play it again, rock!

If you think “everything happens for a reason,” you may walk away scratching your head after seeing The Play: with Rocky Bleier.

Bleier, who stars in the one-man show written by Gene Collier, doesn’t believe that.

“The underlying theme of this play is the randomness of life and how you get to where you are,” says the former Steelers star running back, decorated Vietnam veteran, and more recently, well-known speaker on retirement and financial issues.

“Things don’t happen for a reason. Things just happen, and you react.”

To Bleier, it’s how you react to events that charts your course. That philosophy applies to his football career, which was interrupted by military service that earned him a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star but left him so injured that doctors said he would never again play football. A postcard of encouragement from Art Rooney Sr. propelled him back to the Steelers still in painfully bad shape, where he eventually made it back into the starting line and played in the first four Steeler Super Bowls.

Bleier earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star in Vietnam.
Bleier earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star in Vietnam.

“Talk about Vietnam,” he says. “Why? It doesn’t happen for a reason unless you make yourself the reason for coming back and overcoming those obstacles.”

Bleier says he always wanted to be a hero. That made football, with winners and losers, easy to understand and Vietnam an enigma. “There was no winner, no loser, so how could there be heroes?” he asks. Although maybe, he muses, the soldiers who died were there to teach the survivors—many not as lucky as he—that nothing like Vietnam should happen again.

“We wouldn’t do that again, would we?” he asks Or would we? That’s a subject The Play addresses as Bleier talks about Iraq, Afghanistan and other contemporary conflicts where soldiers have died, if not in conflict, then later from depression leading to suicide.

Randomness also applies to many happy times in Bleier’s life, from his days as an all-state, all-conference running back at Xavier High School in Appleton, Wisconsin, to his role in winning Notre Dame’s 1966 national championship, to the relatively peaceful life he shares today in Mt. Lebanon with his wife, Jan, and his daughters, Ellie, 17, and Rosie, 16.

He recalls a chance encounter that reminds listeners he was once just a little kid helping out in his parents’ restaurant/bar, dreaming of bigger things to come: When he was in fifth or sixth grade, he says, TV’s old west private detective Shotgun Slade was his hero.

Fast forward to college, and Bleier and a buddy headed to California looking for a summer job in construction. They arrived in the middle of a recession, gave up and started home. As they drove east on the freeway, the guy in the car behind honked and motioned for them to pull over.

“Now this was back in the days when you wouldn’t be scared to do that,” Bleier says, “so I got out and started walking toward the guy, and (he laughs) I realized we had been pulled over by Shotgun Slade.” A Notre Dame fan, actor Scott Brady had noticed the college decal and Wisconsin plates and wanted to play “Do you know?” The surprise ending: “He got us both jobs at Disneyland for the summer!”

The Play will premiere Tuesday, September 15, at 7:30 p.m., at Heinz Hall at a gala that in part will benefit the Children’s Hospital Foundation. If well received, it could play other venues. Even though he’s not a professional actor like Tom Atkins, known for his portrayal of Art Rooney Sr. in The Chief, which Collier co-wrote, Bleier doesn’t expect to get stage fright or forget his lines—he views acting as an extension of his public speaking career. And if something random happens, “I think I can figure out something to do,” he says. “Even if I fall off the stage.”

Rocky’s story, like The Chief’s, is a great American story that touches on a lot of icons and tribulations—Vietnam, civil rights, Notre Dame, the Steelers,” says Collier, who worked with Bleier on the project for nearly two years. The biggest challenge, Collier says, was trying to get him to see his story as he looks at it now, 40 years later: “Everyone knows his story, but this is different. It’s him looking at it with the benefit of a couple decades removed from it through a different kind of prism. I am very hopeful that people will walk out saying, ‘I didn’t know that’ or ‘how did this relate to that?’”

The Play: With Rocky Bleier is set in a bar—not his dad’s bar, exactly—but a bar where characters can “wander” in and out, as Bleier shares his experiences with music and a changing backdrop reflecting the time and place.

His family’s real restaurant and bar in Appleton, 30 miles from Green Bay, was the setting for a funny random encounter—one that says a lot about why Bleier, a hero to many, keeps his feet on the ground. “When I was in Vietnam and the Steelers were playing Green Bay, the Chief said, ‘Boys, don’t Rocky Bleier’s parents have a restaurant nearby? That’s where we’ll have dinner.’  So the team walked into the restaurant, and The Chief introduced himself to my mom, and she said, ‘Nice to meet you. Take a number over there and get in line and we’ll call you when your table’s ready.’”

Are the stories in the play true? “Well, says Collier, “Sometimes in the theater they say, ‘It’s true; it’s just not factual.’ My perspective is certainly in there, but it’s 100 percent true in its way.’”

Bleier has invited his three siblings to the show. If his family is typical, those stories had better be 99 percent true—or he could be the butt of something, well, random!

—Susan Morgans

Tickets to The Play range from $60 to $199 (VIP).