Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Steelers great Rocky Bleier ‘grateful’ for ESPN film
SC Featured producer Jon Fish approached Rocky Bleier a decade ago about the idea of doing a documentary where the Pittsburgh Steelers great would return to Vietnam for the first time in 40 years and revisit sites from his tour.
“To some degree,” Bleier said, “I kind of poo-pooed it.”
Fish kept notes, photographs and reports from the U.S. National Archives in manila folders on his desk for years. Then his bosses asked if he still kept in touch with Bleier, wondering whether he would be willing to call and see if he was interested.
Fish called Bleier out of the blue while driving past the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Md. The recollection is vivid, as Fish remembers apologizing for interrupting the Notre Dame-Princeton game in the first round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Bleier is a Notre Dame alum, and the Fighting Irish survived a 60-58 scare.
A month later, Bleier texted back: “Let’s go.”
On Aug. 20 — 50 years to the day of Bleier being wounded by gunshot to his left thigh and grenade in his right foot and both legs — ESPN2 will air the 30-minute documentary “The Return.” (SportsCenter will air shortened versions this weekend).
“It just happened that we were able to be in Vietnam on the 49th anniversary of when it happened,” Fish said. “It just came together. Now, it’s going to debut on the 50th anniversary. The timing was really, really fortuitous.”
Watch: Here's the trailer to Rocky Bleier's "TheReturn," which is set to air at 8 p.m. Aug. 20 on ESPN2 pic.twitter.com/fCHVqXUkCA
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1. Behind the scenes: When he works on stories, Fish intentionally avoids studying anything other than his subject so that he won’t be influenced.
He knew Bleier’s inside and out.
“I knew the story cold,” Fish said. “I read his book (“Fighting Back”), highlighted his book. I can’t tell you how many guys I tracked down on the phone that didn’t make the film. I filled notebooks. I read and talked to as many people as possible. We didn’t know what to expect, but we knew the story points cold. We knew what to sell.”
Fish knew he needed video shots of everywhere from Da Nang to LZ Hawk Hill to Hiep Duc, especially the latter.
Bleier, who has performed a one-man play about his life story, was interested to see the filmmaking process. He watched as the crew used drones to get shots, trekked up hills and mountains and as Fish tracked down his friends from basic training and men in his company.
“It was a terrific experience,” Bleier said. “It takes time and it takes special people to put it together.”
2. The unknown: In talking to Fish and ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi, Bleier didn’t know what to expect upon returning to Vietnam but wasn’t anticipating an emotional meltdown.
“It’s not something that I needed to do or had a great desire to go back,” said Bleier, who has been sharing his Vietnam War story for the better part of the past five decades. “I didn’t have any emotional scars, that I didn’t kill anybody or have anybody die in my arms or have body parts or blood splattered on me.
“We fought this war. I didn’t put it into an emotional strain. You just qualified it and filed it away in some compartment of your brain.”
Bleier’s emotional moment at Hiep Duc came unexpectedly, so Fish was fortunate that the cameras captured the raw vulnerability.
“You turn the camera on. There’s never a goal, per se,” Fish said. “That’s why it worked out really well. When it hits him, it hit all of us hard. Oh my God. We didn’t expect that. I said it over and over again. I didn’t expect that.”
3. Starting something: Bleier shared a story about speaking at a panel discussion for the Vietnam Veteran display at the Heinz History Center in the Strip District.
Former Steelers Jon Kolb and John Banaszak were among the speakers, as well as other retired soldiers and even a conscientious objector. Afterward, Bleier received a card from a Vietnam War veteran thanking him for helping provide closure to his experience.
“Actually, as I thought about that now in dealing with veterans, what it did was gave me a better awareness of mental health problems that military people go through,” Bleier said. “Especially our young soldiers today, who go through three, four, five deployments in the Middle East, and the first responders and the trauma they deal with, all the statistics of divorce rates, suicide rates and the things that affect our normal, daily lives. My goodness, how do people survive this if it’s a constant battle they have to face?”
Bleier hopes that the documentary can spur discussion between generations after years of keeping it private.
“There’s stories, whether you served or were stateside,” Bleier said. “We have a commonality. It’s like a locker room. Those become important. Hopefully, maybe there’s some families that will watch this that will spur a conversation or come to some closure about their parents.”
4. Under wraps: The Steelers are scheduled to get a sneak preview of The Return in a private screening on Thursday at Saint Vincent College.
Believe it or not, it will be Bleier’s first peek at the film.
“Normally, our policy is that we never show any of our work before its debut,” Fish said. “I’ve never, ever, ever shown anybody before it’s ready to air. I tell people, ‘This is exactly what we’d like to do and this is how we’ll hopefully do it.’ When the story airs, they’re prepared for it and there are no surprises. It’s easier that way. There’s no secrets.”
Bleier has viewed a trailer, so he knows the scene where he sheds tears at Hiep Duc is included. He worried that it could be seen as a sign of weakness.
“Looking forward to it? Kind of,” Bleier said. “But it’s like seeing yourself in movies or on film or in an interview where you say, ‘I wish I hadn’t said that. Or, ‘They used that piece?’ The trepidation is that I know I had an emotional breakdown … then we’re going to have to talk about that.”
5. Finding closure: The Return reminded me of the final scene in Saving Private Ryan, where the title character returns to the gravesite and admits his conflict about coming back and hoping that he earned their sacrifice.
Bleier says that thought crossed his mind.
“Yeah, it did. I think that is a question that we all ask of ourselves, especially when you get to an older age, as you reflect on what did you do, what didn’t you do, how did you fulfill your life — if that is the question,” Bleier said. “I think that becomes more of the question to the veteran end of it. Did I do the right thing?
“I continue to think about that. I think about having that honor and the story and struggle and getting the chance to have that opportunity. You ask yourself why and what are the reasons. The reasons are maybe varied. But you get the opportunity. I don’t have answers to why … but it did happen.”
For that, Bleier is thankful that he got to live out his dream as a running back for the four-time Super Bowl champion Steelers — and that he returned to Vietnam for a visit.
“Ultimately, yes. I’m glad that I had that opportunity to be able to go back and be able to put into perspective that experience of war into a different perspective than I had before,” Bleier said. “I’m so grateful that ESPN gave me that opportunity to be able to do that. There’s thousands of guys that will never be able to have that closure.”
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .