Rocky Bleier, who put off his NFL career to serve in Vietnam, stepped to the draft stage Saturday to help honor Purple Heart recipients. There’s no better person to do so since Bleier also earned the medal.
Here’s why the NFL put a spotlight on Bleier, a Pittsburgh Steeler legend, and John Banaszak, Bleier’s teammate. Bleier served in the Army. Banaszak was a Marine and Purple Heart recipient who then earned a starting spot at defensive end for the Steelers.
It’s the 240th anniversary of the Purple Heart. It’s the oldest medal still presented to American military members who were either wounded or killed as a result of enemy action. The first Purple Hearts were presented to three soldiers in 1780. However, the military has given the medal continuously since 1782.
Rocky Bleier, John Banaszak Amplified Patriotism at NFL Draft
The NFL draft acknowledged the anniversary by having Rocky Bleier and John Banaszak announce the 240th pick. The selection belonged to the Washington Commanders. And Washington drafted Oklahoma State defensive back Christian Holmes.
The National Football Foundation tweeted a photo of the patriotic moment. James McCormick, who earned three Purple Hearts, also joined the two Steeler greats in the draft announcement.
Bleier boasts an incredible story. In the height of the Vietnam War, when so many young people were protesting against it, Bleier put his NFL career on hold to serve his country. Bleier was a running back for the 1966 national champion Notre Dame Fighting Irish and a captain of the team in 1967.
Rocky Bleier did have his own draft moment, but it came long before the NFL selection process became such a publicized media spectacle. He was pick No. 417 in 1968, going to the Steelers in the 16th round. (For context, this year’s draft featured 262 picks).
He played his rookie season with Pittsburgh. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Army drafted Bleier. He shipped out five months later. That August, Bleier was on patrol in Heip Duic. His platoon was ambushed. Bleier suffered a bullet wound in his left thigh. Plus shrapnel from a grenade lodged in his right leg. He even lost part of his foot in the blast. He was transported to a hospital in Tokyo. Doctors told Bleier he’d never play football again.
But Steelers owner Art Rooney, with the simple act of writing a postcard, helped Bleier find his way back to the sport. He wrote to Bleier: Rock – the team’s not doing well. We need you. Art Rooney.”
Bleier Enjoyed Spectacular Pro Career with Steelers
Bleier, despite losing 30 pounds after his injuries, showed back up in Steelers training camp in 1970. By 1974, he earned a starting spot in the backfield opposite Franco Harris. (Coincidentally, the NFL honored Harris, Thursday). He helped the Steelers win four Super Bowl titles. Bleier retired in 1980, the same year Robert Ulrich starred in a TV movie about his life.
And decades later, Rocky Bleier helped honor other brave Americans just like himself while announcing a pick at the NFL draft.