School honors football great
Xavier names football stadium after '64 graduate Rocky Bleier
By Jeff Kurowski
Compass Assistant Editor
APPLETON -- Rocky Bleier lives in Pittsburgh, but Appleton is and always will be his home, he said.
Last week, the hometown hero, whose football jersey #23 is the only one retired by Xavier High School, returned for more honors. The new "Rocky Bleier Gate" to the football stadium
was unveiled, and the Xavier football field was renamed "Knights of Columbus Sports Complex - Rocky Bleier Field."
"It's a great honor and privilege," said Bleier. "Whoever would have thought that my name would be on that field? It's overwhelming. Seeing all the hard work the planning committee put into this and seeing everything fall into place, it's awesome. I can't thank everyone enough."
Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna also unveiled a street in Bleier's honor. The former Oneida Court is now Rocky Bleier Run, and Oct. 12 was declared "Rocky Bleier Day" in both Appleton and the State of Wisconsin. Bleier, a 1964 Xavier graduate, was a two-time all-state and three-time all-conference running back in high school. He ran for 2,985 yards at Xavier, averaging 12.4 yards per carry. The school's 1962 football team was ranked first in the state by the AP and UPI polls. Bleier also competed in basketball and track in high school.
"It's been 43 years since I graduated, but in many ways, things haven't changed," he said. "It's been wonderful to relive so many memories. It was really a magical time when I was here in the '60s. Xavier was a big school back then, but everyone got along really well. People cheered and supported one another. Everyone participated in school activities. I don't know if you see that as much today."
Bleier was not only a standout athlete, but he also was the leader of the trumpet section in the band and academically was ranked 18th out of 111 students in his class.
Following high school, Bleier attended the University of Notre Dame where he played on a national championship team in 1966. He was drafted in the 16th round of the 1968 NFL draft by Pittsburgh.
While he was a four-time Super Bowl champion with the Steelers, Bleier had to overcome obstacles to become a successful professional football player. The same year he was drafted in the NFL, he was also drafted by the United States Army. Bleier was sent to Vietnam in 1969. He was severely wounded in battle and was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his military service.
Bleier, now a motivational speaker, shared his story with the Xavier students.
"I want them to believe that they can achieve the things they want in life," he said. "They always need to keep hope alive even in difficult times. Once you lose hope, you lose faith, and when you lose faith, you give up."
Bleier was told he would live a normal life, but would never play football again. While he was recovering from his injuries, he received a postcard from Art Rooney, owner of the Steelers.
"It read, 'Rocky, the team is not doing well, we need you,'" said Bleier. "Someone believed in me. Someone had interest in me. He gave me hope."
Bleier, also a graduate of St. Joseph Grade School in Appleton, said he received similar support while at Xavier, especially from his coach, Gene "Torchy" Clark.
"I remember when I first came to Xavier, Torchy told me that he had heard about me and was looking forward to seeing me on the football field," he said. "That meant a lot to me. Everyone from my years here, the Christian Brothers, my classmates, the kids I grew up with in the neighborhood, helped me become who I am today."
A banquet at the Paper Valley Hotel kicked off dedication events. Proceeds from the banquet support the Rocky Bleier Scholarship Fund.
"It was great to be able to raise some money for scholarships and everyone had a great time," said Bleier. "What was special to me was bringing my family to Appleton. It was the first time our immediate family was all together and it's because of Xavier. My grandkids will never forget this. We have been truly blessed with this experience."