Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rocky Bleier was originally selected by the Steel City favorite in the 16th round of the 1968 NFL Draft. He was expected to be an integral part of the offense for years to come, but he had to put that dream on hold when he was drafted into the U.S. Army during his rookie season.
Bleier was sent to Vietnam to take part in one of the most divisive wars in history. He survived when thousands of others did not, but he left the country after being injured in battle. Bleier had not returned to Vietnam until this past year when he made the trip to Da Nang with a camera crew.
This experience was captured to be part of an ESPN documentary known as The Return, which debuts Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
.@RockyBleier returned to Vietnam 50 years after he was wounded in combat.
"The Return," an SC Featured documentary, debuts tonight at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2, the 50th anniversary of when Bleier was wounded.August 20, 2019
"It was a different catharsis than I anticipated," Bleier said. "Unlike the average veteran who returned after service and had to repress those feelings, I came back to a high-profile industry and became a story. In some regards, it was cathartic [during his playing days] that I had to talk about it."
According to WTAE Pittsburgh, the return trip was not an easy experience for Bleier. He was taken to the clinic after collapsing due to heatstroke, and he was overcome by emotions during certain moments. Bleier originally told the camera crew that they should not expect many emotions, but he broke down weeping upon the return to the site of his injury.
"All of a sudden I had an overwhelming feeling of loss and sadness," Bleier said. "Why did we fight this war? Why did we lose 58,000 soldiers and in all honesty for what? Maybe for [the] first time, I can understand on a slight basis the impact that our soldiers go through and maybe just a little what post-traumatic stress might be and how the body reacts to all the emotions."
Three months after being deployed, Bleier was wounded when his "Charlie Company" unit was ambushed during a recovery operation in the Hiep Duc Valley. He was shot through his thigh during the attack, and he was also injured by a grenade blast that sent shrapnel into his right foot and both legs. There were 33 soldiers in Bleier's infantry unit, four of which were killed. Another 25 were injured.
Doctors were able to save Bleier's foot, but they had devastating news. They told the future Steelers star that he would never play football again. However, he defied expectations during his recovery from the injuries. Bleier returned to football and became an integral part of the four Super Bowl teams during the 1970s.0comments
During his tenure with the team, Bleier posted a 1,000-yard season at the age of 30 (1976) and accounted for 25 total touchdowns. He scored four rushing touchdowns during the Super Bowl runs and ended his career as a champion at the age of 34.
For the full glimpse into Bleier's return to Vietnam, The Return will air on ESPN 2 on Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET.