Rocky Bleier wasn't the biggest or the fastest running back to play in the NFL, but he was an incredibly determined athlete.
Chosen in the late rounds of the 1968 NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was drafted again that year by the U.S. Army for combat duty in Vietnam.
A few months later, Bleier was crippled by enemy rifle fire and grenade wounds in both legs. He could barely walk and couldn't run. It looked impossible for the former Notre Dame running back to ever play in the NFL.
But Bleier battled back from his injuries to play on four Super Bowl-winning Steelers teams in 12 seasons and become one of the most inspirational sports figures in history.
"Life's lessons determine who we are, what we are, what we want to accomplish and where we want to go," Bleier said. "The lessons I have learned are pretty unusual."
His story of triumph against adversity inspired the crowd at Centennial Hall on Wednesday at the Pillars of America Freedom series sponsored by the Juneau Glacier Valley Rotary Club. Bleier is the third speaker in this year's four-part series featuring top speakers from past years.
He said his wartime injuries left him less than optimistic.
"I remember being angry, then feeling sorry for myself. My attitude was at low levels," Bleier said. "But across from me in the hospital in Tokyo, there happened to be another trooper that was wounded. He was a triple amputee."
Bleier said the injured soldier got himself out of bed with his one good arm and into a wheelchair to push himself around from bed to bed and talk to the other wounded soldiers.
"For me, it was an attitude," Bleier said. "He picked me up. If he could do it, I could do it. They told me I would never play again and I said 'No, in time it will heal and I'll go back out and play again.' "
Nine months and three operations later, Bleier was well on his way to recovery, but it would take years before he would have the strength and stamina to get back into the NFL. But he would have to change the perception of the people who said he would never play again.
"Preconceived ideas do not take into consideration the driving force we have inside us," Bleier said. "It's about making goals into dreams, dreams into visions and visions are barriers we can control. The clearer the vision, the better the choices. For two years, I tried to do everything I possibly could to change the perception of the coaching staff."
Bleier said that it took four years before the Steelers allowed him to carry the ball and five years before they let him start.
"I knew I couldn't be the biggest or the fastest running back," Bleier said. "But I could be the most determined, the best conditioned, the best blocker. I worked to the best of my abilities."
It was a 40-yard dash that finally changed the team's view. He said on one particular day, three assistant coaches clocked him at 4.6, 4.55 and 4.5 seconds - far better than his normal 4.8-second time.
"In less than five seconds, I changed the perception of those coaches for good," Bleier said. "We don't always like to change but sometimes you have to ask yourself the question: Are we being the best we can be?"
Jeff Kasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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