Screening of ‘The Return’ shows Steelers great Rocky Bleier’s vulnerable side
A captivated crowd sat in spellbound silence for 30 minutes while watching the story of Pittsburgh Steelers great Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam 49 years after fighting in the war.
They saw Bleier break down into tears upon reaching the rice paddy where he was wounded by gunshot and grenade shrapnel, then watched as his Charlie Company comrades did the same in trying to describe their reaction.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Bleier said of his reaction to seeing the documentary for the first time, especially the scene upon returning to Hiep Duc where he breaks down in tears. “Obviously, parts of the story were very vulnerable. … Unfortunately, it ruined the image of the Rock.”
It was quite the opposite, actually, at the sneak preview of “The Return” that was shown to select Steelers fans Thursday afternoon at Fred M. Rogers Center on the Saint Vincent College campus. The SC Featured documentary will air in an abbreviated form on ESPN’s SportsCenter this weekend and in full on ESPN2 on Aug. 20, the 50th anniversary of Bleier being wounded.
As the film ended and the credits rolled, the crowd started clapping. A young child shouted, “Go Rocky Bleier!” When Bleier’s fellow soldiers from his Charlie Company, Jim Sipe and Jim Lytle, were introduced and became emotional, the Steelers fans rose to their feet and gave the trio a standing ovation.
“Everybody deals with it differently,” said Lytle, 70, of Westerville, Ohio. “It’s gratifying to have people thanking you.”
ESPN producer Jon Fish and reporter Tom Rinaldi attended the private screening for a film that was a decade in the making, saying that it took a serious pitch to convince Bleier.
“If you thought he was difficult to tackle in his prime,” Rinaldi said, “Jon is underselling the incredible effort and persistence it took for us to get him to do this. … We are so deeply indebted to Rock for letting us do this, the trust he placed in us.”
Bleier, worried that he was wasting their time, warned them repeatedly not to expect an emotional reaction. He believed that his talking about his time in Vietnam both during and after his NFL career had been cathartic and that, unlike other soldiers, he carried no emotional scars from the Vietnam War.
The Return proved him wrong, in a powerful, unexpected way.
“It just refreshed memories,” said Sipe, 70, of Palmyra. “Probably not a day goes by that I don’t think of that day. It’s etched permanently, forever.”
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .