Bleier gives entertaining speech at banquet

Andrew Harner and Andrew Harner

BOISE — Former Pittsburgh Steelers great Rocky Bleier was the keynote speaker for the U.S. Bank Humanitarian Bowl Awards Dinner Monday night, telling players from both teams to have hope that they can achieve all their goals.

‘Hope has to start somewhere,’ Bleier said. ‘And mine happened to start with the greatest football game I ever had the opportunity to play.’

As a 9-year-old growing up in Appleton, Wisc., Bleier challenged his friend from across the street to a game of one-on-one football in one of their side yards every Saturday.

And on one such occasion in his friend’s yard, Bleier scored 51 touchdowns to his friends’ zero. Granted his friend was just 4 years old at the time, Bleier said that game was a defining career moment.

‘It got me a chance to go out and play,’ Bleier said. ‘I got a chance to continue my education and go to college at Notre Dame.’

After helping the Fighting Irish win an NCAA National Championship in 1966, Bleier and his teammates began receiving national attention, leading to Bleier’s selection in the 16th round of the 1968 NFL Draft, opening a new door for him.

‘That’s what this whole country is built on. Opportunity,’ Bleier said. ‘It’s not about entitlement. It’s not about records. It’s not about being undefeated. It’s about a chance to prove yourself. That’s why you play the game. And opportunity gives us just that.’

While not an NFL Hall of Famer, Bleier left a memorable legacy in the NFL’s history because of what he did away from the field when it appeared life had taken away his best opportunity.

After one year in the NFL, Bleier was drafted to the U.S. Army to serve in Vietnam, and he sustained severe wounds in battle that everyone thought would kill his football career.

That moment led him to learn a life lesson that he shared with the Falcons and Vandals.

‘We really only have two choices in our lives,’ Bleier said. ‘One is to be less than what we can become, to be less, to play less, to have less effort. Or to be more. To play harder, put more effort in it, to reach our own potential. So we really only have one choice, and that is to do our best.’

After a three-month stay in a Tokyo hospital, Bleier was brought to a hospital in the United States, where he stayed for an additional nine months, enduring several operations.

He wasn’t the most seriously injured of soldiers in that hospital though, and one soldier’s valiant effort to continue his life as normal made a lasting impression on Bleier.

‘Across from me when I was in that hospital, there was a young soldier, who was a triple amputee; lost one arm and both legs,’ Bleier said. ‘Every day, he would grab the little trapeze that was hung over his bed and pull himself in a wheelchair the best he could.

‘He would stop and he would visit,’ Bleier continued. ‘Yet he chose to have a positive attitude. He chose to make a difference. I thought, ‘If he can have that attitude who am I to complain?”

From that point on, Bleier dedicated four ‘long and sometimes lonely’ years to gaining back his strength, speed and agility to become a starter for the Steelers.

He would rejoin the squad in 1971, and for two seasons, Bleier was the team’s leading rusher in the preseason. But he never got his opportunity to start.

The next season, frustration got to him and he left the team on his own will, but one his teammates – whom he didn’t name during the speech – gave him the motivation he needed to return to the team.

‘He said, ‘If you quit, you’ve already made the decision for the coaching staff. Do you like them well enough to make decisions for them? You have a responsibility to yourself. If this (playing football) is what you want to do, you come back and you make them make a decision. You back them in a corner and give you them a reason to keep you,” Bleier said.

In 1974, Bleier was given his opportunity after Hall of Fame fullback Franco Harris was injured during a game. The Steelers scored a late second quarter touchdown to take a halftime lead that day, giving Bleier a chance to finally see significant regular season playing time.

Later that season when Harris was healthy again, Bleier was moved from fullback to running back, launching his Steeler career.

In 1976, Bleier rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the only time in his career. He would retire from the NFL in 1980 with 3,865 rushing yards and 25 total touchdowns.

More memorable to most fans though are his four Super Bowl rings. Bleier showed all four during his speech and explained why the one from the 1979 Super Bowl is still his favorite.

‘It’s the one that I wear all the time,’ Bleier said. ‘The primary reason is because this happens to be the largest and gaudiest.’

And while it is uncertain is any Idaho or BG players will even win a Super Bowl, Bleier said that so long as they keep their heads up and follow their dreams, anything is possible.

‘Each and every one of our destinies ultimately lies in our own hands. We will become what we want to become,’ Bleier said. ‘If you think you are beaten, you are. If you think you can not, you don’t.”