Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, Kellan Bleier gets asked a certain question all of the time. It would be the same if his surname were Bradshaw, Lambert or Swann.
“As soon as they hear the last name, it’s, ‘Do you know who Rocky Bleier is?’” Kellan said, smiling.
Kellan Bleier is a junior at Fox Chapel High School who doesn’t just know the Steelers legend. He actually calls him “Papa Rocky.” But Kellan has much more in common with his grandpap than just his last name these days. For the first time in his life, Kellan decided to play football this season. Not only that, but he’s playing running back and wearing No. 20 just like his four-time Super Bowl-winning grandfather.
“I’m very proud as a grandfather, just very proud of the fact that he made that decision and wanted to play,” said Rocky, 77, who lives in Mt. Lebanon. “I’m proud of him taking that chance.”
And wouldn’t you know, Kellan Bleier, whose coach said is by far the fastest player on the team, has been a natural on the football field. As the team’s starting running back, he leads the team in rushing. Bleier, who is 5 feet 7, 160 pounds, is also the starting kicker and punter, leads the team in scoring, sees some time defensively at safety, and has also returned a few kicks.
“[That speed is] what caught my eye early. That and his athletic ability,” first-year Fox Chapel coach Dave Leasure said. “He can catch the ball. He can make moves in space. There are times where you look at him and say, ‘There’s no way he’s never played football.’ The fact of the matter is, he’s been doing it for three games now. Eventually, he’s going to see things quicker and better, and it’s going to happen sooner than later because he works so hard. He really watches film and he wants to be good.”
The thing is, Kellan Bleier has always been an excellent athlete and has long tinkered with the idea of playing football, but there was always something standing in the way of him giving the sport a try. That would be his favorite sport, soccer, which he has played since he was 5 years old. Bleier was a standout soccer player at Fox Chapel his freshman and sophomore years, but when Leasure was brought on as football coach following last season, Bleier decided it might be finally time to give football a shot.
“My whole life, everybody has been telling me, ‘You’d be so good at football. Your grandpap played,’” said Bleier, an excellent student who boasts a 3.7 GPA. “I honestly thought I would be, too. I thought the speed and the agility and the strength, I thought would help me really excel in football. And I always really loved watching the sport, so this year with the new coaching staff and all the hype around the team, I said I’m going to do it, this should be the year that I should do it.”
Leasure admits that he was a little guarded when Bleier first came to him with the idea. He certainly didn’t want to be known as the new guy who came in and decided to rock the boat.
“One thing a football coach doesn’t do here is recruit soccer kids because we’ve got a good soccer program,” Leasure said. “He came to me in May and said, ‘I’m thinking about playing football.’ And I said,’ Oh, you want to kick?’ He said, ‘No, I want to play.’ I’m like, ‘OK.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what, why don’t you come down to the field and I’ll time you in the 40 and run you through some drills and see if it will be worth your while’ because he’s not the biggest kid in the world.
“So, he comes out and I time him in the 40, and I’m like, ‘That’s a 4.6.’ And then he goes into the weight room and bench presses 240 for a little guy. I’m like, ‘You know what, I think you should give it a shot.’”
Kellan, 16, is one of Rocky Bleier’s seven grandchildren, and the first to play high school football, Rocky said. Kellan said his grandpap never pressured him to play football, nor did his father, Adri, who played some in high school. Adri Bleier is a 1995 Fox Chapel graduate, and the family resides in O’Hara. Kellan has one sibling: A sister, Ella, is in seventh grade.
When tossing around the idea of playing this season, Kellan sought some advice from Rocky, who also played basketball, baseball and ran track while growing up in Appleton, Wisconsin.
“He said, ‘Yeah, you’re undersized, but that’s not the main thing,’” Kellan recalls. “The main thing is you have to learn how to play football and you have to learn how to hit. He talked me up to it, and it really helped.”
When it comes to learning the ins and outs of football, Kellan Bleier has been a quick study. Fox Chapel has struggled during its 0-3 start, but among the bright spots has been Bleier, who has a team-high 26 carries for 86 yards, two receptions for 45 yards and has accounted for 14 of his team’s 28 points. He has a touchdown, is 2 for 3 on field-goal attempts, and 2 for 2 on extra-point attempts. He’s also averaging 31.2 yards per punt.
Bleier’s best performance to date came in a 34-10 loss at Plum. In that game, Bleier ran 10 times for 40 yards and also converted a 30-yard field goal. Then, last week against Norwin, Bleier scored his first touchdown and also booted a 26-yard field goal.
“He has a lot of speed,” Plum coach Matt Morgan said of Bleier. “He’s raw as a football player, but overall he has a lot of speed, and he’s going to keep getting better every week.”
And Bleier is doing it while wearing the same jersey number that his grandpap wore on those great Steelers teams of the ’70s. A returning player donned the number for Fox Chapel last season, but a deal was quickly made for Bleier to wear it this season.
Said Bleier, “Coach emailed me right away. He said, ‘Do you want the number 20?’ And I was like, ‘Of course.’ So I have it and I love it.”
Bleier also loves the decision he made to play football, saying he has fun every day at practice and that “Friday night lights are awesome.” He finds playing in front of his famous grandfather pretty cool, as well. “Papa Rocky” attended the Plum game and before that watched Fox Chapel compete in some 7-on-7 tournaments over the summer.
“It means a lot,” Kellan said. “The biggest part for me is I love for him to see me play because I think he loves watching it, too. And I think it’s great for our family.”
Bleier doesn’t expect this to be a one-year thing, either. He said he plans on playing again next year and, who knows, maybe he’ll pursue the sport in college, as well. And while he gave up high school soccer, he hasn’t given up soccer totally. He will play soccer with his club team, Steel City FC, next spring and summer and has not ruled out playing that sport collegiately.
“Papa Rocky” is one proud papa. He only hopes the expectations placed by others on his grandson are reasonable, and not that he’s going to play in the NFL one day.
“The expectation shouldn’t be that he’s my grandson,” Rocky Bleier said. “The expectation should be about him as an individual and athlete and what he does with his own ability.”
It will be interesting to see where Kellan Bleier’s football journey goes from here. If nothing else, his joining the team and excelling is one of the neater stories in WPIAL football this season.
“I think it’s great. I really do,” Leasure said. “I always ask him, even with this interview, are you OK with this? His family, they don’t pressure him one way or another in athletics, and I’m certainly not going to pressure him to make him feel like he’s got to meet a certain standard.
“And when your grandfather is probably one of most known football players in Western Pennsylvania history, there is a bar that is going to be difficult to meet. But he’s sure going to have a lot of fun trying. And he gets it. He knows where he’s at. And the possibility, he’s got a high ceiling. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch him.”