May 16, 2007
Former Notre Dame football player Rocky Bleier was named the 2007 recipient of the Distinguished American Award from the National Football Foundation, announced Wednesday by Ron Johnson, chairman of the NFF.
A three-year monogram winner, Bleier played for head coach Ara Parseghian from 1965-67 as a running back and receiver. He totaled 784 yards on 166 career carries with 11 touchdowns and caught 36 passes for 422 yards and two scores at Notre Dame.
The Distinguished American Award is presented on special occasions when a truly deserving individual emerges. The award honors someone who has applied the character building attributes learned from amateur football in their business and personal life, exhibiting superior leadership qualities in education, amateur athletics, business and in the community.
Joining a list of previous winners that includes Vince Lombardi, Bob Hope, Pete Rozelle and the late Pat Tillman, Bleier’s determination and endless optimism show why he personifies the Distinguished American distinction.
Bleier was a reserve running back for the Irish in 1965 and gained 145 yards with two touchdowns on 26 rushes. In the 1966 championship season, he started at right halfback and gained 282 yards on 63 carries and four touchdowns while adding 209 yards on 17 receptions. Bleier started at left halfback in 1967 and tallied 357 yards on 77 carries with five touchdowns and added 16 catches for 171 yards and two scores.
Bleier graduated from Notre Dame in 1968 with a degree in business management and was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 16th round of the 1968 NFL Draft. He played one season with the Steelers before being drafted by the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam.
On August 20, 1969, Bleier’s platoon was ambushed and he was wounded in his left thigh. While he was down, a grenade sent many pieces of shrapnel into his right leg. His courageous service earned him the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star Medal.
Bleier returned to the pros in 1970, but played sparingly for the Steelers over the next three seasons. He not only needed to gain a great deal of weight back, but his war injuries made it difficult for him to walk. Through perseverance and a strict training regimen, Bleier worked his way into a starting spot in 1974. He would retire from the NFL as a four-time Super Bowl champion.
In 1976, Bleier and Franco Harris became the second pair of running backs from the same team to gain 1,000 rushing yards in the same season. He also caught the touchdown pass from Terry Bradshaw that gave Pittsburgh a lead it never surrendered in Super Bowl XIII.
Bleier currently resides in Pittsburgh, is the president of Rocky Bleier, Inc. and is a motivational speaker. He wrote a book called Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story that documented his struggle to recover from his war wounds.
The Distinguished American was one of six major awards announced Wednesday. Other award winners announced were:
Pete Dawkins – 1975 Army College Football Hall of Famer, Heisman Trophy winner and military leader
Roger Staubach – 1981 Navy College Football Hall of Famer, Heisman Trophy winner and Vietnam veteran
Rocky Bleier – Former Notre Dame great who received numerous awards for heroic efforts in the Vietnam War
Outstanding Contribution to Amateur Football
College Bowl Games – The heart of college football’s postseason play since 1902
John L. Toner Award (presented to an outstanding athletics director)
Jeremy Foley – University of Florida athletics director has seen the Gators win 10 NCAA titles during his 15-year tenure
Chris Schenkel Award (recognition of a distinguished college broadcaster)
Bill Hillgrove – 37-year play-by-play announcer at the University of Pittsburgh
Outstanding Football Official
Jim Kemmerling – 20-year veteran of the Big Ten Conference
Each of these awards will be presented at the 50th Annual Awards Dinner on December 4, 2007, at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Also that evening, the NFF will recognize the National Scholar-Athlete class (announced Oct. 25), award the Draddy Trophy, presented by HealthSouth, and induct the 2007 College Football Hall of Fame Football Bowl Subdivision Class. Former Notre Dame defensive tackle Chris Zorich will be one of the 12 players inducted in the Hall of Fame.