Retire With Purpose Podcast. This is your host, Casey Weade, and this is our mission here on the podcast to help you gain clarity and purpose and elevate meaning in your life through personal and practical financial strategies. We do that in a couple of different ways. We release a weekly short-form episode every single Friday where we discuss trending topics in the financial planning space. And then every other Monday we have the opportunity like we are today to introduce you to one of our world-class guests that provides insight in a wide variety of different areas that can impact your life at that stage, whether you're at retirement, in retirement, near retirement, or you're just seeking that coveted job optional status.
Today, we have a world-class guest. We have Rock. We have Robert Bleier, also known as Rock or Rocky. He is a former running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, four-time Super Bowl champion, awarded the Bronze Star Medal as well as the Purple Heart and former running back of Notre Dame, and the author of Fighting Back, the Rocky Bleier Story, as well as Don't Fumble Your Retirement. He's also an amazing keynote speaker and we cannot wait to invite Rocky to come visit us on the Notre Dame campus here in a couple of months to give a talk to all of the families that work with us here at Howard Bailey. We're also going to be giving away Rock's book, Fighting Back, the Rocky Bleier: Story. And if you'd like to get a free copy of that book, all you have to do is this, offer us an honest rating and review of the podcast over on iTunes and then shoot us a text, texting the word "book" to 866-482-9559. We will shoot you a link and then you can give us your iTunes username. We can verify it and then we can send you the book for free. With that, I can't wait to get it in the content. Rock, welcome to the podcast.
Rocky Bleier: Hey, Casey. Thank you very much for having me. I'm looking forward to getting together in June right around the, oh, it's a month away. So, yes.
Casey Weade: It's been amazing to me how many individuals have reached out to me knowing that I'm having you on the podcast, knowing that I'm having you come into town and speak. I've had so many individuals go, "Oh, I know, Rock. Oh, I've got a picture with Rock." We've had so many emails of clients and podcast listeners and friends and family sending in their pictures of them with you, with them wearing all of your rings. And so, this must be Rock's thing.
Rocky Bleier: So, when you get gray hair, you meet a lot of people over here. Anyway, so thank you.
Casey Weade: You're definitely making a massive impact in so many individuals' lives over the years. And what I often find, you know, going back and listening to a lot of your interviews and a lot of the features that have been done in different media avenues, I find that there seems to be a lack of talk about Notre Dame. And I wanted to kick our conversation off there on several universities that had vetted you to play football and not only what made you land on University of Notre Dame, but what were some of the biggest lessons that came out of that portion of your life?
Rocky Bleier: Well, the interesting thing is that coming out of so I was born and raised in Appleton, Wisconsin, went to a Catholic high school there, Xavier High School. We had a phenomenal head coach at both basketball and football and I say that from a personal point of view because he was the driving force of the success that team had. And so, during my high school career, brand new high school, as I had mentioned, we lost five games in basketball. Five games we lost out of 100 games that we played in both football and basketball. So, we were the state champions. We lost the state championship. My senior year, we were undefeated in football. And because of that, you get recognized for your contribution to that team. And so, you have a successful team. And so, you get offers to go to a lot of schools. And this was all new to me back in the 60s. And so, the coverage that we have today of high school players or college players or professional players did not necessarily exist back then. As we like to say, there was only three stations, and the networks shut down at midnight.
And so, all that coverage wasn't necessarily available to all of us but in that case, we go, "Okay, fine." So, I got some letters and we got form letters from schools that would like to see and you had some recruiters that came in and one of the recruiters was a Notre Dame recruiter. And he probably gave me the best piece of advice, at least for me, and he said, "Listen, because of all the success that your team has had, you're going to get a lot of offers to go to different schools. And every school that you may attend to or go to for a weekend, they're going to roll out the red carpet and show you the best time and show you the campus, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera." He said, "So, when it comes to that point in your life when you have to make a decision of where are you going to go, all of a sudden, it gets confusing if you've gone to seven, eight, or nine schools to see what they have to offer of what school do you really want to go to." He said, "So, my suggestion to you is that choose three schools. Choose three schools that you would like to graduate from. Not necessarily to play football on but graduate from only because the fact that anything could happen during that period of time. You can get hurt and not play, but you'll always have a scholarship to finish your education."
And I thought to me, well, that just made perfect sense. I wasn't looking to travel all over. There wasn't schools I wanted to go just because they were in the Big 10 or whatever it might be. So, I did. So, I picked the University of Wisconsin as one, Notre Dame obviously as another one, and then Boston College. And I went on to Boston College and the reason because I grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin. My father owned a bar. We lived above the bar at that time. And so, one of the patrons that would come into the bar was a Boston graduate and he'd said, "Hey, I can set up a meeting for you to go to Boston College," and I thought, "Oh, okay, good catholic school, a go." And so, I visited those three schools. And then as I tell people, I said, "Look, every good Catholic boy in making that decision, I went to church and got on my knees and prayed for guidance and direction. And then like every good Catholic boy, I did what my mother wanted me to do and that was to go to Notre Dame." So, not that that was the case but the fact is that was important. I went to Notre Dame not that we were big Notre Dame fans. We weren't big anybody fans at that time from a college perspective.
But I just thought it was a good fit for me and so I went to Notre Dame and you're there at the right time. And so, timing becomes very important, not necessarily your talent, although you may have talent to be able to perform but timing becomes important. And the timing for Notre Dame was we have a brand new head coach that came in that year, the coach by the name of Ara Parseghian, who went on to fame and glory, obviously, and his career as a head coach and especially at Notre Dame. And so, all of a sudden, there was a change of attitude that Notre Dame had gone through the 50s and early part of the 60s and not winning games. And so, they made a drought during that period of time, and all of a sudden Ara Parseghian comes and he goes nine and one my freshman year. And all of a sudden, Notre Dame is back in the forefront and we've got great players that have come in. And so, by my junior year, we've got a team that we won the national championship or in college and I become captain of the team my senior year. And during that period of time, you talk about success.
And so, success builds on the people that you have. So, you got leadership and a coach by the name of Ara Parseghian, you got a great coaching staff, which got the most out of the talent. Interesting thing because rules change at times whether it be financial rules or whether they be football rules. So, at that moment in time prior to 1964, there was a substitution of the change of balls that you could only substitute three players on the team. So, your personnel and you recruited that played both ways. So, you had a fullback that was a linebacker. You had a center that was a defensive nose tackle. And so, you had a recruit in that area. Well, when Ara Parseghian came, all of a sudden, it changed and you had free substitution. So, now he could move players into different positions and get the most and the best out of all players, rather than just having to concentrate or focus on one group of players that can play both ways. And because of that, he goes nine and one that first season at Notre Dame and puts Notre Dame back on the pedestal of what they had before. And being a part of that success on building that team and being his first class or first recruiting class, you got a chance to play.
And because of the success of the team, you get recognized for your contribution. And because of the success of all of those four years, I get drafted in the National Football League by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Round 16. And I like to tell I was not their first choice. I did not make their top ten list. I was the 417th person picked in the draft that year. I was the 16th-round draft choice. But it's the perception that you have and how you view yourself. As I told people, I said, "Listen, there were 17 rounds at least I was not the last guy picked. So, I thought I might have a chance to be able to make this team and people said, "Well, how did you make the team back then?" "Well, do you remember who played for the Steelers in the 60s?" That's how come I made the team because nobody remembers who played during that period of time. And so, ultimately, again, we go and that was in 1968 for me but for the success of the Steelers, I mean, the following year they get a brand new head coach by the name of Chuck Noll and he starts to draft the right players and how he directs them and his tone and what needs to be done. And successful teams become very important to the success of the team, getting the right players, getting the most out of them, and having that team attitude.
And so, we start to win and win some more and win some more and ultimately that was the case. With players, that I think we have 13 players that came off the team that are in the National Football League Hall of Fame. So, as I tell people, no matter what success, I mean, no matter what you may do within your life, there is a certain formula or I shouldn't say formula but there's a certain foundation. If you were to take a look at successful teams in the NFL for over a decade of period of time so let's do this and not go back that far but if you go back to the Packers of the 60s and the Steelers of the 70s, 49ers of the 80s, the Cowboys of the 90s, the Bills and the Pats, the Giants of 2000, and maybe the Patriots of this past decade, if you look at that organizational structure you're going to find a commonality. And what is that commonality? Well, think about it. In each and every one of those teams, definable head coaches. So, leadership becomes very important. Two, you can't win if you don't have the talent to do so. So, people become very important within that organization.
Then thirdly, creating a vision of what you want to become. And then fourthly, and most importantly, buying into that vision and working together as a team. So, those fundamentals of successful teams are as important as fundamentals in no matter what you may do in your life or how you view your life and be able to be in the right teams or find the right people and have them as part of your background or your organization or your team down the line. And so, that basically was the format that helped us to succeed.
Casey Weade: It really seems somewhat circular. It's leadership. It's the leadership developing the people, creating the vision, and then selling the vision back to those people. It's all coming down from great leadership. And I think that's what I see that you've taken away from all of these experiences that you've had throughout your life.
Rocky Bleier: And very much so. And if people, as I like to tell as well, people have said, "No man is an island." We didn't get to where we are today by ourselves and you got to understand that. We didn't get here because of just us. We got here because of what? We got here because of parents. We got here because of a teacher. We got here because of a leader. We got here because of a teammate. We got here because of a drill sergeant. We got here because somebody took an interest, a mentor. We got here and all those influences that mold us to who we are today. And so, that becomes very important in how we view our surroundings and how we view the people that are our friends or our culture or where we come from because that's what molds who we are and what we want to be and how we can become part of that. And so, as I look back, always a part of some successful organization, not because of me, but because of that leadership, because of that team attitude, because of a support mechanism, and all of a sudden you start to win. And the more you win, the better you feel about yourself and what you can accomplish then thereafter.
Casey Weade: You know, so many times people think that we're just creating financial plans to help the individual sitting across the table but it's not just about them. It's about all their children or grandchildren and helping them create an even bigger life for the next generation. Now, you have four children and seven grandchildren. So, I am curious, how is it that you're working towards passing on a lot of the things you've learned throughout your life onto those children and grandchildren? And what would be your message for people that are raising that next generation today?
Rocky Bleier: Well, so I think that one of the things is that the older we become and I look back on my kids and my family and you try to do, you know, you try to do the best that you can do and giving them direction and so on. But it becomes there is a point and there's a point in time where they ultimately have to find their own direction and make their own way. And I hate to say this, but sometimes listening to the old man doesn't kick in until they become older and they've gone through...
Casey Weade: I can relate.
Rocky Bleier: To this some of the same mistakes you did and you tried to talk to them about it. And I thought one of the images is that we are just kind of we as adults or as parents is that we're kind of like shepherds. And that we don't create the sheep. We don't create our kids. They're there. All we can do is kind of guide them and give them some direction, keep them safe, but we can't change who they are out of their gene pool and how they learn from their own experiences. And all we can kind of do is kind of be there as a buffer, help support them, and see them through this process and be there as someone to listen to or that they can talk to rather than preaching to them how things should be done. Because it's only from your point of view how things should be done and not the experience that they had at a young age coming all the way up. And so, hopefully, that close down to the grandkids as well because I don't have a whole lot of time with the grandkids to do that but that's a side.
So, family becomes very important in how you want to take care of it and goes back to that big plan. And the big plan is, well, I would like to be able to take care of my kids or I'm going to set up this amount of money for them or whatever it might be. It doesn't always work out that way and so I think the biggest thing is they kind of have an oversize plan. If you're in a position to be able to take care of them, make sure that that is part of your overall game plan by the leaders that are giving you the advice of what needs to be, what needs to be done, or what you would like to be done. And I think that's the best that we can do from the experiences that we have and gone through and maybe some of the mistakes that we've made that you go, "Okay. We prefer you not to do this," or, “Just be aware of this or so on." And let's be honest, you know, is that not all your clients, not all your clients are financial people, okay? Not all your clients might have the ability to attune into what you're trying to get accomplished. But that doesn't mean that you can't. You need to guide them in that direction.
And the biggest thing is not necessarily the biggest thing is take care of the basics. Take care of the basics because the basics are who you are. Okay. So, you got kids and you got grandkids, and then all of a sudden, the responsibility falls on the kids or the grandkids that maybe did have to take care of you later on in life just because. So, I mean, there are vehicles out there that when you get to a point of your life. So, when you get to the point where you want to retire, you get to the point where you're in your 60s or 70s and go on into the 80s and so on, is that you have a nest egg in which you can call upon to help you take you through that period of time. It doesn't have to be multi-million dollars of everything but if you got the basics and we take care of the basics, I mean, think about it. You take care of the protection of your family. You take care of the protection of your family. So, for instance, you're starting out and you go, "Okay, fine. You know, I got a nice job. I'm moving over here. I'm moving over here, what might be." So, what's the basis? The basis is, "Okay. If something should happen to me, who's going to take care of my family in the meantime, and so on?"
And so, you might have some term insurance or you might have some whole life insurance just to be able to cover that and make you feel great. So, that's the basis. Now, the thing is you're working for a company, so you have a 401(k) plan. Then you got Social Security that's been taken out of all. So, those are kind of the basics that you don't want to necessarily tinker with, I mean, because they're there. Because once you get to that point where you look back and you're 70 years old, you go, "Oh, man, thank God. At least I got Social Security coming in or at least I got this retirement benefit coming in from this because along the way I've made some mistakes. I've lost some money over here or this didn't go right." So, I think the biggest thing is the basic fundamentals of any successful organization are based on those principles. Give me a solid foundation in which I can work with this team and/or move forward and so on. It doesn't have to be dramatic but if it's solid, it's there and it continues. And then you might get to a point where you go, "Okay, fine. I might have some extra money to go here or whatever," but it's I think that idea with that team and having confidence in the people that you get advice from to put you in the right direction but understanding that the basis is what get you through ultimately to the end.
Casey Weade: I want to key in on everything that you said there. It was talking about those children and you not being able to just make them whatever you want to make them, right? I mean, there are things that my kids do that I wish I could change. But you know what? There's little things that I can do because what I really have to do is be a great leader. And again, that comes back to leadership. Whether that's taking care of your finances, teaching your children lessons, most is going to be taught and not taught. And you're doing much of that teaching from letting them catch it, catching you do great things in the lives of other people. I really don't want to miss out on one really key part of your story. We talked about Notre Dame, we talked about the NFL draft, and I want to do the contrast today, the impact of receiving that draft letter to the NFL versus that draft letter to Vietnam.
Rocky Bleier: You know, I'll tell you this little story because it was too. So, as we've just gone through the NFL draft recently. It was on television for three days. It went through seven rounds of people. Everybody had an opinion. It was on the radio, it was on television, and they covered it. And so, football fans wanted to know what's going to happen within their teams or their cities. You know, we're sitting in front of the television and so it's become a larger-than-life kind of a story. And we know more information about players and maybe we really want to know whether they be professional players or high school players, I mean, college players. But anyway, when I was in South Bend and the draft took place, it was a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. And so, I mean, I had an understanding. I'd like to get drafted, I suppose. I mean, I got some form letters within the mail that said, "If we draft you, would you play for us?" kind of letters and so you go, "Yes, yes," whatever it might be. And then I knew that I wasn't going to go in the first round or wherever. That was not my role. So, Friday, and we weren't sitting around Saturday, Sunday.
So, I'm going to tell you this. So, Sunday, we go out to dinner, we, my roommate, and a couple of other teammates where there is a family in South Bend, the Hickey family who took us underneath their wings and we're kind of a part of their family. And so, we had all gone out to dinner Sunday night. So, we came back to their house after dinner and we're sitting around having a couple of libations and we're talking about the spring, we're talking about spring break, we're talking about the end of the college year, what we're going to do, where we're going to go, what's going to happen, what are you going to do this summer, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. When all of a sudden at 10:00 at night, the news comes on, the sports comes on and said, "Well, I'm in the NFL draft today. Several players from South Bend were drafted in the NFL and so and so from Purdue, so and so from Indiana State where went here and there. And Notre Dame's captain Bob Rocky Bleier: was drafted number 16th by the Pittsburgh Steelers." There was a pause. They said, "Hey. Congratulations. Anyway, so what do you think we're going to go on vacation?" And that was a celebration that I had at that. So, it's changed over that period of time.
So, that was my introduction. And ultimately, I got so many stories. And so, it was like when I came to Pittsburgh, so I drove. I was born and raised, I may have mentioned, in Appleton, Wisconsin, drove down, stopped in South Bend, and then was coming to Pittsburgh and to report to the Steelers offices who was at the old Roosevelt Hotel, which is down here. They had the second-floor offices and to get our physical, so it was all the rookies that came in. So, I drove in and I knew one family that lived in the area.
And then you have to understand, so to the listeners, there wasn’t GPS back then, there were road maps. So, we got to stop and pull over, figure out where I’m going to go. And so, I’m going up to New Kensington, which is just north of Pittsburgh here. And so, I had dinner with these fine people. And so, then I said, “Well, I have to get back to the Roosevelt Hotel, downtown Pittsburgh. How do I do that?” It’s very easy to turn around. Go take 28 South back into Pittsburgh. You run into the Heinz plant, okay? And when you do that, just take a left, you take a bridge, go over the bridge, and it’s right there.
They didn’t tell me there were 23 bridges from New Kensington all the way down to Heinz plant. And so, I finally got there and I drove around. And you have to understand, Pittsburgh is laid out on a triangle. Okay. It’s the point. So, streets don’t run perpendicular with one another. They run at angles. And so, like 5th Street runs into 7th Street, and 7th Street runs into 9th Street. And so, all of a sudden, I’m lost. I’m in downtown Pittsburgh and I see the hotel and I see a parking garage and I pull in the parking garage right away. And I grabbed my overnight stuff and left all my luggage because I had packed for anything that might have happened.
So, if I got cut from the team, I was going to track down to Florida. So, I was going to Florida for whatever reason. So, I had my suitcases. I had everything in my car. So, we have the physical the next morning and I go to my car to drive up and we’re going all driving up to Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where the Steelers training camp was. And my car had been broken into and everything was taken out of my car, except for the clothes I had on my back and my overnight kit. So, that was my introduction to Pittsburgh at that time. And so, things start to change. So, that was kind of how I got into Pittsburgh.
So, from that, playing that first year in 1968, and I’m going to tell you, this 1968 was the height of the war in Vietnam. And so, we’d gone through most in college years of seeing the escalation of that war, but also how people viewed the conflict. And so, they saw this controversy was taking place and Vietnam was on television all the time. And I’m thinking, okay, fine, if I make this team, usually, they’ll get me in the reserve or whatever they have to do to be able to take care of that obligation.
Well, time goes by and times go by as the story goes. And I was getting ready for the 11th game of the season. And I’m sitting in front of my locker at Old Pitt Stadium, and the locker room there, I’m going to tell you was cramped and pungent and laid out like every locker room. You got to vision these lockers on the walls, players around the perimeter, in the middle was a laundry basket with a couple of tables. And one of the tables is where all the fan mail would be deposited for the players. That was a place I had never visited from that first day of training camp up through the 11th game of the season.
Now, when you’re the 417th person picked in the draft playing on a losing team, I mean, nobody knows you exist. I mean, my mother, God rest her soul, never even sent me a letter. When all of a sudden, one of the equipment guys holler, “Hey, player, there’s a letter over here for you.” So, I stand up a little quickly, walk over to the table thinking about who’s writing me a letter. Maybe it’s a Notre Dame fan that wants an autograph from a former captain.
So, I get to peruse through the mail. And there it is, my first piece of fan mail. I picked it up very tenderly, opened it up, slipped out the paper inside, unfolded it, and it said, “Greetings. We’d like to inform you that you’ve been inducted into the armed services of your country.” Now, that was the worst fan letter I’ve ever received.
Anyway, so that was my first initial reaction to what had taken place. And so, actually, I got 48 hours, and then I was gone on to basic training. And so, you just grab– as I think about that, to some degree, I’m glad it happened so quickly so that you’re not sitting around lamenting what took place or I should have done this or worrying about this. I mean, just now, all of a sudden, you’re in a reaction mode.
And so, you get your stuff together, send whatever I can home, make arrangements, say hi, goodbye to my folks over the phone, I’m going down the basic training. And so, I go down to basic training and go into advanced infantry training to put that period of time. I fly home, say hi, goodbye, and then find myself in Vietnam and...
Casey Weade: At that time, from what I understand, you received a lot of pressure to find a way out because you were in NFL. You could have potentially found a way to get yourself out of the draft from what I understand, and you said in one of your interviews, “I wasn’t raised as a conscientious objector.”
Rocky Bleier: Right. And you weren’t. And so, you weren’t. Did it cross your mind? Yeah. I mean, the fact is I wanted to fulfill my responsibility. And you could do that by being in the reserve at that time. And so, that was one option that I was looking for, but it was not to be. For whatever reason, it just didn’t happen. At that time, as the height of the war, reserve units were filled and etc., etc. And I got my draft notice, like thousands of other young men during that period of time. So, yeah, would it have been nice not to go, but that was not the case, so.
Casey Weade: In 2019, I saw you in that rice paddy in Vietnam. And I saw the way you reacted and what you said when you got so emotional is all the waste, all the unnecessary.
Rocky Bleier: Right. Yeah. So, my point of view from that was, as I told ESPN when we were going over there to shoot, I said, “I don’t know what you guys are looking for from this story, specifically.” I said only because of the fact that, unlike the majority of returning Vietnam veterans, I mean, I came back to a high-profile industry. And so, I became a story no matter whether I made the team or didn’t make the team, but here’s a kid that was trying to make the team. And so, that becomes a story.
And in that story, all the questions that were ever asked, not ever asked to any other guys, but were asked to me, how do you feel? What did you feel about the war? What’s the comparison between fighting in Vietnam and playing football, etc., etc., etc., etc.? And not only once, but time and time and time and time again. So, over that period of time, I get to think about it or rationalize it where the majority of returning Vietnam veterans had to repress their feelings because they weren’t accepted by the American people. It was baby killers. They were spat upon. They were looked down upon.
VFW as American Legions did not welcome Vietnam veterans back in. So, there’s no place to go, nobody to talk to, no other– anybody from your unit. It was a replacement war just to put it in perspective. And I was the first new guy in my company in three months. It wasn’t as if we trained together, went over together, came back together. It wasn’t as we came from the same communities. We were just individuals lumped together by the time, as I said, by ‘68, ‘69, I mean, the first soldiers that went over went over as a unit. But then people start to be replaced. And so, you had no continuity, had no teamwork necessarily. And so, that was part of the problem, anyway.
So, now, we go back to Vietnam. And so, I said, “I don’t know what to expect.” But anyway, we’re driving from Chu Lai down to Hiep Duc Valley where I was wounded, which is about an hour and a half drive, and we’re sitting in an air conditioning van, driving down, and then as I’m driving down, just looking at the changes that are taking place, or at least in my mind, over 50 years, a lot of changes. There’s progress, there’s highways, there’s traffic, there’s buildings that are taking place, there’s living areas. I mean, it’s kind of a growth as we’re going down there.
And we’re driving by this hillside as we’re driving by. And I asked somebody in the van, I said, “What is that? What’s that hillside mountain over there?” He said, “Well, that’s LZ West.” I go, “LZ West?” LZ West was one of the landing zones in which we operated from. In that area or in Vietnam, if you were a foot soldier, you worked off of two or you had a battalion, and a battalion is made up of four companies. And a company would have a perimeter guard protection for the artillery that were on the hillside.
So, we’d be there, so two companies, one at each of the LZs and the other two would be in the field, and you would rotate over a seven, ten-day period. You’d go up the hillside. You’d plant, the other one would come down and then scout to the areas around and just be that rotation. So, LZ West was one of those LZs that we were on. And so, I said, “Oh my God, I’d take sweeps down into this area,” which was all jungle at the time and all covered and not the growth that they had.
And so, I was just looking at that and I’m thinking, oh, my goodness gracious. I mean, here is a country after these 50 years that hasn’t changed, embraced Americans that we had fought. And why? It’s still a communist country. And we lost 58,000 soldiers in that conflict. And that was the question. Why? For what? It didn’t change. They love Americans, but so what? That’s not the case. So, that was the thought that was in my mind, as I’m going down.
And then we’re out doing the interview. Tom Rinaldi is a wonderful guy and he said, “Well, how do you feel? How do you feel?” Just standing here in the same location of where you were wounded and where the conflict had taken place. And all of a sudden, I mean, I have to tell you this, out of nowhere, I mean, from the bottom of my feet just coming up through my body was this whole emotional impact. And as I’m feeling this, my mind’s going, whoa, where’d this come from? I mean, what’s causing this kind of a feeling to the point where it came, started to break down, started to cry about it? And really, the thought was why, just why, and the waste of young soldiers.
And the interesting thing as I just was going through it was that of the 58,000 young Americans that died in that conflict, over 60% were under the age of 21. And so, you think about a whole generation of young people that never got a chance to be able to fulfill or live their lives or raise their families, all of a sudden, does not exist anymore. And so, that becomes the reality of conflict to battle, being there and reflecting back on that experience. So, that was really the emotional part that just kind of tore me up that I didn’t expect.
Casey Weade: Well, I would love to be able to dive in deeper just into that whole experience so much more. And I’m sure we will in the future. I do want to ask one or two more questions if I can. And one having to do with coming back from Vietnam and looking back on that experience, so many people that have accomplished great things went through really difficult things. And I think for some that have it went through, some of those extreme times and really difficult times, they wonder if they’re ever going to be able to accomplish anything themselves because they haven’t had those tough experiences. Do you believe you would have accomplished what you did when you returned back from Vietnam in the NFL for Super Bowls? Do you think in Hall of Fame, would you have accomplished that same thing had you not had that really difficult experience?
Rocky Bleier: Obviously, that’s an interesting question. I mean, it’s an interesting question because you really don’t know. I mean, I don’t know. I can only talk about what had gone through and what became the driving aspect of my career. And so, I don’t know what would happen if I had never gone to the service. I don’t know whether I would make the team my second year or not and/or would we had that success. And I think the success would have come because of Chuck Noll in the development of the team, whether I would have been there or not.
So, all of a sudden, my focus– and I think my focus coming back from Vietnam, and let me just say this and I think because this becomes somewhat important in our lives, is that why did I make the team my rookie year? There were only four guys that made the team to make the taxi squad. Out of the four guys that made the team, the first three draft choices, one, two, and three, made it, and me. And why?
Well, I think part of it is what I had learned from Notre Dame and was the basic fundamentals of the game of football. It was why things happen. We had a great coaching staff at Notre Dame and there was a reason why you did everything. There was a reason why, not just because you had talent to do it, but there was a reason why of how to block as a running back, how to block, what holes to hit, how to read a defense. And that became part of the success. Not that you had great natural talent or ability to do it, but there was a set way of being able to handle your position and the role that you did.
So, I brought that. And I say this very interesting because one of the things that we were taught to do that if you were on the right side of the line, you had to learn to get into a left-handed stance. If you were on the left side of the line, you got into a right-handed stance. Now, it may not seem like much at the time, but I always like to tell people, I said, “Cross your arms like this. Everybody, cross your arms. Okay, now, reverse it.” It’s just a little awkward. You just got to think about it. Now, you got to think about it.
Well, it was the same thing about getting into a left-handed stance. But the reason we got into a left-handed stance on the right side of the line was the fact that, woo, if you’re moving to your left, so if I’m a right guard and I got to pull around on a sweep to the left side, being a left-handed stance put me in a position with my left leg back behind me where all I had to do was push off my right foot and I could clear the rear end of the center coming around this way.
And it was the same way in the backfield of taking a crossover step. So, if you’re getting the ball to sweep around the left side, you took a crossover step and then you had an open step which allowed you to be more open to get the ball rather than maybe having your hip or your leg in front of you that could cause a fumble. Simple things like this nobody thinks about, but they’re very– now, I come to Pittsburgh my rookie year, as I’ve made mention, and all of a sudden, there is a change in rules.
And the change in the rule was that there are no more crackback blocks on linebackers. So, if I happened to be in the slack position as a running back and they had a sweep coming my way and my responsibility was to block that outside linebacker, at the time before that, I could hit him from behind. Okay, now, the rule changes. You have to get your head and your shoulder in front of their hips or their thighs to make it legal, so to speak.
So, the question was asked. All right. We don’t want to cheat. We don’t want to give it away. You know that we have a sweep coming and that you’re going to block that linebacker. So, we’re all going to have to get into a left-handed stance. Now, how many of you can get into a left-handed stance?
Casey Weade: One guy.
Rocky Bleier: One guy. Not that I’m making a big difference. I’m just saying not– but it’s the little things at times. It’s the little things, no matter what we may do, planning for a retirement or a financial situation. It’s the little things that become important that are building blocks that get you into a position. Hey, he knows what he’s doing or he knows his assignments, he knows his block, and he knows this and he knows that, and so on.
And I say that because I think that was the thing that got me through and coming to the Steelers was the little things that stood out that I think gave me a nod because I wasn’t the biggest and I wasn’t the fastest kind of guy. But there were things that I had learned that maybe they appreciated in how to read defenses anyway. But that got me to the first one.
So, coming back, I came back, trying to work out, and so, I went from 200 pounds to 165 pounds when I was in the Army. And part of that, I’ve lost and started to come back. And so, when I knew I was trying to get out and come back, even with the injuries that I sustained, so I’m back now working out, trying to get bigger and stronger and getting back into condition and so on.
And so, I go to training camp and I come back. And I go to training camp. They invite me to come back to training camp. And so, I did and I went through training camp and it took a beating, I mean, it really took a beating two days and I maybe was not in the position to be able to sustain that. But anyway, I went through training camp, ended up limping through training camp, and it came down. And they kept me through all the training camp just because.
And so, the final cut came and Chuck Noll called me in his office and said, “We release you, but I want you to go home and do what’s necessary. Get back in shape and come back next year and see what’s happening.” Well, I was crushed because they said no. And the next morning, I got a call from Dan Rooney, who was the son of Art Rooney and running the club, and he said, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t there.” He said, “I talked to Chuck. We’re going to put you on injured reserve. We’ll have our doctors take a look at you.” And I need to do another operation.
And so, they bought me a year. So, they bought me that year. And then I came back the following year a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger. And I made the taxi squad or the developmental squad, as they call it now. So, they really kind of bought me two years for whatever reason, but it was an opportunity to get stronger, bigger, and so on. But it also bought me that opportunity to show them how important this game was to me and how I worked out and how I got stronger.
And I have to tell you this, in 1973, so I came back to the Steelers and I weighed 218 pounds and I bench pressed 465 pounds, I squatted 600 pounds. I had 18.5-inch biceps. And how come I know that? Because I measured them myself. Anyway, so we come back to camp and I run a 4.55 40, which is the only time in my life that I’ve ever run anything that fast. So, all of a sudden, they’ve seen– but they’ve seen over two years this change that has taken place. And I think that was something that became very important in their mind. And so, I make the team that year and I play special teams basically throughout that period of time.
But the interesting thing is that in ‘72 and ‘73, those years, I was the leading ground gainer during the exhibition season, so carrying the ball. And I tell people the reason that I was the leading ground gainer wasn’t because of the fact that I was bigger, faster, or better than all the other running backs, it was a simple fact that I played more than anybody else during that period of time. I carried the ball more than anybody else during that period of time.
Given those two simple statistics, I what? I better be the leading ground gainer because all they were providing for me was an opportunity to be able to make the team. And ultimately, they had to keep me because just of those little things, playing special teams, but that’s okay. And so, if you hang around enough and they can see the progress and they can see how hard you work to be able to get there added on to your responsibility in the position that you’re playing and the running back that you are and the blocking and understanding all the other assignments and so on. And it is something that allowed me to hang around long enough to be able to break into that starting lineup.
Casey Weade: Well, I’m taking a lot away from the entire conversation. And what I hear as a consistent theme is hard work, persistence, teamwork, and above all else, leadership.
Rocky Bleier: It’s right.
Casey Weade: I know we are over time. We need to bring things to a close here for you for your next appointment, but I truly appreciate the time. And we have just scratched the surface when it comes to your story and lessons. If you enjoyed the conversation, then you’re going to love the book. You’re going to love Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story. And we’d love to get you a copy of that. Again, just text “book” to 866-482-9559. We will send you a link to get signed up. Don’t forget to rate and review the podcast in order to get that free copy of Fighting Back.
Rocky, I can’t wait to have you back at your alma matter here at Notre Dame soon. It has been an amazing conversation and I think I got through about 10% of my questions today. I can’t wait to ask you more in person.
Rocky Bleier: Okay, Casey, thank you very much for having me. And I’m sorry for rambling on and rambling on and rambling on, but thank you for the time, and looking forward to seeing you on June 1st in South Bend.
Casey Weade: Thanks, Rocky.
Rocky Bleier: Thank you.