Rocky Bleier’s Purple Heart
The MMQB presents NFL 95, a special project—unveiled every Wednesday from May through July—detailing 95 artifacts that tell the story of the NFL, as the league prepares to enter its 95th season. See the entire series here.
Dozens of NFL players, coaches and team personnel have fought in American conflicts overseas, but few have told their stories as eloquently and grippingly as Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rocky Bleier did in the June 9, 1975 issue of Sports Illustrated. A 14th-round pick out of Notre Dame in 1968, Bleier had been drafted into the Army December of that year, after his rookie season, and was sent to Vietnam in May 1969. In the SI piece Bleier shares a graphic tale of being wounded at the hands of the North Vietnamese in August ’69, preceded by a growing sense of moral disenchantment with the American war effort. Bleier writes:
I took off the sterile gauze and found a gash four inches long and an inch deep on the outer edge of my thigh, about halfway from the knee to the waist. There was no bone damage. The bullet had simply sheared off a piece of muscle and flesh. I never thought about my football career. It was all I could do to consider the immediate options. What if the enemy saw the lieutenant yelling to me? They could tear up that hedgerow in a hail of machine-gun fire and me with it.
Bleier recovered from the gunshot and grenade injuries for which he received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, and returned to the Steelers after his service. After several seasons fighting for a roster spot, he became a starter in 1974 and went on to win four Super Bowl rings with Pittsburgh, playing in the backfield alongside Franco Harris.
The Hall of Fame says 21 players, an ex-head coach and a team executive died in World War II, and two ex-players died in Vietnam. A 24th player, former Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, died from friendly fire in Afghanistan in April 2004, after leaving a $3.6 million contract to fight in the war on terror.
Photograph courtesy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.