The city of Myrtle Beach has scored a touchdown in welcoming the grand marshal for its 2013 Memorial Day weekend parade.
Rocky Bleier, who won four Super Bowls as a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, will cruise as the guest of honor for the parade. It steps off at 10:30 a.m. Saturday on Myrtle Beach’s Ocean Boulevard, heading southward from 27th Avenue North to Ninth Avenue North.
Drafted twice in 1968, first by the Steelers then by Uncle Sam, Bleier put his football career on hold, serving with the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War. Recovering from leg injuries from 1969 and awarded Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals, he worked his way back to play, making the Steelers’ roster in 1972, and his first start in the backfield in 1974.
Calling last week from Pittsburgh, where the Wisconsin native and University of Notre Dame graduate makes home, Bleier spoke about how taking the football field through 1980 helped him voice inner feelings from the battlefield.
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Question | How does being the grand marshal of Myrtle Beach’s Memorial Day weekend parade diverge from your annual observance of this truly solemn occasion to remember every brave American who died in service?
Answer | I see it as a great honor, through what it represents, especially on Memorial Day, and to pay tribute to those who have served and those who have fallen. I am very happy to be able to come to Myrtle Beach.
Q. | What fellow Vietnam War-era veterans who played in the NFL – such as Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, who served in the Navy – have you crossed paths with, on and off the field, through the years?
A. | There was a handful of players who slipped through the cracks because there was a military draft at that time. ... Most times, being the Reserves or in the National Guard fulfilled that obligation of serving the country, so a lot of ball players chose that avenue. ... There was a handful of players who served in Vietnam.
Q. | What was the shared sentiment shared in that era among service personnel and veterans?
A. | It wasn’t as if it was a tight-knit group. ... In the era of Vietnam veterans, it was just something that was not talked about. ... it was a replacement war; you went over there as a replacement, so there was not the identity necessarily to a unit or a group or a regiment or a battalion. ... When you left, you didn’t go over and come back as a group; you went and came back as individuals; there wasn’t a whole lot of connection, even with the guys I served with. ... With the players, it was the same way, maybe because it was after the fact ... unlike ... in World War II, where guys from the same high school went in together, and to basic training ... and they all went over together.
Today, where you have Reserves or National Guard units called up, consisting mostly of people who live and grew up in the area, they know one another, and they go over and have a support mechanism, and they come back together, so there is some ability to be able to talk about that experience and somebody you can relate to.
Q. | So time helps with the healing of wounds, inside and out?
A. | Somewhat in the context of what’s happened, with Memorial Day, it’s very easy for we as American people who had not served in the military to do as we do today, to pay homage tho those who did, because we know more of them. ... Like life, it goes on. You go in one direction, and soldiers and their families go in another direction. If you haven’t walked in their shoes, it’s very difficult to understand what they go through from a loss or from having to live with an injury or scar, or the mental impact of fighting today’s war. ...
You recognize those factors, and somewhat of an understanding of a soldier’s life, then it’s a step in the right direction and part of the healing process.
Q. | Since hanging up the pads and cleats in 1980, have you realized other ways that having football in that part of your career help you rebound from the Vietnam War era and get your life, and a new era, going again?
A. | It was an unpopular war, and it was followed on the living room TV, where the body count was the in thing, and how many enemies were killed. The soldier came back, and he didn’t talk about it; he had no place to go; there were not open arenas for the Vietnam vet. ... He had to repress that feeling, and he had to deal with it ... all on his own. ...
I came back to a high-profile career, and it became a story of whether or not I made it. It was a story from the beginning of “What was it like?” and “How do you feel?” I had to answer questions that were requested by other veterans. To some degree, it was a catharsis; it made me think about how I felt. ... so I could somehow put it to rest and get it off my chest. In that regard, it was a big catharsis and a big healing. The other thing was I was being recognized as a solider.
Q. | Is there a gut feeling in retired players that tells them whether to move into the broadcast booth? Your black-and-gold field general, Terry Bradshaw, sure has carved a name for himself behind the mic and on the silver screen.
A. | Terry has made the transition, and he’s done it well. ... Unfortunately, as players ... we all have egos that made us the athletes who are the competitors we see; that ego doesn’t go away when you stop playing. ... It’s a tough transition; it would be like someone going to broadcast school saying “I think I’m going to play in the NFL.” ... With Terry, it happened overnight ... because you get what you see, with that personality. ... He has used that “good ole boy” to his benefit. ...
I worked at the local NBC station here after I retired. ... I found out what I couldn’t do; being a broadcaster wasn’t in my design, without the ability to ad lib and being able to express a story. It’s always amazing to watch broadcasters today, especially with as much as they say and as elegantly without “ahs” and “ums” to get their thought across. Look at Matt Lauer; I was watching him this morning; it’s like effortless discussion, and it’s not planned. ... Most of the quarterbacks; they understand the game both offensively and defensively, so that gives them a leg up. .. Of course, they were protected on the field by a line, and they wore a different color jersey in practices, and nobody touched them.
Q. | How special are each of the Steelers head coaches in the past few decades, who all have led your team to bring home Lombardi trophies?
A. | If you look at the ownership, and if you spend the time to try to find the right coach ... then you have to give him the change to be able to do it. In the case of two coaches after Chuck Noll ... Bill Cowher was completely different than Chuck. Bill was very emotional and outgoing, and he got some reaction from the fan base and the team. ... Then, he decided to move on ... and they come up with Mike Tomlin, a young guy who got great reviews as an assistant and a coordinator. It’s leadership that counts.
So we have a new era. ...You can’t treat this like you were coaching 20 years ago, with a new breed of player; Mike relates to that player. And even if he goes 8-8, it’s not a knee-jerk reaction that we need a change. ... Those things happen in the world of sports; you have to give them time. That’s kind of the best philosophy of the Steelers and the Rooneys: They’re not big, knee-jerk reaction kind of guys.
Q. | How memorable was that former AFC Central Division, from a time when Cincinnati, Cleveland and the former Houston Oilers all proved formidable rivals at times?
A. | Going to Cleveland or Cincinnati to play was not an easy thing. They were all competitive and emotional games, and divisional rivalries. ... I always have a special place in my heart for Cleveland, because they allowed me to have the longest run in my career.
Q. | How does it strike you that the Steelers are considered by many fans as the de-facto home pro football team in Myrtle Beach?
A. | I did know that because I think everybody moved from Pittsburgh to Myrtle Beach or retired to Myrtle Beach. ... I think it’s a great thing to see that the brand and quality of fans we have spread across the country. But I also know that economically ... here it was in 1982, when the steel industry went in the tank in Pennsylvania, and all of a sudden, they close two big steel mills, and 30,000 people were without jobs and they have to move to find work, and so they established residency through the United States, and they moved to the Carolinas, and all of a sudden those kids become fans, and they spread the word.