By Salil Puri With the Army’s announcement today that Bowe Bergdahl...
Rhino Den Interviews: Rocky Bleier
By Sgt. Awesome
Many National Football League players refer to football on Sundays as going to war and while Ray Lewis has more confirmed kills than I do, there remains a significant difference between the two that only a handful of people truly understand. I was recently able to sit down one of them, four time Super Bowl Champion and Vietnam Veteran Rocky Bleier, and pick his brain about his life back then, what he’s up to now as the spokesperson for National Veteran Owned Business Association and even got his thoughts on the current concussion lawsuit against the NFL.
Sgt Awesome – Hey Rocky, thanks for taking the time to talk to us here at Ranger Up. Let’s start off with 1968, a year where you were drafted twice; once by the NFL and once by America.
Rocky – I was drafted by the Pittsburg Steelers in the early part of 1968, the draft was held in February of that year, and I was their 16th round draft choice (They had 17 rounds during that period of time). I went in to camp in July and August that year, made the team and played special teams primarily and then was drafted into the Armed Services in December, 3rd or 4th somewhere around there. I then went to the Army and to Basic Training.
SA – Were either of them a surprise to you or did you expect both of them to happen?
RB – Yeah I suppose both were. At that time, just to put things into perspective the draft wasn’t as it is today. The teams would contact you beforehand asking “if we draft you, would you be interested in playing for us” and then they would send you a little form with height, weight, size, 40 yard dash, and you just filled it in and sent it back. I didn’t get anything from the Steelers at that time and so the draft went to the third day, it was about 11 o clock or 10 o clock at night and I actually found out I was drafted from the news. For the military draft, I did get my 1A classification and the happiest day of my professional career was that day in training camp when the head coach Bill Austin took me aside and said we got this letter in the mail, it was opened accidentally, and it was my 1A classification. He said, “Now listen, we think you’re good enough to make this team, and we’ll take care of this obligation for you.’ Taking care of that obligation meant we’ll get you in the reserve, or the National Guard which was not an unusual route for most players during that period of time. But it was 1968, it was the height of the war, all of the reserves were filled up and that was in late August. I went to go see him in October to see if they had done anything about my 1A classification, and they said, “Ah, we’re having a little difficulty, The General retired, the Congressman had been defeated, we’re still working on it” I guess. He said, “Don’t worry, we were talking to your draft board and they’re not going to draft until December and so we’ve got some time to work on this.” But nothing ended up happening so I shipped out.
RB – Part of playing sports is that it brings bumps and bruises, whether you are in the backyard or playing professional, it’s always something, whether you sprain your fingers or twisted your knee, or just were sore from playing the game, one of the things that you learn is that, in dealing with injuries, is that you deal with them. Alright, I have one, you have to let it heal, then you have to rehab, and then you go back out and play. I got wounded in Vietnam but the fact was, I didn’t lose anything. It wasn’t as if I lost a limb. I was damaged, but I was like “alright, I know what I need to do,” it takes time to heal, you start rehabbing, you start going back to the gym and doing those things that are necessary, and you get it done. You do have to have a desire to do that though. The desire for me was that I wanted to go back to play, I liked playing professional football. I liked how I felt, I liked the recognition, my ego you know, it became my focal point.
SA – Having played running back in the 1970s, I have to imagine you’ve got a unique opinion on the current concussion lawsuit against the NFL?
RB – Well ya I do, I have a lot of thoughts on that. And my opinion is that the lawsuits are bogus and it has nothing to really stand on. I don’t think there is any evidence to state that the NFL held back information on concussions, knowing that they hurt you in the long run. I think this; you played the sport and there is an assumed risk that you take when you play a contact sport, and that is injury. That is part of the deal. Knowledge-wise, what you knew about concussions wasn’t well known as it is today. You had coaches say “well that’s only a ding, how many fingers do I have up, what’s your name? Ok you’re fine, go back in.” And no one understood it; doctors didn’t understand it, there wasn’t some conspiracy. Plus the fact is that when I signed a contract in the NFL I didn’t say “Hey, what’s your concussion policy? What’s your 401k plan? What’s my retirement?” No you say, ‘Oh shit, where do I sign? I got drafted and I’ve got to play,” it was a matter of money. So now, all of the sudden years later you come back and you join a lawsuit? It’s like, where’s your ethics?
RB – NaVOBA is an organization that was started by Victory Media, and it was to coalesce veteran owned businesses. If you want to do business with the federal government, you register it, and there are 40,000+ veteran owned businesses that are registered. The idea was that, there are around 3 million veteran owned businesses, and only 40,000 are registered. We saw what other groups were able to do, such as minority owned business, or women owned businesses, and that they were able to brand themselves well and we thought, why not veterans? Well, to do that we have to pull them all together. You know, veterans don’t come back and put a plaque up on their small business that says “I’m a veteran owned business” you just go back and do your business. It’s just a matter of pulling them together within the database and trying to coalesce that whole group of people plus then the offshoot is, buy veteran. Given all things equal, would you want to do business with a veteran owned business? Yeah, if I am veteran owned I’d like to do business with other veteran owned business, so I have to find out where they are. And that is what NaVOBA is all about; bringing awareness to the veteran, as whole, as a group, we are much stronger to bring our product to the market.
SA – How did you come to be the spokesman for NaVOBA?
RB – Because I’m tall and good looking! (laughter) The founders of NaVOBA are here in Pittsburgh, Victory Media is the company it is owned by. Chris Hale and Rich McCormick, two Navy veterans whom I had worked with years before when they owned the Stars and Stripes brand. They later spun off and started Victory Media which has three publications, all about veterans and when they came up with NaVOBA, since I live here in Pittsburgh and being in the military, they said “Hey! We’ve got a deal for you!” and we’ve been together since then.