Kevin Gorman: Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam gives new perspective
When Rocky Bleier surveyed the open rice paddy at Hiep Duc in the Que Son Valley last August, the Pittsburgh Steelers great tried to visualize the differences of nearly five decades.
“Jesus Christ,” Bleier said, stopping in his tracks. “You think about those guys that got killed.”
Bleier sniffled, then started sobbing, his hands trembling.
Forty-nine years to the day he was wounded by gunshot and grenade shrapnel, Bleier’s return to Vietnam brought an emotional breakdown he never anticipated.
Bleier’s raw vulnerability — and the unexpected, dramatic moment that followed — was captured by a camera crew and makes for a powerful scene in the SC Featured documentary, “The Return.”
“All of a sudden, I had this overwhelming sense of emotion that I really couldn’t put a finger on of why or what took place,” Bleier told the Tribune-Review on Friday. “What I felt was this complete sense of waste — not loss, but waste. Why? Fifty-nine thousand died in Vietnam, for what? That was my justification or reason why it was overpowering. And I still feel that now.”
Regarded as one of the “grittiest players” on the Super Steelers of the 1970s, Bleier had been adamant beforehand that he carried no emotional scars — only to be moved to tears.
“You knew his demeanor going into that. He was like, ‘I don’t know if there’s anything there but we’ll see,’ ” said Jon Fish, who directed and produced “The Return.”
“As a filmmaker, we were just willing to roll the cameras and see what happens. … When it happened, it was really powerful. It was just really powerful, and we just let it happen.”
“The Return” is scheduled to air a shortened version on SportsCenter this weekend and the full 30-minute documentary on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. Aug. 20. That coincides with the 50th anniversary of the mission by 33 men from Charlie Company 4th Battalion (Light), 31st Infantry 196th Light Infantry Brigade to recover the bodies of nine soldiers killed in an ambush. Four more soldiers died, and 25 others, including Bleier, were wounded when they emerged from a wooded trail to face enemy fire in that open field in Hiep Duc.
Bleier was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart after he was shot in the left thigh, lost part of his right foot and took shrapnel in both legs. The documentary, reported by ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi, is a moving tribute to Bleier interrupting his NFL career to serve in the Vietnam War and his courageous comeback.
“No one told me no,” Bleier said, simply.
Not that he would have listened anyway.
“How can you not admire Rocky Bleier?” Terry Bradshaw said. “He had a dream, and he wasn’t going to quit on it. That’s the kind of people you want to play with.”
The storytelling is splendid, from scenes of the Steelers winning four Super Bowls to Bleier’s touchdown catch against the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The interviews, from Art Rooney and Joe Greene to Bradshaw and especially Franco Harris, are incredible. Fish found it amazing that almost everyone he interviewed connected to Pittsburgh is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
While Bleier’s story was a worthy subject on its own, what makes it powerful is the depth it delves into finding fellow soldiers from the Vietnam War, including one who fought for the Viet Cong. Where Bleier initially downplayed the idea, one that was a decade in the making, it gave him a new perspective.
“For people that knew the story, this is a new layer to it. For people that didn’t know the story, they’re blown away. That’s the wonderful thing about the story,” Fish said.
“Rocky Bleier now is the same Rocky Bleier who came back after being wounded to make the Pittsburgh Steelers. The essence of him then is the same as now: We’re going to come back, and we’re going to finish this story. You see the power and inner strength that he has, that started the story way back when. Years later, he’s the same person.”
Except that Bleier isn’t. He admits the visit to Vietnam — something he never felt a desire to do – changed him for the better. That was especially true when, a month after returning, he was inducted into the Steelers’ Hall of Honor. It made him realize how blessed he was to survive and succeed.
This incredible and emotional #SCFeatured documentary is coming to @ESPN later this month – @RockyBleier returns to Vietnam 50 years after he was wounded in combat @steelers @NDFootball https://t.co/voUql2Qkbc
— Andy Hall (@AndyHallESPN) August 2, 2019
“That’s what we all want, to be recognized for your contribution along the way,” Bleier said. “It doesn’t mean you need to be in the Hall of Fame or an All-Pro, just that somebody recognizes that you put time and effort in and you played on a team that allowed you to be in position to win four Super Bowls.
“It’s not you. It’s that conglomeration of you and the owners, coaches and players you got to be part of. Hopefully, you can look back and say, ‘I made a difference in the lives of my kids, community, church, marriage’ or whatever it may be. That becomes essential, that you did something worthwhile.”
What is most essential to Bleier is those who watch “The Return” can make sense of the senseless by starting a conversation that will help them find their own closure toward the Vietnam War, which has touched all of our lives, whether that’s through a family member or a friend.
“Unlike the majority of Vietnam veterans at that time, who came back to a hostile environment here in the States and weren’t appreciated for their service — and they had nobody to talk to or talk about and had to suppress their feelings — I came back and became a story,” Bleier said. “That was somewhat of a catharsis for me, that I had to talk about those feelings and everything that had taken place. And I’ve been telling that story for 50 years.”
“The Return” tells Bleier’s story in a new way, with a moment of weakness actually showing his strength.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .