Even his war trauma was a twisted blessing. Nobody else in the NFL had gone to Vietnam and won a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star (which he earned for firing grenades at the enemy while injured), and nobody else had captured the hearts of so many little people who found in Bleier a surrogate in the never-ending battle against the Big Guys of the world.
"If I hadn't gotten hurt, my story would be boring, right?" says Bleier with a laugh. "No book, no movie, no glory."
He chuckles now about the book and the TV movie, but neither would have been done had Bleier come one step closer to oblivion that August day outside Chu Lai, South Vietnam. Not surprisingly, it was a football move that saved him. In the midst of a firefight, a Vietcong grenade floated through the air and bounced off the back of Bleier's commanding officer. For an instant, Bleier, already injured by sniper fire, studied the grenade as it rolled slowly toward him. Then he sprang into the air, and the blast went mostly parallel to the ground, underneath him. "My reaction came from those old three-man over-under drills," he says. "If I had rolled, I would've been hit hard."
When Bleier was hit the first time, he started talking to God. He knew that a lot of people in tough spots vowed that if God got them out of there, they would become priests or build hospitals in God's honor. Then he thought more about it. If you get out of here, you're not gonna do that, he admitted to himself. "So I made a deal. 'God,' I said, 'save me and I'll share the good times with you, and I won't complain about the bad times ever again. That's the best I can do.' " When he was dragged to safety hours later, delirious with pain, he lay staring at the blades of the helicopter and said, "Thank you, Lord."
The nuns back in Appleton had taught him well.
Bleier knocks on the door of his sister Patty's house and hollers, "Anybody home?"
Nobody answers, so he lets himself in. Patty is the elder of Rocky's two sisters—his other sister is Pam, and he has a younger brother, Dan—and the only sibling who still lives in Appleton. Patty married one of Rocky's best boyhood friends, Paul Rechner, and coming here will give Rocky a chance to rehash the past. Shortly Patty returns from grocery shopping, and she and her three children sit down in the kitchen and begin chatting with Rocky.
"I like your hair," Patty says. "What did you do?"
"Cut it short," says her brother, grinning. They discuss their old home over Bob Bleier's Bar, so different from this modern suburban house. "Remember our roomers upstairs?" says Rocky. "John Rizzi, who smelled like garlic, and Hammerhead and Joe with one tooth, and Pete the traveling salesman? Pete was a great guy. His office was his car, one of those big old Buicks, packed to the hilt. I don't even know what he sold."
As the roomers gradually died off, the Bleier children usurped their bedrooms. Boarders and children shared the same bathroom down the hall, and, indeed, the entire group was almost one big family.