“My first reaction was okay, do they know something I don’t know, could things be coming to an end soon for me,” Bleier joked.
Then he thought about it some more, and he realized what a great honor it is.
Bleier is definitely being modest. His achievements are noteworthy, and definitely deserving of the honor, which was presented to him at the annual dinner held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Bleier was one of several honorees, including his former teammate Mel Blount, who won the Freddie Fu Leadership Award.
Bleier played 11 seasons for the Steelers, a member of the four Super Bowl teams in the 1970s. He rushed for 3,865 yards and 23 touchdowns, and caught 136 passes for 1,294 yards and two touchdowns, in an offense that featured Hall of Famers Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.
His life, though, is defined by much more than statistics. Bleier was drafted by the Steelers in the 16th round of the 1968 NFL Draft. The following year, he was drafted into the United States Army, and was off to fight in the Vietnam War. Bleier was hit in the leg by enemy fire, and earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
Bleier could have given up football, but instead fought back and returned to the field for the 1971 season, and the rest is history. Now Bleier is getting the well-deserved recognition, something he never could have imagined growing up in Appleton, Wisconsin and now being a true Pittsburgher.
“When I came here, especially trying to make a professional football team, I didn’t know what the future would hold,” said Bleier. “I know the biggest part of my life has been in Pittsburgh, with an organization and a family like the Rooney family and how they ran the organization. Whatever success I have is tied directly to an opportunity, being given a chance, being a teammate with all of those Hall of Famers, being on a team that won those four Super Bowls and dominated the imagination of Steelers fans and football fans around the world. I understand that. It’s not that I individually had great talents. I was surrounded by a group that had great standards.
“When I look back at success and whatever has happened in my life, it is part of being a group of people that helped raise your stature in the world of sports and in this city.”
Bleier, who has attended the Dapper Dan Dinner throughout the years, knows how special it is to be honored by the organization, and also knows it comes with responsibility.
“The world of sports puts you in a fishbowl, on a pedestal because of some athletic ability,” said Bleier. “There is a responsibility with that. People look up to you. You have an effect on people whether you think you do or not, just by what you might say or how you approach them or what you might not say can affect people’s lives. It’s easier to say hi and be nice than not do it. It might help someone. We all have that impact. We really do in our lives. It’s all the little things that we shouldn’t take for granted that make a difference.”
When it comes to having an effect on people, Mel Blount definitely fits the bill and then some. Blount founded and runs the Mel Blount Youth Home of Pennsylvania in Washington County, just outside of Pittsburgh. It is a multi-service treatment program for young males who are victims of child abuse and neglect.
Helping kids has been a passion of his since his Hall of Fame career with the Steelers, and it grew after his retirement. It’s that passion, and long-term commitment of giving back, that had him honored with the Freddie Fu Leadership Award at the Dapper Dan Dinner.
“It’s pretty special. It’s the kind of award you say it’s all because of someone else I am being recognized. It’s the people who supported you, worked with you, and helped you influence the young people. It’s a team award.”
While it is a team award, none of it would be possible without Blount’s passion, something that came from his upbringing in Valdosta, Georgia.
“It came from my environment, how I grew up as a child,” said Blount. “Seeing my parents work in the community. Growing up during segregation and how we had to work together to help one another. It was a part of my experience as a child, reaching back and helping someone else.”
And the lives he touched, the kids he has had an impact on, are numerous. The home housed kids in the past, but as of late offers day programs that reach out to an even larger number.
Blount isn’t in it for the awards, for the pats on the back. The biggest reward comes from seeing success stories from the youth they have served.
“It’s the best feeling. It makes it all worthwhile,” said Blount. “That is the end result. You know you have impacted someone’s life in a positive way. It’s a tremendous feeling. We have kids who finish college and served in the military, kids starting their own business. It’s pretty special.
“You see them come back, some with their families, and it’s really something special. We have kids that come back and talk to the kids. We have a youth summit. We have people come back and share their story. That is what it is. It’s like retired players coming back and talking to guys who are still playing, and telling them we have been through it. It’s all the same. It’s another alumni group that you have the opportunity to bring back and talk to the kids. It’s powerful stuff and you know they can relate.
“It makes you feel like you are planting seeds and they aren’t falling into bad soil. They are germinating and kids are practicing what they have been taught. It’s just a good thing.”
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Also honored at the dinner were Pittsburgh Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan and General Manger Jim Rutherford, who were the Dapper Dan Co-Sportsman of the Year, and Olympic Gold Medal rower Amanda Polk, who was the Dapper Dan Sportswoman of the Year.