Solid as a Rock
It is a story even Hollywood couldn't make up. Robert Patrick Bleier, a scrawny Midwest kid, earns his way to Notre Dame as legendary coach Ara Parseghian arrives to transform the once mighty Fighting Irish. After four years, including one national championship season, this same kid gets drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Against all odds, he makes the team, only to get sent to Vietnam, where he is wounded in battle, only to return and become an integral member of the most dominant team of an era.
To understand Rocky Bleier, you have to go back to the corner of Lawrence and Walnut Streets in Appleton, Wisconsin, where Bleier's tavern was located. Above the bar is where Rocky lived growing up, the first of four children born to Bob and Ellen Bleier on March 5, 1946.
"It was an ideal time in our country," Bleier remembers. "There was no conflict going on. Prosperity was in the air. Doors were unlocked; all of that 'Americana' was taking place. At the time it was our little world."
Eventually, Bleier's little world would take him from unimaginable heights to the lowest of lows, only to have that storyline recycle more than once.
Bob Bleier used to tell patrons at his tavern that his newborn son looked "like a little rock." Rocky Bleier's persona proved to be prophetic while still in the crib. Rocky and his friends didn't play in any organized leagues until around the fourth grade, and that was only in basketball.
Lifelong friend and high school football teammate Kelly Kornely remembers a young Bleier that always felt he had something to prove. "Rocky wasn't the first guy picked when you chose your team," Kornely recalls today. "He was the scrawny little kid even when we got to high school, but you couldn't beat the guy's desire or work ethic."
It was on the playgrounds of Appleton as a youth where young Rocky Bleier met Gene "Torchy" Clark. Clark was just beginning as a football and basketball coach in the 1950's, but he would have a profound affect on athletes for generations to come. Eventually, Clark would go on to become the first men's basketball coach at the University of Central Florida in 1969. He retired in 1983 and passed away in 2009 at the age of 80.
"Torchy was always the coach to beat!" Bleier says of Clark. "His desire to win; his ability to get the most out of his players was tremendous. Kids wanted to play for him. He just had that touch."
That was one of the reasons Clark was tabbed to be the first basketball and football coach at Appleton Xavier High School when it opened its doors in 1959, one year before Bleier's freshman year.
The 1961 football season saw some changes at Appleton Xavier. Although it had opened its doors two years earlier, this was the first year it was a full four-year accredited school. It was also the football season that saw Rocky Bleier make a touchdown run that they are still talking about almost 50 years later.
Hated Green Bay Premontre were the kings of the Fox Valley Catholic Conference when they hosted their neighbors to the south.
They were the dominant school; they had all the great athletes," Bleier remembers. "It was a hard hitting back-and-forth game. It was late and we needed a touchdown to win. (Quarterback Dick) Weisner pitched me the ball, and I got around the corner, tiptoeing down the sidelines, keeping my balance as they tried to push me out of bounds. My left foot stayed in bounds, my right foot is hanging out over the line. I bring it back in to score the touchdown and we go on to win the game."
"He threw about five or six Premontre players off of him," teammate Kip Whitlinger remembers today. "It was an incredible play. From that time on, word got out that this guy was something special."
Bleier says that game was a turning point because Xavier they felt like they could beat anyone. It turns out that is exactly what happened; as the Hawks went on to win 31 straight football games.
After three straight years of being named all-conference and two straight years on the all-state team, Bleier was named to the Parade All-American Team. From there, after receiving several offers, he chose to go to school and play football at Notre Dame.
As Bleier arrived in South Bend, so did legendary coach Ara Parseghian. With Bleier in the backfield, the Fighting Irish won the 1966 national championship. "I found a role, I found a niche, and I got a chance to play," he says today.
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