IT TAKES A FULLBACK TO CLEAR A PATH: Four-time Super Bowl Champion Rocky Bleier Continues to Make an Impact
By Cynthia Zordich, NFL Player Engagement Insider
Each winter, I am blessed to photograph the Bert Bell Awards Dinner in Philadelphia. Named after the prolific NFL commissioner, it is an evening packed with Philadelphia sports icons, history, nostalgia and the most heroic children you will ever meet. The over $500,000 raised helps fund pediatric cancer research, the Family Support Funds at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, A. I. DuPont Hospital for Children, the Philadelphia and South Jersey Ronald McDonald Houses, Eagles Fly For Leukemia, Michael’s Way and the Bert Bell Memorial Award Dinner college scholarships. This year’s honored recipients were: Jim Mora (Bert Bell Memorial Award), Kevin Reilly (Dick Vermeil Award), Kevin Dougherty (Eagles’ Hero Award) & Leah Still (Michael’s Way Hero Award).
It is the Kevin Reilly acceptance speech that has inspired the direction of this article.
Kevin Reilly was taken in the 7th round of the 1973 draft. He played for two seasons in Philadelphia and a final season with the New England Patriots. Reilly’s career was cut short by a devastating blow: cancer. Later diagnosed as a desmoids tumor, it is a cancer of the scar tissue. Because it never stops growing, it has to be removed. At the age of 25, Kevin Reilly would deal with losing the game he loves, losing his left arm, a shoulder and five ribs. Emotionally scarred and physically altered, he was dealing with a complete crisis of identity when he got an unexpected call at the hospital. It was Rocky Bleier.
At the podium, in front of dozens of kids fighting similar battles of their own, Reilly shared Rocky’s message. “Promise me something,” he said to me. “Promise me you will not quit on something unless you try it at least three times. That’s all he said, and that day, Rocky Bleier changed my life.”
Listening, I thought about Rocky and what prompted him to make that call. I wondered what separates those who pick up the phone and those who do not. I thought of the impact that Rocky had on this life. It overwhelmed me to see the result of that gesture as Kevin Reilly, now a national motivational speaker, stood tall and proud center stage and shared his story of strength, perseverance and purpose while accepting the Dick Vermeil Award which signifies dedication to family, team and community.
Contacting Rocky a few days later to dive deeper into the story, I would find that a similar scenario had played out in his own life.
It was August of 1969 and Army Specialist Rocky Bleier was recovering from surgery at an army hospital in Tokyo. During a rescue mission in Hiep Douc he had been shot in the left leg and hit by a grenade. The hit had blown off part of his right foot and peppered both his legs with sulfur-laced shrapnel. He had been dragged and carried two miles through a Vietnamese rice paddy to safety. All 25 members from the Charlie Company 169th Light Infantry Brigade had either been killed or wounded. Even with half of his right foot blown away, he couldn’t keep from asking the good doctor the big question, “What do you think, Doc, can I come back and play?” His answer was, “Don’t worry about it, Rocky. You’re going to have a normal life, do the things that normal people do – just don’t expect to get back on the gridiron.”
Before he could absorb the impact of the brutal prognosis, hope came in the form of a 4x6 postcard.
It read, “Rock, team’s not doing well. We need you. Art Rooney.”
“That was it,” shares Rocky. “Now it’s kind of WOW! Somebody had an interest. Somebody needed me. They didn’t really need me, but they cared. And here is the most important thing, the Rooneys, being the kind of family they are, the kind of owners they are, when I did come back to training camp, and ultimately was not good enough to make the team, they put me on IR. I needed another operation. I had that. They kept me around and paid me a salary. I came back and made the developmental squad. So, when I look back on that part of my life, the Rooney family bought me two years to heal, two years to get bigger, faster and stronger. Plus, they bought me an opportunity to compete and make their team.”
Somebody cared. This, I thought was prophetic. Whether a returning Vietnam veteran or a retired NFL veteran - often there is that underlying fear, that paralyzing worry, that no one remembers, no one cares.
Rocky Bleier is unique in that he has transitioned both out of war and football. Since his own return from Vietnam, he has witnessed significant change in how society treats veterans. “At that time, everyone was against the war. The returning vet, he was the baby killer, he was spat upon. The best a soldier could do is just repress it. Don’t rock the boat, go back to school, get married. He didn’t get the chance to extricate himself from those demons. He didn’t have other veterans to talk to. You went to Vietnam as an individual and you came back an individual. You weren’t a part of the VFW, you weren’t a part of the American Legion. There was no support mechanism out there, so you repressed those feelings and for many years a lot of the veterans never talked about their experiences.”
Through the good fortune of a winning season, Rocky would unknowingly offer a rare glimpse into the mindset of the Vietnam veteran. It was 1972. Franco Harris was a rookie. The Pittsburgh Steelers won the division and went to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Franco made the immaculate reception and beat the Oakland Raiders to win the playoff game. Suddenly, there was a good story. With microphones pointed directly at him, reporters started to ask Rocky questions about the war. For the first time, he had to think about what he felt. “It was somewhat of a catharsis for me,” explains Bleier.”Here was this point blank question, ‘Well, how do you feel? How can you compare it? What took place?’ and for the first time in my life I had to really think about that. At that time, I was really apolitical. I just got caught up in the machine, trying to do my duties, being an American citizen as best I could. All I really thought about was getting back to play football. I didn’t have an opinion of the war, good, bad or indifferent, but to survive you had to have a reason for why you where there. For me, it was duty. If you didn’t focus on that purpose, it was very easy to escape with an alcoholic or drug induced state and a lot of soldiers did that and continued to do that when they returned. Having to define my thoughts and share my feelings helped somewhat for me in the healing process.”
Letters that poured in from Vietnam veterans across the U.S. would confirm that Rocky’s words were helping them heal, as well. There he was, one of them, succeeding in America’s sport. He offered a window into the world of the returning vet. He gave them a good face. He showed loyalty, commitment and insight. Veterans could point to the TV screen and tell their children, “He’s a vet. He’s just like me. A hero.”
Reflecting back to that tumultuous time, Rocky feels that the perception of the returning vet was often perpetrated by the media. “It seemed like there was always this bad news attached to the vet. A shooting took place - it was a Vietnam vet, domestic violence - happened to be a vet. There was always this label. Finally, there was good news. A good guy to represent the vet. A football player on a winning team.”
Similar to the returning vets, bad news often swirled around the retired NFL player. Football heroes seemed to fall out of the media spotlight and into a black hole. Those who transitioned successfully were hardly heard from again - that’s not news. Those who struggled emotionally and physically sometimes found solace in alcohol/drugs or became addicted to prescription drugs - vices that can lead to volatile behavior, depression or isolation. Nobody was talking about transition. Nobody understood PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) or talked about CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Every time you turned around a player was in the papers because of course, this was news. Like the Vietnam veteran, a label was placed on the retired NFL player.
Rocky Bleier will attest that for teammates, interceding was a sensitive issue. “You could be a teammate and a friend, but that doesn’t mean you are a confidant,” explains Rocky. “A player might not feel close enough to intercede. There was a respect factor. Pride. Privacy. When a player did reach out it was usually for help financially, not emotionally. Doing that made you feel a little better, but deep down you knew that money was only part of the problem. Often, in the worst cases, they took those dark thoughts to the grave.”
Joe Gilliam’s locker was right next to Rocky’s. During their playing days, the quarterback and fullback were not best buds, but they were friendly. It was after Joe’s release that they started to get close. Joe would call Rocky from New Orleans with his upbeat attitude and grand plan. “It was Christmas night,” remembers Rocky. His voice is low. “I was already in bed and the phone rang at about midnight. It rang and rang and woke me up. I thought, ‘Oh, who is calling me so late? They’ll leave a message.’ The next morning I got a call. It was a woman’s voice. She introduced herself as Joe Gilliam’s wife. ‘Who is this?’ she asked. I said, ‘This is Rocky Bleier.’ After a moment she said, ’I want you to know that Joe died last night.’ Rocky pauses to collect his emotions. “’This is the last number he called.’”
Since 1987, an estimated 24 former NFL players have died of unnatural causes. Whether accidental overdose or suicide, their deaths, not in vein; have us asking legitimate questions about our players’ mental well-being as well as the potential long-term effects of repetitive head trauma.
The unsung hero of that awareness is Pittsburgh Hall of Fame Center, Mike Webster. Long before concussion discussion, Webster, already in a degenerative state, was one of the first football players to question the effect repeat hits have on the brain – his brain. An avid reader, Webster dove into literature on head trauma and brain disease. 2Margin notes scribbled by Webster in his collection of medical textbooks reveal his confusion, “Ice pick headache. Disinhibition. Dysfluency.” Webster also wrote thousands of letters revealing his torture, “What do I do, I am fucking overwhelmed…What to do…have no way to Help My Kids. Everyone. Other Family Dependents and keep them Healthy Safe…Maybe me worthless piece of Crap. I Can NOT Let That Get to Me. Have to Keep Trying To Keep Work at all this but How Do I Do Anything Now?”
Mike Webster knew he was unraveling. His thoughts were bungled, his delivery was incoherent at times, but he was certain that his cognitive issues were linked to hits.
While the medical world was familiar with Dementia Pugilistica or 3Punch-drunk syndrome, Webster’s brain would be the first documented case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in a football player.
After a fatal heart attack in 2002, the 50 year old Webster lay before junior forensic pathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu at the Allegheny County morgue. Omalu had seen a feature on the Hall of Fame football hero who fell into hard times and his bizarre behavior wasn’t adding up. He felt he must have some variation of brain damage.
On a hunch, he ordered the technician to preserve Mike Webster’s brain. The study would famously reveal large clusters of tau proteins in Webster’s brain and lead Omalu to the first discovery of CTE in football players. CTE is a disease stemming from repeat trauma to the head leading to conditions such as memory loss, depression and dementia.
Since that first diagnosis,4researchers at Boston University have found CTE in 90 of 94 brains of deceased NFL players that they have studied; numbers that could make any player assume his own fate; numbers that leave us thinking about all athletes who participate in impact sports. Swirling around that uncertainty, are legitimate questions. Who is at risk? Who is vulnerable? How close are we to diagnosing CTE in the living and once we do, will there be a cure? Diving in to find the answers to those questions are various research teams like: 4bThe Boston University CTE Center, The American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, The University of Toronto and The Mayo Clinic Brain Bank in Jacksonville, to name a few. 5To do so, they must all rely on continued support from existing donors such as: the federal government, the NFL, the NFLPA and private sources. They must also rely on increased random participation; including those players showing no signs of the disease, those athletes outside of the game of football and the general public.
In the football community, CTE has created somewhat of a divide. There are former players who don’t want to hear about CTE. There are current players who can’t afford to think about CTE. There are players who are experiencing degenerative symptoms. There are players who have died unconventionally. Is it CTE? Is it an epidemic?
Naysayers will tell you that NFL players live a longer, healthier life than the general public. Statistics will show that the 6NFL active/former players’ suicide rate is at 12.5 per 100,000 since 2005 while the US male suicide rate is at 19.2 per 100,000, as documented in 2009. Still, the question remains - are these untimely deaths related to CTE or are there other factors?
While we wait for science to answer that question, let us focus not on the blame, but on the lives that are slipping away from us. If football is family, the stats are inconsequential: every life matters.
What CTE gives us is empathy for the plight of some of our former NFL Players. It gives us the reason to probe into their lives and ask questions. While the scientists study the brains of our NFL family members - let us study their behavior. Let us look for signs of depression, paranoia, loss of identity, exhaustion, anxiety, anger, violence, confusion, memory loss, substance abuse, addiction. We know our teammates. Certainly, we can recognize uncharacteristic behavior.
If football is family - then family intervenes. Family dives in. NFL teammates need to check in with each other. NFL wives need to reach out to each other. As a community, we need to find those players who may have slipped through the cracks. Those players who have isolated themselves. Those players that are dealing with possible mental health issues. Those players who may be showing early signs of CTE. I am asking all NFL players and spouses to start by taking inventory of their own lives and to follow up by checking in with former teammates.
According to Rocky Bleier, what CTE gives us is the opening line. “I think the awareness today casts a wider shadow of responsibility on teammates to get involved. More than the knowledge of why and what took place is a better empathy for a player rather than saying, ‘You need to get your shit together and be the person you are supposed to be.’ without understanding the impact of his situation. Gone are the days of worrying that you are sticking your nose into someone else’s business, because, we are talking about lives here, our teammates’ lives. It becomes part of a community business. So now we can say, ‘Hey, your behavior is not adding up, I’m worried about you, let’s get it checked out.’”
Impact: Those subtle gestures that have enormous results. What separates those who pick up the phone and those who do not?
Rocky Bleier is a war veteran and an NFL veteran. He is a four-time Super Bowl Champion. What’s more, he has helped champion the change of the most difficult kind: perception. By sharing his own experiences through transition, he continues to shepherd veterans across the field. By intuitively recognizing vulnerability, he has impacted the lives of some who might have wondered astray. Still, he has buried two teammates that slipped through his reach. For this reason, his words are profound, “Stick your nose in to somebody else’s business before their problem becomes your burden of regret.”
If you know believe you know a member of the NFL family in crisis, please contact the NFL Lifeline at (800) 506-0078. http://nfllifeline.org/.
For additional information about the Boston University CTE Center or how to participate in current or future research studies, contact: Patrick Kiernan, Research Assistant 617-414-1187 firstname.lastname@example.org
Rocky Bleier is a war veteran, national collegiate football champion, four-time Super Bowl champion, author and motivational speaker. Whether it is career development for corporate executives, enhancing sales and marketing skills for sales teams, offering inspiration for young professionals or practical advice to student athletes, Rocky Bleier’s delivery is impactful. His advice is not about avoiding life’s twists and turns but conditioning one’s self to lean into them and to incorporate the resulting energy in realizing goals. To schedule a booking with Rocky Bleier, please contact your Speakers Bureau or contact Rocky directly at email@example.com.
Cynthia Zordich is an NFL Engagement insider. She is the wife of former NFL Player/current University of Michigan Coach Michael Zordich and the mother of free agent FB Michael Zordich (PSU '12), former UB Quarterback Alex Zordich ('13) and Penn State graduate Aidan Zordich (Advertising '14). www.cynthiazordich.com.
- Source: The Washington Times, Oldestlivingfootball.com/necrology list, NYdailynews.com, NYtimes.com,
- Source: League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada, Steve Fainaru. Prologue. Bird Brains.
- Source: HARRISON S. MARTLAND, M.D.
JAMA. 1928;91(15):1103-1107. doi:10.1001/jama.1928.02700150029009
- Source: The New York Times 1/10/16
4b. Agencies sited in The New York Times column, On CTE and Athletes... 3/27/2016 B. Carey
- The National Institutes of Health has committed some $20 million to research, and the NFL more than $70 Million. NY Times 3/27/2016 B. Carey
- Source: Center for Disease Control (CDC) statistics; NFL research, 2009