"It was like Franco's Immaculate Reception," says Bleier. "Nothing you ever do will equal it."
It is hot today, and Bleier rests under the shade of an oak tree at Pierce Park, staring out at the Fox River flowing gently in the valley below. Pierce Park is an old traditional park with trees, statues, historic monuments, ball fields and a great band shell at its center.
As a child, Bleier and his chums would ride here on their bikes and spend whole days playing. "You'd just say, 'Mom, I'm going to the park.' No problem."
There were times when the boys would play army in the ravines, hiding in "foxholes" that were just depressions in the earth. "I remember in Vietnam sitting in foxholes and thinking, This is just like Pierce Park," he says. There were times, even as a young boy, when he thought, as well, of the nobility of doing combat on a battlefield; when he wished, like Stephen Crane's soldier, that "he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage."
"It's sort of the feeling that there's no glory in being injured on a practice field," Bleier says. "I don't know if I can put this into words, but the arena means something. The field of honor, where an injury can be glorious. Knights of armor playing to ladies. At Pittsburgh I had a signal for Aleta, where I would grab my face mask and raise it up and down to show her things were fine. Like a knight raising and lowering his visor."
And saying that, Bleier also senses the banality of his point. "We were just a bunch of guys wandering around in the woods...," he wrote of his Army mates in Fighting Back. And when he fought back to make it in football, a part of him knew he was not the hero everyone made him out to be. Fear is not supposed to be the great motivator of heroes, but it was fear, as much as anything, that was driving him. "I could deal with injuries," he says. "The physical part is not very hard, because that's what you know as an athlete. In fact, pushing yourself physically is simple. But god, don't ask me to make a decision. It's the unknown that's terrifying."
Without football he feared he would be lost. In 1972, when it got to the point that he was working out as much as 10 hours daily, he wrote that his routine "was only a diversion, an escape from my real difficulties, but it was effective." What he had become was a rehab junkie.
He says now, "What you realize is that as an overachiever it is very hard to quit, ever. And yet, you also know that it is admirable to quit gracefully. And it just becomes very...hard."
Bleier eats lunch at Trim B's restaurant, which used to be Bob Bleier's Bar. Rocky's dad sold the place in 1973 and has since retired, but the current owner acknowledges the establishment's roots. On the wall hangs an old photo of Bob Bleier serving beer to a couple of seedy-looking patrons. "That guy there is Mousy Krause. He was our resident—well, what would you call him?—hobo, I guess," says Bleier.
He sits in the dining area, which was once his family's living room, and considers the role he has earned for himself: that of public hero and private questioner—Rambo on the surface, Hamlet underneath. His image and his essence circle each other like dancing shadows. "I remember my younger sister saying to me once, 'Who are you? You're not my brother. Who are you?' "