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Throwback Thursday: American Hero Rocky Bleier

Fighting Back

Notre Dame’s Rocky Bleier...
NOVEMBER 19: Coll, Football: Notre Dame’s Rocky Bleier in action vs Michigan State, East Lansing, MI 11/19/1966 (Photo by James Drake/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

It’s my birthday month, and a bye week, so I’m going to call an audible and share an excerpt with you from a book written by my favorite Fighting Irish/Pittsburgh Steeler football player ... Rocky Bleier.

Next week I’m going to look back at the 1966 meeting between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Pittsburgh Panthers. I hope you have something fun planned this bye weekend!

Here’s an excerpt from Rocky’s book, Fighting Back: The inspirational journey of American Hero Rocky Bleier. If you have not read it yet, please, stop what you’re doing and buy it. It’s incredible. (I’ve got my signed copy ... grab yours here!)

Notre Dame

Spring ball before the 1966 season was tremendously exciting. A battle for the starting quarterback job developed between two freshmen — Coley O’Brien, who came heralded from Washington, DC, and Terry Hanratty, who merely came from Butler, Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, the coaches were installing a pair of new offenses. They conceived a two-back offense, basically for passing, which employed Curt Henneghan as a flanker. And there was a three-back offense, which called for me to replace Henneghan and function as both a runner and wide receiver. Ara seemed committed to using both systems until midway through spring practice, when I developed a respiratory infection and missed a week’s work.

I quickly learned that “The Man” is short of patience on only two matters in life — missed assignments and missed practice, no matter how good your excuse. So, with the freshmen throwers coming along, Ara decided to junk the three-back offense and go exclusively with Henneghan. All summer, I cursed my misfortune. But then, in prefall practice, the situation turned inside out. Henneghan returned on campus with a pulled hamstring, and guess who became a starter?

So did Hanratty. In the final week before the opener, Ara decided he liked Terry’s size and stronger arm more than Coley’s polish But what a spot for him: The first game of his college career was to be played on national television against Purdue, the intrastate rival, the Top Ten challenger, the team with Bob Griese. A year earlier, Griese had completed 19 of 22 passes and beaten us single-handedly.

On the first series of downs, we drove to the Purdue 8-yardline. There, Hanratty made a bad toss on a pitch-sweep. The ball hit me on the right shoulder pad, and before I could control it, three Boilermakers hammered me. An unknown sophomore cornerback named Leroy Keyes caught it in midair and went 90 yards for a touchdown.

Leroy eventually became a sensational player on both offense and defense. But when I see him these days, I always say, “Leroy, I should get 10% of your contract every year. I made you what you are. I made you an All-American in nine seconds.” That was his first game as well, and I put him on display like a debutante. “Our play” made every highlight film and television show of the season.

On the ensuing kickoff, however, Nick Eddy matched Keyes’s effort with a coast-to-coast run of his own. I didn’t block anybody on the play, but I sure looked pretty leading Nick into the end zone. And I felt a whole lot better than I had a few moments earlier.

Later in the game, Hanratty atoned for his poor pitch. He and Jim Seymour connected 13 times for 276 yards, and we won, 26-14.

Hanratty to Seymour!

Read more about Rocky Bleier’s amazing story, at Note Dame and beyond, in Fighting Back: The inspirational journey of American Hero Rocky Bleier.

Cheers & GO IRISH!

P.S. I’m not only celebrating the USC win, and my birthday month, I’m also celebrating my new children’s book, Clover Goes to Notre Dame, hitting No. 1 on the Amazon New Release list. I’ll be at Notre Dame for one more book signing weekend (vs. Wake Forest). Check out my book signing events here (or pick up a copy for the children in your life!):