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Rocky Bleier. | Photo: Rockybleierinc.com

Rocky Bleier. | Photo: Rockybleierinc.com

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Super Bowl Frenzy: Steelers Legend Grew Up in Shadow of Lombardi Packers

By Jay Sorgi

Next game: February 6th at Super Bowl XLV vs. Pittsburgh
Packers Gameday at 3:00 p.m. on Newsradio 620 WTMJ with coverage on Live at 10 on TODAY'S TMJ4 and Super Bowl Frenzy coverage online here.

PITTSBURGH - The Packers-Steelers matchup in Super Bowl 45 has put a former NFL star from our area in a very unusual situation. 

Four-time Super Bowl champion Steelers running back Rocky Bleier grew up minutes from Lambeau Field in Appleton, and he saw the Packers turn into five-time world champions in the 1960's.

"You became tied to the television set watching those Packers play on those Sunday games," said Bleier, who continued to follow the Packers while he played football at Notre Dame in the mid-1960's.  He even won a national championship there in 1966.

After having a knee surgery following his senior season at Notre Dame in 1967, he came back for Christmas vacation.

His dad had tickets to the Ice Bowl, the 1967 NFL Championship game against the Cowboys where the Packers were playing for a still-unequaled record third straight NFL championship.

"I was in a cast.  It was the days before microfiber, and so it was the old fashioned layer of clothes that you had to put on, so I removed my cast, wrapped up my knee as best as I possibly could, put on my undergarments, then the pants, then the hunting pants on top of that, and trying to keep as warm as we could," Bleier remembered.

He hobbled into Lambeau Field on crutches in -13 temperatures.

"If dad had said 'Let's go home,' I would have said, 'OK, fine.' "

During the latter stages of arguably the most important touchdown drive in NFL history, that's exactly what happened.

"Dad said, 'I think maybe we should leave now so we don't get caught in the rush with you on crutches.'  I said, 'OK' because I was frozen."

Bleier missed seeing - or even hearing Ted Moore's radio call on Newsradio 620 WTMJ - the legendary quarterback sneak by Bart Starr with 13 seconds left that clinched a 21-17 victory and that record third consecutive league title.

"By the time we got out to the parking lot, all of a sudden, you could hear the roar that had taken place, so my recollection of that last surge was only what I saw on television in replays."

Bleier's journey then took him far from Wisconsin, halfway around the world to Vietnam.

He earned a bronze star and a purple heart fighting in that war, but suffered injuries that could have stopped most football players from ever going after their dream of the NFL.

Not Bleier.  He worked his way back into football condition, then found a roster spot on the Steelers in the early 1970's.

It wasn't a championship squad yet, despite the successful draft choices of Chuck Noll, picking players like future Hall of Famers in defensive tackle Joe Greene, quarterback Terry Bradshaw and linebacker Jack Ham.

"The atmosphere was 'Same Old Steelers, maybe something will happen,' " admitted Bleier about a franchise that hadn't even won a division title in its first four decades of existence.

Then came the 'Immaculate Reception,' which his fellow backfield mate, Franco Harris, made to win a playoff game against Oakland, four years and 357 days after the Ice Bowl.

"The turning point was the 'Immaculate Reception,' " said Bleier.  "Miracle play as it may be, luck of the draw, but it was like the football gods finally changed.  There was a belief that we could win and throw off the past."

The pride of Appleton eventually won four Super Bowl titles with Pittsburgh.

"For me, it was a dream come true, the chance to be able to play with a professional team, not knowing what was going to happen, and being able to have a successful career here," said Bleier.

"It was like Lombardi coming in the latter part of the 50's, and the change, and the surge, and they built upon that legacy."

Bleier sees incredible similarities between the two franchises, their rags-to-glory-years-riches stories, and the love affair which remains between the teams and their respective fan bases.

"The Packers fans, like the Steelers fans, are international.  They're from coast to coast.  They have never left their Packers, or their Steelers.  We call it the Steeler Nation, and the Packers have their own nation as well.  As loyal as their fans are, with the ups and downs they've gone through, they're now on an upswing."

Bleier remained in Pittsburgh, where he's a motivational speaker.
  His success with the Steelers gave him a chance to meet his Packers heroes from the 60's, and they share a similar understanding of what it takes to be a legendary football dynasty.

"The impact that those players that played in the 60's had on me, remembering what they did, and getting the chance, later on as an adult, to be somewhat part of their lives, in getting to know Bart Starr and Fuzzy Thurston and Jerry Kramer and having that respect on the level...we had a commonality."

So who does Bleier have in this Super Bowl?  Inquiring minds, like his family, want to know...and to bet.

"All my family, my relatives, my cousins and my friends who I went to school with, they all want to bet, all those Packers fans.  They want a piece of the 'Rock' and the Steelers," he says.

"I'm rooting for the Steelers.  It's going to be a close game.  It's going to be a tight game.  If you look at these two teams, they match up.  They're so similar in what they've accomplished, what they've done.  Both have great defenses.  Both have connections to one another.  Mike McCarthy is from Pittsburgh.  Dom Capers and (Steelers defensive coordinator) Dick LeBeau had coached together here in Pittsburgh.  If you look at their offense, it's kind of the same.  The matchups are so close."

"I'll go in with the underdog (Steelers) and I'll take those two and a half points."

For entertainment purposes only, of course, he says.

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