“The one who wins is the one who thinks he can,” Rocky Bleier
KINGSPORT - Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rocky Bleier helped kick off the United Way’s regional fundraising campaign Wednesday afternoon, offering a personal story of determination and perseverance, from overcoming a career-ending injury sustained during the Vietnam War to returning to the gridiron and playing for four Super Bowl winning teams during the 1970s.
Eight United Way organizations from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia held their annual fundraising campaign kickoff event at the Meadowview Conference Resort and Convention Center on Wednesday. The United Way provides funds to a variety of programs and organizations aimed at improving the education, health and financial stability of people in the community.
This year’s regional campaign goal is $9,626,000.
To kick off this year’s fundraising campaign, the United Way brought in Bleier as the keynote speaker for Wednesday’s event.
Bleier, who has been involved with the United Way for 33 years, graduated from Notre Dame University in 1968 with a degree in Business Management and was drafted #417 in the 16th round by the Steelers later that year.
“At least I’m not the last one,” Bleier joked.
Soon after joining the Steelers and while sitting in the team’s locker room, Bleier said he received what he thought was his first piece of fan mail.
“My first piece of fan mail...was from the U.S. Army,” he said. “Within 24 hours my world turned upside down.”
Bleier briefly relayed his time in Vietnam, how he was wounded twice after being ambushed, once being shot from a rifle and later from grenade shrapnel. He was later awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
At an aid station in Da Nang, Bleier said he met a triple amputee who had a positive attitude about life (which changed his attitude), then later a doctor in Tokyo told him not to expect to return to the NFL.
“That sucked the hope right out of me,” Bleier said. But two days later, he received a post card in the mail from Steelers owner Art Rooney, asking him to return to the team.
“I came back and they put me on injured reserve. That bought me two years of opportunity and I came back in 1972 a little bit bigger and stronger,” Bleier said. But after being on special teams and having limited chances of playing running back, Bleier left the Steelers.
However, a phone call from a persistent teammate, encouraged him to once again return to the Steelers. The move paid off and today Bleier has four Super Bowl rings from his time at the Steelers - two wins against the Dallas Cowboys, and one each against the Minnesota Vikings and the then Los Angeles Rams. Bleier played 12 years in the NFL and retired from the league in 1980.
“Super Bowl 13 is the one I wear all the time. It's the largest and gaudiest of the four rings,” Bleier said, noting that rings are a symbol and all symbols in our lives are important. “We need constant reminders of our accomplishments, our failures and our barriers. It takes hard work and passion, leadership, people with vision and a belief system shoved into a capsule today. We love to call it a team.”
Bleier’s 30-minute speech sought to inspire those in attendance and praise them for their work in the United Way, but he also interspersed humorous comments about single-handily winning four Super Bowls and how at the age of nine, he scored 51 touchdowns in a football game against his five-year old friend.
“Playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers was truly an opportunity,” Bleier said. “It reminds me of the simple fact that we as people live in a culture of opportunity and not necessarily a culture of entitlement. The only thing we’re entitled to is the opportunity we face ourselves on a daily basis.”
Bleier concluded his remarks by saying the reason he got the chance to play in the NFL was not because of his size or speed, but rather his talent for the game.
“You have to realize what you bring to people’s lives, this organization and the community...is a talent,” he said. “One of the big factors of the world in which we live is hope. Hope becomes an essential part of our lives and what we do. All lives are built on hope.”