Editor’s Note: The late, great Lou Somogyi possessed an unmatched knowledge of Notre Dame and it was his mission in life to share it with others. Those of us at BlueandGold.com would like to continue to share his wisdom and unique perspective with our readers.
Here is Part 3 of his annual Memorial Day series.
Engraved deep into the stone on the side door of the Basilica of Sacred Heart Church at Notre Dame are not merely words but a way of life: “God, Country, Notre Dame.”
It weaves together the school’s spiritual and patriotic elements while enjoining its loyal sons and daughters who are, as the Victory March states, “strong of heart and true to Her name.” The relationship between the military and Notre Dame goes far beyond football rivalries with Army, Navy and Air Force.
“Ever since 1858 when the student-organized Continental Cadets began marching across campus in their blue and buff American Revolutionary-style uniforms, Notre Dame has been teaching students how to be good soldiers,” wrote John Monczunski in the Spring 2001 Notre Dame Magazine.
Like A Rock
According to Monczunski in his Spring 2001 Notre Dame Magazine article, ROTC’s peak at Notre Dame came in the late 1960s when some 1,600 Notre Dame students were in uniform.
However, the Vietnam War heightened an anti-military sentiment, and by 1974 the ROTC figure on campus had dropped to 442.
Still, another Notre Dame legend was established during these tumultuous times, this by 1967 Irish football captain Rocky Bleier, who started for the 1966 national champs but was only a 16th-round draft pick by the NFL.
A handful of NFL players received draft notices for the Vietnam War, and Bleier was one of them during 1968 training camp.
“Having lived in Wisconsin, I knew that every Packer was in the Reserve or the National Guard, so my assumption was if you make a professional team, they get you into the National Guard,” Bleier said. “Bill Austin was the Steelers’ head coach and he took me aside about a letter that came. It was my 1-A classification up in Wisconsin.
“He told me, ‘We think you’re good enough to make the team and we’ll take care of this for you’ — whatever that meant. I didn’t care. All I cared about was the comment ‘you’re good enough to make the team.’ ”
Ultimately, everything fell through the cracks for Bleier, who was drafted into the U.S. Army in December of 1968 and shipped to Vietnam in 1969, serving with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.
On Aug. 20, 1969, Bleier was wounded in the left thigh when his platoon was ambushed in a rice paddy field. Then, an enemy grenade landed nearby, spreading shrapnel into his right leg.
“I remember scrambling to cover and trying mentally to make a pact with God,” he would recall years later. “I didn’t want to make a rash promise like becoming a priest or recluse of any kind. I just prayed and said if I got out of this and back home, I’d live a life that tries to help people.”
A recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star, Bleier was rated 40 percent disabled when he was discharged. During his stay in a Tokyo hospital, he was informed that he would always walk with a limp.
He weighed just 165 pounds when he arrived back in the United States, where he was introduced at halftime by Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore Hesburgh C.S.C. in the 1969 home game with USC. On the same field where two years earlier he ran with aplomb as team captain, Bleier now required a cane.
“My focus was still on wanting to play football,” Bleier said. “I had family support and one of the things I most cherished while I was in the hospital overseas was I got a postcard from (Steelers owner) Art Rooney saying, ‘We’re still behind you. Team’s not doing well, we need you.’ He took that time … all those little things became positives.”
Bleier became a starter for four Super Bowl champions while at Pittsburgh, and one of the most respected motivational speakers in the country.
On the 50th anniversary of when he nearly lost his life, Bleier returned for the first time to the site in Vietnam, as recorded on ESPN. His emotions engulfed him.
“All of a sudden I had an overwhelming feeling of loss and sadness,” Bleier told Associated Press reporter Joe Reedy. “Why did we fight this war? Why did we lose 58,000 soldiers and, in all honesty, for what?
“Maybe for the first time I can understand on a slight basis the impact that our soldiers go through and maybe just a little what post-traumatic stress might be and how the body reacts to all the emotions.”
This January, Bleier received the 2020 NCAA Inspiration Award at the NCAA Honors Celebration in Anaheim, California.
It is presented to a coach or administrator who is actively associated with intercollegiate athletics, or to a current or former varsity letter-winner at an NCAA institution who used perseverance, dedication and determination to overcome a life-altering situation and serve as a role model to give inspiration to others in similar situations.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, the ROTC has thrived at Notre Dame, and each unit has been recognized among the best in the nation by its respective uniformed service.
The Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force ROTC Units eventually established the US Notre Dame Command. USNDCOM is the first unified command in ROTC in the nation.
God, Country, Notre Dame, indeed.
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