In 1975, Rocky Bleier published Fighting Back, a memoir about playing football for Notre Dame, the Steelers, and serving in the U. S. Army during the Vietnam War.
What made the book unusual was not its behind-the-scenes tales about playing for two of America's legendary teams. Fighting Back stood out because of its unvarnished look at the life of a soldier during wartime.
“All of a sudden I became somewhat of a poster boy,” says Bleier, “but only because I was a Vietnam veteran and I got a chance to talk about my experiences. To some degree, for those veterans who did not want to talk about it, it was like one of their guys finally made it.”
Fighting Back is being reissued with two new chapters by Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier and a foreword by Steelers' offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Proceeds from sales of the book will benefit a new campaign, Fighting Back for Veterans, and three military-oriented charities: Veterans Leadership, Joint Training Facility, and Legacies Alive.
Bleier's introduction to Pittsburgh got off to a shaky start. When he arrived in 1968, Bleier got lost in the maze of the Golden Triangle before finally finding accommodations at the Roosevelt Hotel on Penn Avenue. The next morning when he went to his car, he'd been robbed of all his possessions, including his clothes and football cleats.
Despite that unsettling introduction, Bleier quickly adapted to his new hometown, which was strikingly similar to his hometown of Appleton, Wis., where he grew up with family members nearby.
“I come to Pittsburgh and it's the same way,” he says. “I live in a typical Pittsburgh neighborhood. My sister-in-law lives next door to me. My brother-in-law lives across the street from me. My father-in-law lives a block behind me. It's like being back in Appleton.”
Knowing that it can take time to adjust to a new city, Bleier reached out to Villanueva after the decorated Army veteran – both men were awarded Bronze Stars for valor – was picked up as a free agent by the Steelers in 2014.
"The story of how I met Rocky Bleier couldn’t define any better his humility, charisma, and dedication to others," adding that when Bleier was approached by a cafe manager for an autograph, he would only sign if Villanueva also was included.
“I wanted him to feel that he was welcome, that somebody had gone through the process before,” Bleier says of Villanueva. “Steelers fans and the military, they're two great organizations, but they will try to absorb your time as much as they possibly can for their own causes.”
The reissue of Fighting Back and launch of the Fighting Back for Veterans campaign are meant to encourage veterans to speak out about their experiences. Bleier thinks it's especially important for Vietnam War vets – many of whom have not told their children or grandchildren about the war – to share their stories.
“They've repressed those feelings,” Bleier says. “I think that there's a generation out there that doesn't understand what it is to serve in the military. It's easy to thank a veteran and be appreciative, but only one percent of the population has served in the military. … I think it's important for veterans to understand what they've contributed.”