Breakfast with Rocky Bleier is a special treat. Bleier, who shares a home with his wife Jan in the Virginia Manor community of Mt. Lebanon remains a Pittsburgh treasure.
I met Rocky for breakfast at Panera’s on Green Tree Road in early May to put the finishing touches on the 30th book in my Pittsburgh Proud series. It is titled Franco, Rocky & Friends – It Pays to be a Good Guy.
I have known these guys since I came on the Steelers’ beat for The Pittsburgh Press in 1979. That’s 40 years ago, but I really got to know them this past year and they really are good guys.
Everyone at Panera’s seemed to recognize Rocky and offer a greeting, a handshake, a sentence that started with “Sorry to bother you, Rocky, but…” For the record, no one bothered Rocky Bleier.
He genuinely enjoys people, he embraces them. He has a smile and a kind word for everyone. One woman, I swear, stood and nearly genuflected in front of him, as if he were a religious icon. “I love you, Rocky. I still love you,” she said in a prayer-like manner, bowing her head several times.
It only added to Rocky’s enjoyment of eating an avocado, egg whites and spinach breakfast sandwich with a cup of water.
Rocky was always a big hit whenever he appeared and played in the Homestead Lions Golf Outing at the Duquesne Golf Club, now known as Westwood Golf Club in West Mifflin.
When we left after an hour and a half together, I heard people calling out to him in the parking lot as he went to his car. It was like a scene in the streets of Philadelphia when the film land “Rocky” passed by the locals.
“You can never leave Pittsburgh,” I said to Rocky.
“No, I never will,” he said. He had told me earlier that he was moving to a home behind the one he has occupied in Virginia Manor. It is the third home he and Jan have called home in Virginia Manor.
“I like everyone to like me,” he has told me several times throughout the years. “I never learned to say no.”
He still maintains a busy schedule of motivational speech-making across America, he has business interests with his wife’s family, and he is involved in several worthy causes and fund-raising activities in this region.
He will appear in a program to call attention to a Vietnam War display at the John Heinz History Center in the Strip this July. He has become the National Football League’s poster boy for all things relating to our veterans.
He went back this past year to Vietnam, where he was wounded during the war, to film a TV story about his experience that will be aired this fall. He has done a one-person show, “The Play,” about his engaging story, at both Heinz Hall and the O’Reilly Theatre in downtown Pittsburgh. I’ve seen it at both places and I will see it again when he takes the show on the road.
His wife Jan is a joy as well, and Rocky says she keeps him on course. Their daughters, Elly and Rosie, are both in college, Elly at Notre Dame and Rosie at Duquesne. “They keep me working,” he says.
One of Rocky Bleier’s biggest boosters is Art Rooney, Jr., the second of five sons of Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. and his wife Kathleen. Art Jr. has resided in a Tudor home near Mt.Lebanon High School for many years.
It was March 28, 2019. The phone rang. Art
Rooney Jr. was calling me from his condominium apartment in Palm Beach, Florida…a nice address.
Better than his boyhood home, even though it was one of the better homes on that stretch of the North Side, just up the hill from Heinz Field. It is on North Lincoln Avenue in what is known as Allegheny West, near the Thaw Mansion. His dad used to refer to it as the First Ward. Dan and Pat Rooney resided there in more recent years.
“I used to ask my dad why we had to live in a ghetto when he had lots of money,” I recall Art Jr. telling me over lunch one day at the St. Clair Country Club, where he and his wife Kathleen are frequent diners.
“My dad told us to be nice to people, but never to allow kindness to be mistaken for weakness.
“My parents had a gift that everyone they knew thought they were their favorite,” said Art Jr.
His mother said to Art Jr. “Your brother and his wife fly first class all over the world. But me, he sends by steerage, the same way my parents got from Ireland to America in the first place.”
“Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier are both like my parents,” he said, focusing on the story theme I wanted to talk about.
“Rocky embraces people. Rocky and Franco genuinely like people. They care about people.
They talk to everybody, from A to Z. They want to know how you’re doing. It’s a gift. It’s not easy to do. Franco has that type of thing. He likes you without being a phony about it. Rocky was always like that.”
Then a thought entered his mind.
“You know Rocky worked for me one year in our scouting department,” said Art Jr. “He had just come back from getting wounded in Vietnam, and needed crutches and then a cane to get around.”
“My dad wanted to keep him around. He wanted to give him time to recover, so he could play for us again. He (Rocky) wasn’t in Chuck Noll’s plans, but he went along with what my dad wanted to do. Rocky was good at scouting. He wrote thorough well-written reports. I told him he could be a general manager someday. I wanted him to stay with me. ‘Stick with me and you’ll be a general manager,’ I told him more than once.
“When he was taken off the physically-unable-to-perform list, I told him not to do it. I didn’t think he could ever play again. Rocky was upset and he said, ‘I don’t want to be a scout! I don’t want to be a general manager! I want to play in the NFL!’ And, he ran down the hall, hollering at me like that. I guess I was wrong.”
He was as wrong as the doctors who told Rocky he’d be lucky just to walk again let alone play football.
Jim O’Brien’s new book – Franco, Rocky & Friends – It Pays to be a Good Guy will be out in early June in time for Father’s Day.
His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was previously published in The Valley Mirror (May 18, 2019) and republished in This Awful Awesome Life with the consent of the author.
All Photos by Jim O’Brien