Bleier talks about his children as he climbs into his rented car at the Appleton Airport. "My daughter Samantha is 12. She loves to play tennis, and she's not a bad little player. Adri is a big kid and pretty easygoing. He'll strike out in a ball game and just shrug. What he's really into is this Ninja stuff. He gets all these martial arts catalogs and looks at them for hours. But, basically, they're just good, normal kids."
Bleier pulls away from the airport and across Route 41, the busy interstate that heads south to Milwaukee or north to the wilds of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. "Wow, has this changed since I was a kid," he says. "The airport, everything. All this was farmland."
He turns down College Avenue on the western edge of Appleton and passes the fast-food chains and shopping centers that have sprouted from the glacial soil like winter wheat.
"None of this was here when I was growing up. The first thing to come was the Big Boy, with 50-cent superhamburgers." We pass the Big Boy, and it looks tired and out-of-date. "See Martine's next to the Midway Motor Lodge? That used to be The Left Guard, Fuzzy Thurston's place. Remember Fuzzy with the Packers? Green Bay was it around here."
Because of work obligations, Bleier returns to Appleton less and less often these days. Seeing it now for the first time in a year, he feels its hold on him. "I talk about Appleton a lot," he says. "It was what it sounds like. No crime, quiet neighborhoods. The best thing a kid had was his bike. You could ride all over the city, to the swimming pool, to the parks, to Goodland Field where the Foxes played...." With his sunglasses on, Bleier looks like a muscular bodyguard or perhaps an aging marine on leave. There is, too, a slight resemblance to Sean Connery, as if James Bond has tracked a villain to America's heartland. Bleier drifts into silence as he gazes at the passing scenery.
Earlier, from her home in Appleton, his mother, Ellen, a pleasantly outspoken woman who used to run the kitchen at the family bar, remembered Rocky as "a very sensitive, very sincere boy who never hurt anybody, a kid who always wanted you to think well of him." She still marvels at the letters he sent the family from Vietnam. "They were very funny, and written so we wouldn't have to suffer. That movie that came out about him?" she said, referring to the 1980 made-for-TV production of Bleier's book, Fighting Back. "It was awful. It didn't show the real Rocky Bleier at all. It didn't get any of his thoughtfulness or suffering."
Whoa! The suffering of a young Mr. all-American? Yes, said his mom, the suffering of a person "who hesitates, who thinks about everything all the time."
Bleier breaks the silence in the car by bringing up his son again. "Last year he was playing in his first game in a kids' football league, and the announcer said, 'Number 62, Whiz Bleier, son of Rocky Bleier!' His team lost, and afterward kids started asking me for my autograph. Then somebody asked Adri for his autograph, and he freaked. When we were alone later he said to me, 'Dad, remember at the beginning of the game?' I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'That embarrassed me.' And I said, 'It embarrassed me, too. It won't happen again.'
"You find yourself wanting your boy to be more aggressive, and then you try to remember yourself at nine. You look back and say, Jeez, I wish my son had what I had. Now at our home we don't have sidewalks, there's no sense of neighborhoods, no groups of kids who are always together. He plays football with boys he doesn't even know. There were fewer hassles when I was a kid. It was a gentler time. It really was."
Bleier speaks often about how blessed his life has been. His parents loved him. He was never that big or fast, but he always succeeded in sports. At Notre Dame he wasn't a star, but still he was elected captain of the team. He was able to make the Steelers as a rookie because the team was weak at running back. He made it again after his war injuries because Rooney took pity on him and gave him time to rebuild himself. He played 11 years of pro ball at running back—with only five 100-yard games—because he did the little things well, and because, of course, he just happened to have joined the most talented NFL team of the last quarter century.