November 11th is Veteran’s Day here in North America, and it is one of the country’s most sacred holidays. It’s the day where we stop to honor and give thanks to the courageous men and women, of the past and present, the living and the dead, who helped protect and defend our nation by serving in the Armed Forces. All who have served have given much of themselves and the debt we all owe them for the sacrifices they’ve made in service to the country is one that we can’t ever hope to repay.
The world of sports will forever be intimately tied to wartime and military service as hundreds, if not thousands of professional athletes from every sport over the decades have had their sports careers interrupted – some permanently so – in service and defense of the nation. World War II saw some of the biggest names in sports – names that still resonate through the record books today – serving either over in Europe or in the Pacific and taking part in some of the most historic battles of the conflict.
Some of these athletes were drafted, some went down of their own accord and volunteered – many, after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor which touched off US involvement in World War II – because they felt moved to serve. And all served their country with distinction, honor, and made sacrifices that most of us today can’t even begin to imagine. And for that, we owe them our gratitude.
I know that for some, Veteran’s Day means a day off work. And for others, perhaps it doesn’t quite resonate. But without brave men and women willing to risk it all, to put their lives on the line for our countries – and by extension, for us – we might be a vastly different place.
So to all of you out there reading this who have served or are serving now… thank you. Thank you for your service and your sacrifice.
This list is by no means comprehensive. There are literally hundreds of stories I can share. So feel free to list some of your favorites in the comments section below. Let’s acknowledge their service and sacrifice. And for now, let’s look at some professional athletes who were badasses on the sports field, and even bigger badasses on the battlefield…
15. Hobey Baker
There is only one athlete in US sports history to be named to two different college Hall of Fames – Hobey Baker. He was inducted into both the college football Hall of Fame and the college hockey Hall of Fame – college hockey still has an award named after Baker which recognizes the top college hockey player in the country. Serving in World War I, Baker commanded the 103rd Aero Squadron, racking up kills and awards by the French government for his actions. Baker survived the war, but it was during the testing of a new aircraft when he crashed and was killed.
14. Tim James
Coming out of the University of Miami, Tim James was a hot enough commodity in the NBA that the Miami Heat used their first round pick – 25th overall – on the forward. Despite being such a high pick, James’ career never lived up to the billing. He played in just three seasons in the NBA and a handful of seasons internationally. James eventually enlisted in the US Army, and served one tour in Iraq.
13. Jack Lummus
A two-sport star at Baylor University, Lummus signed a free agent contract with the New York Giants in 1941. As a rookie end, Lummus made 9 starts for the Giants, and it was during a game against their division rival, the Brooklyn Dodgers (later known as the Brooklyn Tigers), that the world learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Following the NFL Championship Game, in January 1942, Lummus enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. He was in the first wave of troops that landed in Iwo Jima. Commanding a rifle platoon, Lummus led successful attacks on three Japanese strongholds on the island, knocking them out of commission entirely. He had suffered wounds to the leg from the shrapnel of a hand grenade during the attacks, and was later killed by a land mine. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions after his death.
12. Yogi Berra
Most of us know Yogi Berra for the character he’s created for himself – sort of bumbling, and with lots of very strange colloquialisms. But Berra was a badass on the baseball field where he was a 13-time World Series champ, 18-time All Star, and a three time AL MVP. He is still in the conversation, even today, as the best catcher in baseball history. But before his exploits on the diamond, Berra served in the US Navy. He was a gunner’s mate sitting just off the coast as thousands upon thousands of men – many of them doomed – stormed the beach at Normandy.
11. Alfred Blozis
At the University of Georgetown, Alfred Blozis made quite the impression as an athlete. He not only played football, he won the NCAA, IC4A, and AAU shotput championship three years in a row. He, along with boxer Joe Louis, and golfer Ben Hogan were named by the UPI , as one of three outstanding athletes of 1941. The New York Giants quickly drafted him and became one of the anchors on the offensive line. When World War II broke out, Blozis, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, obtained a dispensation that allowed him to serve. On his very first patrol though, Blozis was killed in the Vosges Mountains in an action related to the infamous Battle of the Bulge.
10. Rocky Bleier
Rocky Bleier had just finished his rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1968 when he was drafted by the US Army. After basic training, he was shipped out to Vietnam, serving in a light infantry brigade. Bleier and his platoon were ambushed while on patrol and he was shot in the left thigh by a sniper, and then took massive grenade shrapnel in his lower right leg. Doctors told him he would never play football again. One year later, he was back in Steelers training camp, fighting for a roster spot. It took two years, but he finally made the active roster and became the team’s starter in 1974, winning four Super Bowls with the team before retiring in 1980.
9. Gil Hodges
Hodges made his Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943. But having served in the ROTC while at St. Joseph’s college, he opted to join the Marine Corps. Hodges saw combat as an anti-aircraft gunner in the battles of Tinian and Okinawa, earning a Combat Action Ribbon and Bronze Star for his actions. He returned to baseball in 1946 and went on to hit 370 homers, become an eight-time All Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, and three-time World Series champion.
8. Warren Spahn
Warren Spahn is one of the winningest pitchers in baseball history, as his 363 wins ranking sixth all time. He won 20 games in 13 different seasons, was a 14-time All Star, won the Cy Young award, and has one World Series title to his name. After a year in the minor leagues in 1942, Spahn enlisted in the US Army and was made a combat engineer. He received a Purple Heart as well as a Bronze Star for his actions (and wounds) in the infamous Battle of the Bulge, as well as Ludendorff Bridge. He returned to the Major Leagues in 1946 and played until 1965.
7. Hank Bauer
One month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Bauer enlisted with the Marine Corps. Though he contracted malaria on Guadalcanal, he recovered in time to win eleven campaign ribbons, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts in just 32 months of combat service. As a lieutenant in command of a 64-man platoon, Bauer was wounded badly during the Battle of Okinawa, a fierce battle that killed all but six of his Marines. He recovered and was able to begin his Major League career in 1948 where he went on to become a three time All Star, and seven time World Series champ with the Yankees, and even won one more title as a manager just to round out his resume.
6. Jerry Coleman
Coleman holds the distinction of being the only professional athlete to see combat action in two different wars – World War II and the Korean War. He had initially delayed the start of his professional career to serve in WWII, and then left the game again to serve in Korea. Over the course of his service, Coleman, a four time World Series champion with the Yankees, flew more than 120 combat missions and was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses and thirteen Air Medals.
5. Bob Feller
Two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cleveland Indians star pitcher Bob Feller became the first (but far from only) Major Leaguer to volunteer for active duty service. Feller, a captain, spent four years serving as an anti-aircraft gunner on the USS Alabama – which earned him six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars. Following his discharge, Feller returned to baseball, finally retiring in 1956 after becoming a World Series champ, an eight-time All Star, and earning baseball’s Triple Crown.
4. Bob Kalsu
Bob Kalsu is one of the few professional football players serving in the Vietnam War who was killed. A former All-American tackled from the University of Oklahoma, the Buffalo Bills had used an eighth round pick on him in 1968, and he wound up starting every game of his rookie season. He wound up being in Vietnam as he was fulfilling his ROTC requirements. It was there in 1970 when his unit came under heavy mortar fire that Kalso lost his life.
3. Tom Landry
Most people remember Tom Landry – and his hat – as the legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys. However, most seem to forget that he was a pretty solid player himself. As a member of the New York Giants in 1954, Landry played well enough to be named to the Pro Bowl that season. While at college in Texas though, Landry served in the Army Air Forces during World War II where he was assigned to the 860th Bomb Squadron. Landry co-piloted the massive B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber on more than 30 combat missions – and even walked away from a crash landing after his plane ran out of fuel.
2. Ted Williams
One of the most legendary figures in Major League baseball history, Williams enlisted following his first Triple Crown season in 1942. During World War II, he’d served as a flight instructor, but when the Korean War broke out, Williams was called back to active duty and lost five years of his baseball career by serving as a Marine pilot. He’d flown nearly 40 combat missions before an inner ear infection DQ’ed his flight status.
1. Pat Tillman
In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks back in 2001, Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman gave up his career – a career that was netting him millions of dollars – to enlist. He joined the Army Rangers, intent on delivering justice to those who attacked the nation. His story, his passion, and his dedication were awe inspiring to most. And his untimely death – as a result of friendly fire – left many shaken. We’ve heard many different and oftentimes conflicting stories about what led to Pat Tillman’s death, and it’s hard to know what is the truth. What isn’t ambiguous at all, however, is that Pat Tillman gave his life for this country, for what he believed was right, and for that, we should all be grateful.
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