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A Prayer Remembered

Former NFL star Rocky Bleier, saved from combat wounds in Vietnam, longs to give back.

Photo by Matt Rainey
Photo by Matt Rainey Former NFL star Rocky Bleier.

In his book “River Horse,” author William Least Heat-Moon wrote,“Our physical components change every seven years, so our brains are continuously passing along memories to a stranger; who we have been is only a ghostly fellow traveler. Were human memory total and perfect, perhaps I’d be only one person from start to finish, but forgetfulness cuts me off from who I’ve been,so that hourly I am reborn.”

Forty years ago, I was lying in a hospital bed in Tokyo. The pain was a constant reminder of what had happened days before – every detail and emotion of that firefight, which ultimately put my life on another path, was seared into my mind. The story over these many years has been told and told again, how a little running back out of Notre Dame made the Pittsburgh Steelers, only to be drafted again by Uncle Sam and sent to fight in Vietnam. My struggle to overcome injuries and ultimately play for the Steelers once more has been told in the book and movie “Fighting Back.”

As I think back on the words of Heat-Moon, I am not that 23-year-old kid any longer. Although the highlights of my life are vivid, the retelling of the story is now gospel. Who I was, the emotions I had then, unfortunately, have faded with time.

The story here is what have I learned over these 40 years. Maybe that’s the question we end up asking ourselves. What have we learned? What have we done? Have we made a difference?

One thing I learned, despite the fact that I only put two years in the military, is that those two years forever altered my life. They were pivotal, because all I learned prior had set a foundation for what I was to experience in the military. What I learned in the military became a springboard for the rest of my life.

Sixteen years of Catholic education was a great training ground for my experience in the service. Like a block of clay on an artist’s bench, eight years of being “kneaded” and “molded” by the Sisters of Notre Dame resulted in a foundation on which the final product could stand. They taught me respect. “Yes, Sister,” “No, Sister,” turned into “Yes, Sergeant,” “No, Sergeant.” They handed out corporal punishment like there was no tomorrow. They made you sit up straight, stand in a corner, walk a narrow line. They taught you how to read, write and memorize your math tables. This was Basic Training 101; no drill sergeant could instill as much fear in the heart of his intended victim as a fifth-grade teacher with a ruler in her hand and righteousness in her eyes.

With that foundation in place, the final sculpture started to be carved with the constant pounding, prodding and questioning by a group of single-minded men called Christian Brothers. They took you to the lowest common denominator and built you up from there. No more cajoling or goofing around. Expectations were high, and if you didn’t live up to them, it would be a “knuckle buster” in the arm or the sole of a tennis shoe across your butt. They questioned your heritage, manliness and, ultimately, your soul.

They made you think and take responsibility for your actions. This part of my education was a precursor to advanced infantry training.

From the artist’s bench, I went to be “glazed” and “baked in the oven.” I went off to a finishing school for more education and training. For me, the final product was to be sanded, smoothed and airbrushed at the University of Notre Dame. This was my non-com or OCS graduation.

Parallel to this formal education was an informal one taught on the playing fields of my youth, and then later within the confined structure of organized sports. In those early pick-up games, you learned how to organize, set rules and settle disputes. You improvised around the conditions and made do with the players you had.

As one progressed in the athletic arena, it then became structured. You had coaches and rules. You started to learn about the game and what it took to win. You were now expected to work out and be in shape. You learned about hard work, practice and discipline. You drilled and drilled and drilled, until the play became second nature. Coaches yelled, screamed, made you do push-ups and, along the way, you got better. You learned about teamwork, commitment and discipline.

The one thing the “Good Sisters” taught you was to learn how to pray. If you prayed long and hard enough, they said, your prayers would be answered. So you prayed – for sick days, no homework, snow days, no practice. You prayed to win, not get hurt, to pass a test. Sometimes you prayed just to make sense of the changing world around you.

My world was changing.

My draft notice came on a Wednesday. I was a rookie with the Pittsburgh Steelers. We were getting ready to play our 12th game of the 1968 NFL season. By Friday, I was on my way to the induction center at Fort Jackson, S.C. I ended up at Fort Gordon, Ga., for basic training and AIT.

Needless to say, my life was upside down. My senses were stunned. This was not to happen! Emotionally, I was stripped of all logic. I was now in a reaction mode. I prayed I would survive.

What got me through was the simple fact that I was here before. Every training camp I had attended and every practice I went through took over. The basics were the same: tear down, build up, learn the fundamentals, understand your role and work as a team.

Like everything else, what is experienced in the classroom or on the practice field is not necessarily transferred into the game. Hopefully, you have been prepared well enough to understand the plan and what your particular assignment may be. But the real skill comes from your ability to adapt and make adjustments – the difference between success and failure, between good and great.

Our point man on Aug. 20, 1969, couldn’t or didn’t make the adjustment. We were in an open rice paddy, walked into an ambush and got caught in a crossfire.

I got wounded for the first time. With a short lull in the action, I was amazed that my first thoughts were about a story my sixth-grade teacher, Sister Hilare, had told us about World War II soldiers and their foxhole prayers. They prayed that if they got out of their situation, they would build churches, or become priests, or do great deeds. So I gave it my best shot.

As much as I wanted to promise great things, the reality of the situation was that I knew myself well enough to know that if I got out in one piece, my resolve would melt away. Like in the game of hide-and-go-seek when we were kids, when you got tired of looking for someone, you would give up and yell, “Ollie, Ollie, all in free!”

My prayer thus became this: “If you get me out of here, you have my life to do with as you please. I’ll share the good times and not complain about the bad times.” It was the best I could do, and maybe that is all we have to offer.

The second time I got wounded, it put me in the hospital for nine months, plus two years of rehabilitation. A grenade blew up through my right foot and leg. With a lot of hard work, determination and perseverance, I made the Steelers. I played 11 more years and helped win four Super Bowls.

What I learned from my military experience that carried over into my professional career is that success depends on having the right people in place, that ineffectiveness is a recipe for disaster, that football is a game while war is about life or death. I will forever be proud to have served our country. We wear a common badge of valor and, like my fellow teammates, we will be forever linked together.

Eight years ago, Tom Brokaw used the phrase “fog of battle” to describe scenes of 9/11 – confusion and chaos left some virtually paralyzed with fear, while others seemed to be guided or directed, seeing something or someone that others could not see.

I have seen this “fog of battle” on playing fields as well as battlefields, where some seemed to be frozen while others seemed to be committed to a course of action. They’re the ones who would cause us to stand in awe and ask, “How were they able to do this?” or “Why did they do this?”

The answer may be as simple as the dignity of man, the sense of duty or the belief in teamwork: “I have your back, and will never leave you behind.”

There was a waning moon that night as we were trying to make our way out of that firefight. We were badly beat up. The 4th Platoon fought its way to drag us out, and they weren’t in much better shape. Those who couldn’t walk had to be carried, and the going was slow. Eventually, it would take us six hours to get to a secured area. Even though the adrenaline masked some of the pain, it was starting to go south.

I salute my bearers for having to carry 180 pounds of moaning dead-weight through the night on a path made by some small furry creature. They did as well as they could, but they, too, were only human. They got tired and would lay me down until someone else would pick up the load.

About three quarters of the way to our destination, fatigue set in for all. I was left behind and told they would send somebody back, hopefully with a stretcher. Soldier after soldier slowly shuffled by, when out of the darkness a hand grabbed my shirt and a low, tired voice said, “I got you, soldier,” and someone threw me over his shoulders and carried me the rest of the way.

It was like every other hand that had reached down over the years and pulled me up off the playing fields – a selfless act committed to a course of action, a teammate who had my back.

It may seem out of context now these 40 years later, but that hand happened to be black. In a time of civil-rights unrest and desegregation, the battlefield – like the playing field – wasn’t about race. It was about your fellow man, the brotherhood of team.

The word “hero” is sometimes too readily used to describe someone’s actions. The best definition of that word I have read is this: a hero is a person who does what has to be done, when it needs to be done, without thinking about the consequences. My fellow soldier above, to me, was a hero.

Sometimes it’s not enough to say, “Thank you.” Sometimes you have to take a stand and give back. Was that prayer I uttered 40 years ago good enough, or is the bigger question, “What have I done?”

On Sept. 11, 2001, in the “fog of battle” in New York, Washington, and on a plane over Pennsylvania, new heroes were born. As thousands screamed and ran in terror from a burning, towering inferno, hundreds of firefighters, police officers and rescue workers ran into it. On a plane destined for suicide, the crew and passengers chose to overpower the hijackers, regardless of their own fate, so that perhaps thousands of their fellow Americans could be saved.

We who watched their acts of heroism and selfless care for others stand in awe and are humbled. We are reminded every day of the men and women who continue to fight this war on terrorism. We will never forget those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, those who carry the scars of war and those who serve with dignity. We shall forever call them heroes.

We may never forget where we were on that day eight years ago, but like in the book “River Horse,” our brains are continuously passing along memories to a stranger, and those memories tend to fade.

As a 23-year-old, I thought I could save the world; today, I know better. But maybe I can save one memory. The tragedy of Flight 93 was in my back yard. Forty strangers came together, and like any Super Bowl team or combat unit, they devised and executed a plan, saving untold thousands of lives.

All of who I am has now come to identify with that group. Like a hand reaching out of the darkness, there was something I could do: I could help raise money to build a memorial to their memory. Be it for the dignity of man, a sense of duty or a belief in team, I want you to join us in “We Will Never Forget,” a tribute to our heroes.

I hope that 23-year-old private is proud of how his life has turned out. 

Vietnam War veteran Rocky Bleier was a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their dynasty years of the 1970s.

 

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