SportsJam with Doug Doyle: American Hero and Football Great Rocky Bleier on 121st Army-Navy Game

Dec 11, 2020

Credit Zoom/Doug Doyle/USAA

The 121st Army-Navy Game, presented by USAA is coming up this Saturday, December 12 at Michie Stadium on the campus at West Point for the first time since 1943, a game that Navy won 13-0.  The game will be televised by CBS.

4-time Super Bowl champion Rocky Bleier, who was injured as an Army Specialist in the Vietnam War, joined SportsJam host Doug Doyle to talk about "America's Game" that symbolizes service and sacrifice.

Bleier, the captain of the University of Notre Dame football team in 1967 and a member of the Fighting Irish's National Championship team in 1966, played against both military academies during his college career.

While Bleier will be cheering for an Army win, he has great respect for the rivalry.

"Having played against both Army and Navy, is just o experience the pageantry and the atmosphere of having the Academies either come to your stadium and here now together is just remarkable.  They didn't call it "America's Game" for nothing.  It really is the essence of college sports, tradition, bragging rights of playing one another no matter what kind of level the team may have.  Anything can happen.  Here are two teams that come in with great discipline, talent and with the desire to win and not give up, part of the mindset of going to the Academy.  12o years they played.  This is the 121st.  There's no other game that has that kind of tradition."

Credit USAA

This year, USAA has launched ArmyNavyHouse.com, where fans can pick a team, upload a photo and have a chance to win a trip to the Army-Navy Game in New York in 2021.  

Bleier praised the efforts of USAA.

"I think the biggest thing is what they offer, their continuous support of military personnel is so important.  As military personnel made the transition from their service into the private sector after retirement as easy as possible and give you the support that you need for you and your family."

You can also follow along or join the conversation using the hashtags #ArmyNavy and #ArmyNavyHouse.

The Military Challenge Coin designed by USAA will be used in the coin toss prior to the game and features Michie Stadium on one side, the game, date, location and logo on the other side.
Credit USAA

Due to concerns about safety because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the game was moved from Lincoln Field to Michie Stadium at West Point.  There will be about 9,000 spectators in the stadium — including about 4,300 from the Corps of Cadets and 4,300 from the Brigade of Midshipmen. Each school will be allowed about 200 VIPs, who will watch from glassed-in luxury boxes after going through rapid-result coronavirus testing that morning at the Thayer Hotel, which sits just inside the gate.

Bleier doesn't think playing before a much smaller crowd will impact the players on the field.

"In this case specifically, you have your rooting section with you.  So your whole school is going to be there.  That's what you're playing for, that's what you're going to hear.  Your cadets cheering for you.  I think it will be fine.  It's a small stadium.  It will fill the void of as we watch other games where there are four to five thousand people spread over an 80-thousand seat stadium.  You do kind of miss that emotional cheering but being at West Point, being at their stadium, you won't miss it that much.  I really believe that."

In his book Fighting Back, first released in 1975 and revised and updated in 2018, the Army Specialist and recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, goes into detail about his military service in Vietnam.  Bleier was a grenade launcher when he was struck in the leg by small arms fire and then an enemy grenade exploded near him, causing shrapel to rip through his legs and foot.  Doctors told him he would be lucky to walk normally again, let alone play football. 

"In Vietnam, the only thing you had were your guys.  The only thing you had was like every team, is that you had people you could count on.  It's like being in that locker room.  They had your back.  You needed to support them as best as you possibly can under these conditions.  The interesting thing for me is that all of a sudden is like okay this is what you have to do.  This is what is taught at the (U.S.. Military) Academies. This is also what is taught in basic training.  It becomes a very methodical thing rather than an emotional upheaval.  That's what I get out of the military experience that we have.  Just to turn this around, it's the same thing that happens on a football field as well.  There's conflict taking place.  There's an unknown that you don't know.  You have to have faith in the people around you doing their job and feel comfortable that somebody has got your back."

When asked what person he would want to go to battle with, the 1976 one-thousand yard rusher who scored 25 touchdowns in his career, didn't hesitate long.  He picked Steelers Hall of Famers, linebacker Jack Lambert and defensive tackle "Mean" Joe Greene.  

Rocky Bleier and SportsJam host Doug Doyle at Codey Arena in 2014.
Credit Doug Doyle for WBGO News

Bleier was also a guest on SportsJam prior to Super Bowl 48, when he came to the Codey Arena in West Orange, New Jersey for the Wounded Warriors Amputee Football team vs. 9/11 First responders game.  The 74-year old from Appleton, Wisconsin says his passion to help others, especially military veterans, hasn't wavered through the years.

"For me, it's a part of giving back.  At the time that I came back to play for the Steelers, and the Vietnam War was still hanging over our heads in the early part of the 70's is that the veterans who returned had to repress all the feelings that they had.  They had to go underground so to speak.  They weren't being praised as we do today and thanked as we thank our veterans today.  They were just pushed aside.  Because I had great teammates and because we start to win then all of a sudden you're being recognized as a military guy and you kind of become a poster boy.  You have a responsibility to help vocalize some of those transitions that took place, so anything I could do to make it clearer to civiians  what military people have to endure becomes very important."

Click above to hear the entire SportsJam conversation with Rocky Bleier.  You can see the Zoom chat of this episode here.