In the CYITML lexicon, COACH isn’t necessarily a “coach” in the general sense. Here it’s someone on the field, at the office, or at home, who understands the game; is an independent thinker; a good self-evaluator; and offers enthusiasm. A former Super Bowl champion that comes to mind is Rocky Bleier, who was part of the great Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s. His story has been told and retold countless times (and will be told more in-depth here in November), but in a nutshell, his story is one of the most inspirational in sports. With three games remaining in his rookie season of 1968, the then-22-year-old Bleier was drafted again – this time by the U.S. Army. Five months later he was sent to Chu Lai, South Vietnam, with the 196th American Division’s Light Infantry Brigade. In August 1969 he was crippled by enemy rifle fire and grenade wounds in both legs. Bleier, who was awarded a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and two campaign ribbons, came home with that same desire to play football that he had when he left. Steelers’ owner Art Rooney gave Bleier a second chance. After spending two years on the practice squad, Bleier made Pittsburgh’s roster in 1972. The rest, as they say, is history. Here is a short Q&A Matt Fulks did with Bleier, focusing on his Super Bowl experiences.
Q: First off, it’s incredible to think you spent two years on the taxi squad before making it. Again, you weren’t fresh out of college at the time. What was your motivation?
Rocky Bleier: I think all of us want hope. As long as we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we’re okay. As long as there is hope, or a ray of hope, of either making the team or doing something that you love, then you push yourself forward.
Q: You’ve gone to a few Super Bowls, as a player and since. How much has the atmosphere around the Super Bowl changed since your — we’ll say — glory days?
RB: [Laughs] I don’t know. When you’re playing, you’re an isolated group. You have your hotel and you’re surrounded by your fans. You go to practice and most of your time is spent with either your teammates or your family, if they joined you.
Q: Chuck Noll is a legendary coach. What was he like during Super Bowl week?
RB: The first time we went, we left a day early. Chuck didn’t give us a curfew on Sunday night or Monday night. Tuesday was media day and then we had a curfew starting that night. Wednesday was a workday and Thursday was a workday, just like normal. We didn’t change anything as far as preparation. He was practical in that manner. We came to expect that in Super Bowls X, XIII and XIV. He taught us that the Super Bowl was a game in a series that started with the first game of the playoffs. It was no more or less important than the game or games that got us there.
Q: As you think to your Super Bowl experiences, what’s the biggest thing for you personally that you remember?
RB: One thing, I remember standing there with Franco (Harris) and (Terry) Bradshaw as the offense was being introduced (in Super Bowl IX). I was thinking, “Wow, I get to stand in this place where all great champions have stood before.” And we were part of that history. That moment was very special, and we won!
I was very fortunate to play with a group of guys that allowed me to have that experience and to have those memories. It becomes much more special as time passes.
Q: The Steelers have been one of the model franchises in the NFL. What is it about this organization since the 1970s that has helped it remain, for the most part, competitive year after year?
RB: I think part of it is the continuity of ownership and a philosophy in ownership. It’s been low-key but consistent. If you look at the organization, there’s really only one spokesperson — the head coach. The general manager doesn’t try to coach or have an ego problem. The owner doesn’t try to coach. It’s very defined. You hear from Mike Tomlin on all football issues.
The other part of that surrounds the head coach. If I’m going to take the time to find the right head coach, I have to trust my gut with the decisions he makes. And, if you look at it since the ‘70s, they’ve had only three coaches — Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Tomlin. They’ve all been driven, successful and wanted to set a standard, even though they all had different personalities. So, the owner isn’t taking a knee-jerk reaction and firing him if he had one bad year or two or even three. Over time, they’ve been able to find and develop the right personnel in a system.
Q: As a player in the moment of the actual game, when do the jitters and emotions wear off to where it’s just a smash-mouth game?
RB: On kickoff. It’s like every other game where you’re anxious before the game, but once that whistle blows and the ball’s kicked off, and you get that first hit, you’re playing the game.
Q: That first hit brings you back to reality, huh?
RB: Yeah, it wakes you up. You don’t hear what’s taking place in the stands because you’re focused on the field, playing the game just like you did the first game of the season. You hope you can execute and follow the game plan.
Q: As always, Rocky, we appreciate you doing this.
RB: No problem, Matt. Anytime.
We will feature more of Bleier’s story during November, close to Veteran’s Day.