Rocky Bleier is well-known for not only his outstanding football career as a Pittsburgh Steeler, but as a “nice guy” off the field.
He lived up to his “nice guy” reputation Thursday when he greeted patients, residents and staff from St. Barnabas Health System in Richland Township. Bleier is being honored all day long by St. Barnabas as the annual Hance Award recipient.
As a Steeler, Bleier was one of the top running backs during his 12-year NFL career. He passed the 1,000-yard rushing mark in one season and contributed to four Super Bowl victories.
Bleier is also known for his military career. During his service in the Vietnam War, Bleier was severely injured and told he would never play football again. His book, “Fighting Back,” tells of his journey to the NFL after recovering from these injuries.
The day started with a welcoming ceremony at St. Barnabas Nursing Home where Bleier met with administrators then received a medal from Clarence Liebel, a resident of The Arbors at St. Barnabas. Like Bleier, Liebel is a veteran and the recipient of a purple heart and two bronze stars.
The ceremony was a long-anticipated event for the residents, according to administrator Angie Borgo.
“They have been preparing and preparing,” she said as she led Bleier through a group of patients, many wearing black and gold, holding signs and Terrible Towels. Bleier stopped to chat with several of the residents and lamented over the Penguins hockey loss the night before.
“It wasn’t pleasant to watch,” he joked.
The actual ceremony was held in the Chapel at the nursing home with local dignitaries including emcee Jim Roddey, St. Barnabas spokesman and former Allegheny County chief executive; local sports historian and author Jim O’Brien; Rep. Mike Turzai and Sen. Jane Clare Orie. Turzai and Orie presented Bleier with citations to mark the event.
Bleier also received a “Team St. Barnabas” shirt from 92-year-old nursing home resident Leo Rihn, who was assisted by veteran and nurse Marge Freund.
Jean Hixenbaugh, a resident of The Arbors, gave Bleier a black-and-gold lap blanket that she had made.
“This is great. I can wear it during the football season next year. You know it gets cold at those games,” he said. Borgo said the blanket represented a total of 20 blankets made in honor of Bleier that will be donated to hospice patients with whom the health system works. The black-and-gold blankets were made by residents and staff of the homes and lined the window sills of the Chapel.
William Day, president and CEO of St. Barnabas, presented a key to the campus to Bleier.
“I know you are looking for a rather big lock based on the size of this key,” he joked as he held up a three-foot key. On a more serious note, he commended Bleier for his service to St. Barnabas.
“He has been a good friend to us. He has worked with the Presents for Patients Program for seven years and given us so much,” said Day.
In his own speech, Bleier told the residents, “You have given me so much more back than I have ever given you. You have given me more than you will ever know.”
Bleier also toured St. Barnabas Nursing Home, had lunch with about 40 key donors, and then visited other facilities, residents and staff during the day.
Tonight, he will be the guest of honor at the annual Founder’s Day celebration, a “Black ‘n Gold Charity ‘Ball’” held at the Omni William Penn. Approximately 395 people will attend that event.
Bleier will be the keynote speaker and discuss his military and football career.
The Hance Award is named after St. Barnabas founder Gouverneur P. Hance. Bleier follows a prestigious list of Founder’s Day honorees including former President Gerald R. Ford, Fred Rogers, former First Lady Barbara Bush, and actress Debbie Reynolds.
At the end of his speech, Bleier referred to his predecessors, “I am honored to see the people on that wall and know I will be there. I truly thank you for this honor.”