In the Sept. 8, 1969, issue of this magazine, there appeared a "Mileposts" item in the FOR THE RECORD section, sandwiched between the news that Rick Barry had re-signed with the San Francisco Warriors and a notice that TV wrestling shill Fred Kohler (an "early advocate of the Australian tag-team match") had passed away. It read:
WOUNDED: Former Notre Dame captain and Pittsburgh Steeler halfback ROCKY BLEIER, in the left side and right hip, leg and foot by Vietcong sniper fire and a grenade. Army Private Bleier underwent an operation in Tokyo, and his football career may be over. However, Steeler owner Art Rooney received a letter from Bleier saying he would be able to play again.
Seventeen years later Rocky Bleier lights a cigarette and gazes down from an Air Wisconsin plane at the farmland below. He had no business writing that letter to Rooney. His Army doctor had said flatly, "Rocky, you won't be able to play again. It's impossible." Even with a sound body, Bleier had been a marginal NFL running back. The bullet had dug a large chunk of flesh out of his left thigh, and more than 100 pieces of shrapnel had pocked his legs and maimed his right foot, making three of his toes almost useless. A sulfur coating on the shrapnel had caused infection to dot each wound like frosting. He would be lucky to walk properly again, the doctor had said. "Ah, I just disregarded that as soon as he said it," Bleier says now.
He draws deep on the cigarette. He is in the smoking section of this plane over southern Wisconsin, heading back to his hometown of Appleton, and the emerald and gold countryside stirs him. The effluent that pours from his lungs swirls in vivid contrast to the clear blue sky that stretches across the horizon. Bleier started smoking in Vietnam because of "nerves" and has been hooked ever since. His roommate on the Steelers was Jack Lambert, who smoked so much that he had an ashtray bolted to the front of his locker. Smoking was not always a cool thing to do around nonsmoking Steelers, but, of course, nobody was going to mess with Lambert. "Thank god for Jack," says Bleier, smiling.
The 40-year-old Bleier's home now is suburban Pittsburgh, where he lives with his wife, Aleta, and two children and runs Bleier & Bleier, his marketing company, and Rocky Bleier Enterprises, which handles his speaking and advertising endeavors. But home was, is and forever shall be Appleton. He was born and raised there; he still has dozens of relatives and friends there; he was shaped there.
He points out the Fox Valley below and some of the towns within it: Neenah, Butte des Morts, Combined Locks. Over there is Lake Winnebago. If we keep flying north, he says, we'll sail right over Green Bay, where on fall Sundays the Packers help the farmers and paper mill hands to the south work out their frustrations. Bleier was a farm kid himself, wasn't he? "No, no," he says. "My dad owned a bar a block from downtown, and we lived above it. I was a city kid all the way."
The plane banks for its descent. Bleier turns from the window. He is wearing white pants, a magenta shirt, a white designer jacket with shades in the pocket and white tennis shoes with no socks. Very
Miami Vice. Perhaps, in this TV age, it is very Appleton, too. We shall see. One thing is certain: Neither Tubbs nor Crockett is built like Bleier. He is 5'10", 197 pounds, with big arms, broad chest, and thighs that strain his cotton pants. He retired from football after the 1980 season, his 11th year in the NFL, all with the Steelers, but he has continued to work out, "just to keep fit, to stay open for other possibilities." Would one of those, by any chance, be Hollywood?
"Well, yes, it looks like I'll be doing some segments for The A-Team, starting with an episode in August or September, that's called 'The Quarterback Sneak,' " Bleier says.
The plane lands and Bleier grabs his travel bag. The side reads: INTERNATIONAL CIRCULATION MANAGERS OF AMERICA.
"I spoke to them last week," he says. "I love the freebies they give out at conventions."