Review: Steeler Rocky Bleier relives his glory days in a play with humor and heart

Review: Steeler Rocky Bleier relives his glory days in a play with humor and heart

Make that “The Play,” a new work about and starring the former Steelers running back. For 90 minutes Tuesday evening, he was the solo star of his own story, with Steelers Nation rooting him on in a venue known as the home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

As well-wishers, friends, and family of the star settled in their seats, Mr. Bleier made his entrance from an upstage door and invited everyone to listen to tales of a life lived large. Starting in a set meant to recall his family’s bar and home in Appleton, Wis., to a circa 1970s Pittsburgh bar — where a picture of Roberto Clemente and “a jar of pickled pig parts” were staples — the former Steeler talked with humor and heart of the random acts that have shaped his life.

If he fumbled as an actor, you’d never know it. Or he could just blame it on the voodoo woman who cursed him and his companions before a New Orleans Saints game.

We were treated to glimpses of his days captaining the Notre Dame football team, to being chosen 417th by the Steelers in the draft to career-threatening injuries suffered during the Vietnam War and, eventually, making a contribution to the Steelers’ glory days.

He’s had 40 years to reflect on all those things, and now he’s sharing those reflections in “The Play: With Rocky Bleier,” written by Post-Gazette sports columnist Gene Collier (co-writer of “The Chief”) and directed by Scott Wise.

There are no revelations, nothing about concussions or steroids or the juicy stuff that makes headlines. This is storytelling as autobiography, from a 69-year-old family man and businessman who has been worshipped on the field of play and declared a hero, after he lost part of his foot on the field of battle. He’s been married twice and is a father of four and is figuring out life with two teenage girls. That’s covered in “The Play,” too.

In an audience that included longtime fans and members of the Rooney family and former teammates, there also were those who may not recall the TV movie “Fighting Back” about his return to football after recovering from his war injuries. He tells of the colorblind black soldier who carried him to safety — a man he never met again but who had saved his life. He tells of his own despair at seeing that America learned nothing from the 58,000 lives lost in Vietnam.

Quoting a newspaper article, he says, “We have chosen amnesia instead of history.” And then he rattles off the numbers of dead and injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the suicides at home. It was a powerful moment, coming from someone who has lived it and who is unafraid to show his emotions.

The segment ends with the playing of taps, and sniffles in the audience.

For the duration of the play, the former running back roamed a comfortable set by Anne Mundell on the huge Heinz Hall stage. The backdrop suggested a football field turned on its side, with a door and a stoop for the star’s entrance and exit, giving Bleier’s Bar, where “The Play” begins, an indoor-outdoor vibe. Projections by Jessi Sedon-Essad gave occasional pause to consider major moments of the 1960s and big plays of the Steelers’ ’70s.

In the audience, attendees were dressed up and down – yes, there were at least a couple of No. 20 jerseys. Members of the Rooney family were front and center, along with several of Mr. Bleier’s teammates.

Rocky takes us home with tales of the Steelers and a poem he says he has been fiddling with for 40 years. It includes the lines: Now some names will reign forever / While others will pass away / But tonight we’re here to raise a toast / to the memory of those days.

Tuesday afternoon, “The Luncheon” before “The Play” at Heinz Field was stacked with Steelers — owner Dan Rooney was joined by Super Bowl champions Mel Blount, Lynn Swann, Joe Greene, Franco Harris, J.T. Thomas, Andy Russell, Craig Bingham and Robin Cole were on hand to celebrate and roast their teammate. Terry Bradshaw sent a video message.

Before leaving for his final dress rehearsal, Mr. Bleier took credit for suggesting signature moves by Mr. Swann and Mr. Blount and warned the attendees “not to believe everything you hear,” then, after lunch, it was his teammates’ turn.

Some of the highlights:

Franco Harris: “Rocky did a great job blocking for me. And if anyone knows about Rocky’s speed … so we’d be leaving the backfield, and I’d have to wait until Rocky gets on his block. So here I am, like, taking my time, waiting for Rocky, slowing up. Eventually, a couple of seconds later, he’d make the block and I’d make the run. What could I say? I had to wait for Rocky.”

Mel Blount: “I was a rookie in 1970 and I have this memory of Rocky on the sideline. Somebody said, ‘That guy over there is a football player.’ I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t know how he can be a football player. He can’t walk.’ I give credit to the Rooneys … and it says a lot about the organization … that they had the vision to bring this guy along, allow him to take his time. They could have looked at it as a liability. I give Rocky credit, because he took advantage of it. We have a lot of things we can say that can make you laugh, but Rocky, he taught us something about life and the importance of perseverance and overcoming obstacles, the commitment and dedication. This might sound harsh, but I think the best thing that happened to Rocky was he got blown up over there, because had that not happened, I don’t think he would have made this football team.”

Joe Greene: “I remember he broke free and he ran for about 60 yards. And he said, ‘I always wanted to run fast enough that I could feel the wind blow in my hair.’ “

Lynn Swann: “In 1976, we didn’t go to the Super Bowl that year, but Rocky rushed for 1,000 yards and Franco rushed for a 1,000 yards. Unbelievable. … But I’ve got to tell you, Rocky’s is a true miracle. Because Rocky is the only back to gain 1,000 yards and never have one single move.”

Also at The Luncheon, mix of movie and sports treasures — including a Pete Rose-signed baseball that says: “I’m sorry I bet on baseball” — were available at silent auction. A portion of proceeds from the two events will benefit the Children’s Hospital Foundation.

Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.

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