Rocky Bleier with David Eberhart
Rocky Bleier with David Eberhart
The ambush came out of nowhere and everywhere. My platoon members and I were strung out and moving through the bush near Hiep Douc in the Que San Valley of South Vietnam. It was August 20, 1969, and, as always, it was hot and wet.
All at once, the distinctive angry staccato of the enemies’ AK-47 assault rifles filled the air. It was mixed with a different sound, that of a heavier machine gun. The incoming rounds slapped and tore through the foliage. Adding to the din were the shouts of the platoon sergeant to return fire. Company C of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade was in trouble.
Suddenly, it felt as if someone had smacked me—hard—with a baseball bat on the left thigh. I had been hit by one of the incoming rounds! I tried to scramble out of harm’s way, but there was no escape from the withering fire. Then I heard the ear-splitting “ruuump!” of a grenade explosion, and the baseball bat smashed down hard again, this time pounding onto my right leg and foot.
My memory after that is of crawling—for what seemed like forever. I later calculated that over the course of six hours, I had dragged myself across two miles of ground. I did a lot of thinking and remembering in that time.
At one point during my slow and painful journey, it occurred to me that I’d had the peculiar fortune to have been “drafted” twice. In January 1968, I was a late-round draft pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and in November of that year, the U.S. Army drafted me. In my weakened condition, I found this double-draft thing infinitely amusing.
But the joke soon faded, and my mind once again tried to grasp the reason that I was in Vietnam at all. The political reasons for the U.S. being there were easy to understand. The difficult part for a soldier like me to comprehend was my role in this conflict. I had been over all this in my mind many times before, and I always came back to an incident that had happened early on in my tour.
We had come across a village—not even a village, really, but just a couple of hooches inland. There was a family there—kids, an old man and an old lady. I saw that they didn’t have anything—except for an old tin can. They had filled the tin can with water and put it on an open fire to boil. When I looked inside the can, I saw a buffalo hoof. That pathetic soup was their sustenance. I decided right then that if I could help these people take a step forward, then my time in the country would be worthwhile.
As it happened, my opportunity to follow through was cut short. My wounds got me evacuated to Tokyo, where the docs told me I had nearly lost my right foot and that I would never play football again. They informed me I was getting discharged with 40 percent disability.
This was not good news. Football was my whole life and dream—a dream that had started in Appleton, Wisconsin, at Xavier High School and matured at Notre Dame, where I had been voted the captain of the Fighting Irish in 1967. There wasn’t anything else in my life I wanted to do. Football was something I identified with and that defined me.
It was a black time for me. Wounded and depressed, I tried to contemplate a future without football. Then I received a postcard from Art Rooney, the owner of the Steelers. He had written only, “We’ll see you when you get back.”
Such simple words, but their impact was immediate. It was then that I determined that I would be back—I would fight this thing with everything I had. The first thing on the program was learning to walk again on what remained of my right foot.
With more patience and resolve than I knew I had, I succeeded. In 1970, I returned to the Steelers and was placed on injured reserve. By the following year, I was on the taxi squad. In 1973, I made special teams. That year, I began running. In 1974, I was still running—but now I wore the Steelers’ number 20 jersey.
We won the Super Bowl that year. We won again in 1975, 1978 and 1979. Franco Harris and I ran and ran, setting some modest records along the way.
In 1980, I retired from football, having—against all probability—lived my dream. I have tried to thank providence for my exceptional second chance by serving as a board member of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and being involved with charities for disabled children. I’ve also done a lot of professional motivational speaking, hoping to inspire others to overcome any obstacles that may bar their way.
In my talks, I always tell people about Art Rooney, whose faith in me was contagious. As long as I live, I don’t believe that I will ever experience more inspirational words than the simple sentence written on that long-ago postcard: “We’ll see you when you get back.”