FOOTBALL AND AMERICA: The Vietnam War


 


ROCKY BLEIER, AN UNLIKELY 1,000-YARD RUSHER

In 1968, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Notre Dame running back Rocky Bleier. But, before he could prove himself as a rookie, he was drafted again - this time for combat duty in Vietnam as an infantryman, where he was eventually wounded in action.

On August 20, 1969, Bleier and his platoon were sent to set up a secured landing position needed for helicopters to fly out casualties from an earlier battle. The platoon, almost immediately, fell under heavy hostile fire. Rocky was first hit by enemy rifle fire and later by grenade blasts, seriously injuring both legs.

Bleier, told he'd never play football again, returned to the Steelers in 1970 determined to make the team. In 1972, after three operations and nearly two years of exhaustive rehabilitation, he fought his way back into the lineup, and in 1974, became a starter. A thousand-yard rusher in 1976, he started on all four of Pittsburgh's Super Bowl winning teams, before retiring in 1980 as the Steelers fourth all-time leading rusher.



 

THE NFL'S GOODWILL USO TOURS

Joe Namath signs an autograph for an injured soldier.
In 1965, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle looking for a way to demonstrate the league's support for America's fighting forces, conceived of the idea of sending NFL players to Vietnam on "goodwill tours." The following year, the NFL became the first sports organization to send a group of players to Vietnam and other parts of the Far East.

From 1966 until the withdrawal of American forces in Vietnam in 1973, players spent up to three-and-one-half weeks visiting remote firebases, aircraft carriers, and other installations in Vietnam, Guam, Thailand, Okinawa, and Japan.

  Although the tours continued through the early 1980s, among the Vietnam-era participants were future Hall of Fame players Willie DavisFrank GiffordSam HuffJohnny UnitasBart StarrBobby BellJoe NamathJim OttoDick ButkusLarry CsonkaBob LillyGene Upshaw, and Kenny Houston.







Standing: Hall of Famers Carl Eller and Tom Mack;
Kneeling: Ahmad Rashad, Bill Granholm (NFL executive), Rocky Bleier, and Ray Mansfield