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NEWS | Jan. 27, 2009

Vietnam veteran, former Steeler talks with ND Guard

By William Prokopyk North Dakota National Guard

BISMARCK, N.D. - A Vietnam War veteran, who overcame great odds to become a successful National Football League player, shared his message of strength, attitude and optimism during the North Dakota National Guard's 2009 Safety Conference on Jan. 24.

Former Pittsburgh Steeler Rocky Bleier was the conference's keynote speaker, and his message to the Guardsmen was clear and simple: "Never give up no matter how badly the odds are stacked against you."

Although his football career is truly noteworthy, he has four Super Bowl rings from his years with the Steelers, it was the Army veteran in Bleier that was most appreciated by the Guardsmen who listened to him speak.

"We chose Rocky Bleier as our keynote speaker because of his inspirational story of never quitting," said Chief Warrant Officer Bradley Hoines, North Dakota National Guard state safety officer. "His ability to overcome obstacles with hard work coupled with good personal choices fits well with our objectives in our commander's safety program.

"Safety encompasses the myriad of choices that an individual makes which can either prove to be a positive or negative influence on their life."

In 1968, Bleier was drafted by both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the U.S. Army. After playing sparingly with the Steelers, Bleier headed for basic training and deployed to Vietnam in May 1969. He served as an infantryman with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade of the famous Americal Division.

In August of that same year, Bleier was twice wounded in the legs by gunfire and a grenade during the same battle.

It would be a long, arduous journey back to professional football.

Military doctors told Bleier that he would probably be able to walk, but that he would never play football again. Bleier refused to believe it.

"I talk a lot about structure and fundamentals and what happens in changing environments. It`s really those basic fundamentals that football teaches you and life teaches you. The military teaches you the same thing," said Bleier.

Through personal devotion and hard work, he rehabilitated himself and finally won a starting position with the Steelers in the 1974 season, playing in the same backfield with Hall of Fame members Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris.

Bleier was destined to play with the "Super Steelers" of the 1970s that won Super Bowls IX, X, XIII and XIV. He retired from football after the 1980 season.

Bleier's enthusiasm and energy engaged the Guardsmen throughout his talk, and he remained open and gracious throughout the conference. He signed autographs when requested and was quick to offer all four of his precious Super Bowl rings for his fans to proudly wear as they posed for pictures along side him.

"Rocky Bleier's comments were right on the mark," said Capt. Doug Larsen. "I think his refusal to accept his destiny as a disabled veteran and his persistence to achieve his dream most likely had a very positive impact on his teammates. It will certainly have that impact on me."

In addition to being a four-time Super Bowl winner, Bleier was also named by Parade magazine as an All-American High School Player, a member of the Notre Dame's 1966 National Championship football team, followed by selection as team captain the next year, and is featured on the "Steelers All-Time Team" as a running back.

Despite his lengthy list of football accomplishments, Bleier is quick to point out that he is just as proud of his military service and the service of his Army buddies during the Vietnam War. He received a Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart Medal for his time in combat.

Bleier says he is extremely appreciative that today's military members returning home from war are greeted as the heroes they truly are.