MAPLETOWN – Students at Mapletown Junior-Senior High School weren’t even born when football fans in Pittsburgh were chanting the name Rocky Bleier.
And yet, more than 30 years after he put on his fourth and final Super Bowl ring, he was received with as much enthusiasm as if they had been.
The former Pittsburgh Steeler and co-chairman of the Beating the Odds Foundation presented its Quarterbacks for Life program to students in the seventh through 12th grades. The program is aimed at helping students achieve goals, despite obstacles both real and perceived.
“We are all leaders, quarterbacks if you will, in our own right. We have the ability to influence others by a word, thought, deed or action,” Bleier said. “We make an impact on people’s lives every day in both a positive and negative connotation. You impact me as I stand before you by your conduct and your passion.”
Bleier said it all started for him with little Dickie Weisgerber, the kid across the street in Appleton, Wis., where Bleier grew up. Their backyard contests in football were epic, according to Bleier.
Despite a four-year age difference between them, Weisberger always showed up and played to win every time because he believed he could, Bleier said. Those backyard games fueled Bleier’s love of football.
While playing in high school, Bleier received a scholarship to play for Notre Dame and coach Ara Parseghian. The coach had not looked at films of Bleier before they met. Bleier said he imagined Parseghian salivating as he thought he had a ringer coming to play for his team.
“Can you imagine the perception he had compared to the reality the first time I met him? I told him who I was and he said, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘I am.’ He said, ‘It can’t be.’ I told him, ‘But it is.”
Parseghian said Bleier just wasn’t big enough to compete at that level. Perceptions are often wrong, Bleier pointed out. The team won a national championship with Bleier on the field. After graduating, he was selected as a 16th round draft pick for the Steelers.
“I was not their first pick. I was the 417th person picked in the 16th round, but I made it,” he said. “I thought, ‘There are 17 rounds; at least I wasn’t in the last round picked.’”
Again, a matter of perception, Bleier noted. Weisberger taught him well.
As the 417th player picked by a losing team, Bleier was excited the day he thought he’d received a fan letter. When he read it, it said, “Greetings, we’d like to inform you that you’ve been drafted into the armed services of your country.”
He spent four-and-a-half months in Vietnam before taking fire from an AK-47 to his left leg and then being hit by a grenade. He was told by doctors that he’d be lucky if he walked again, let alone play football.
“The doctor told me, ‘You won’t have the strength and flexibility to be a running back in the NFL again.’ He had a perception about my ability. As an authority figure, he just sucked the hope right out of me,” Bleier said.
But then, a triple amputee in the ward where Bleier was recuperating did what this doctor did not: He gave Bleier hope. He’d make his way around to his fellow soldiers each day with words of encouragement, and Bleier said, “It changed my course of thinking, not feeling sorry for myself.”
Next was a postcard from home. It simply said, ‘Rock, the team’s not doing well. We need you.’ It was signed by team owner Art Rooney.
“Someone cared. Somebody had an interest in me as an individual,” Bleier said.
Back home, Bleier worked hard, and the Steelers gave him a two-year contract. When it wasn’t going quite as he had hoped, Bleier almost threw in the towel. Once again, someone made a difference.
“In the off-season, I got a phone call from a teammate of mine. He said, ‘You can’t quit. If this is what you want to do then back them in a corner. You don’t cut yourself.’ It was the arm twisting I needed.”
The rest of Bleier’s story is etched in Pittsburgh football history.
With timing like the late comedianGeorge Carlin, Bleier said his life is like football analogy.
“There is a beginning, a middle and an end: birth, life and death. There may be a mourning period, then a renewal. Week after week, season after season, there is hope. We hope there are no injuries. We hope to get to the Super Bowl. We hope the team we like the least beats the team we hate the most,” he said.
Hope, Bleier said, is the key. “Believing in one’s self and others is the foundation of a team.”
“All our lives are built on hope. Hope has to start somewhere, with that one little kernel of belief that you can accomplish something, that you can be somebody.”
Bleier said there is a reason he got a chance to play football.
“It was not speed or size. Those are things I do not possess,” Bleier said. “One phone call, one postcard, one triple amputee, or one terrific game against Dickie Weisberger – if any of those things had never happened … You possess the power to make an impact, the power to change lives.”
Southeastern Greene Superintendent William Henderson learned about the program at a superintendents’ meeting with the Intermediate Unit and introduced it to his district.
Henderson said Quarterbacks for Life is being led at Mapletown by three middle school teachers in the district.
“These are tough decision-making times in their (students) lives. There is a lot of peer pressure,” Henderson said.
Rocco Scalzi, a former police officer and longtime friend of Bleier who co-founded the Beating the Odds Foundation with Bleier more than 20 years ago, is working directly with the teachers at Mapletown who are involved in the program.
“The program will help to identify success stoppers, as Rocco calls them, and ways to work through them to succeed,” Henderson said.
Scalzi, like Bleier, saw creating the foundation and Quarterbacks for Life as a way of giving back for those who encouraged and supported him along his journey. A school assembly when he was just a young boy led him to a career in law enforcement.
Despite a tragic set of circumstances in his rookie year as an officer that sent Scalzi into a downward spiral, he came back and beat the odds.
When he was later asked to speak at a high school assembly, it became another turning point for Scalzi as he recalled the assembly that led him to law enforcement. He would turn it into the program that has affected thousands of youngsters, teaching them to follow their dreams, set goals, overcome obstacles and the importance of developing a never give up attitude.
Kaley Wagner, a freshman at Mapletown, and Ben Boone, a junior, interviewed Bleier for the school newspaper before the assembly. Wagner admitted she was unfamiliar with the former Steeler prior to that.
“I think it’s (the program) definitely going to change the way I look at things,” Wagner said. “He taught me many things throughout his speech.”
She said she could already see tenets of the program at play in her life. She recalled not doing well on a test and being told it was OK. She’d do better next time.
There also was an instance when she fell from her horse, only to have her sisters there to tell her to get back on.
Boone, who is the quarterback for the Maples, said he knew who Bleier was from his family talking about those Steeler glory days.
“I think the program will help me. It has made me think about being the quarterback at Mapletown, the ringleader on the field, and being a leader in life and the comparison of the two. I feel like it will push me to be better,” Boone said.