There is nobody that commands more respect than the brave men and women who risk their lives to serve their country. These people put everything at risk so that people can live in a free country, and to do this they leave their partner, friends, family and careers behind to respond to the call of duty. Throughout history there have been many athletes that have served in the military, and these individuals have therefore been respected and idolized by millions of people.
Most professional athletes have a luxurious lifestyle, but for many there are things more important in this world and they leave this behind so that they can serve their country and keep everyone and everything that they love safe. Some of these athletes have gone on to join the military at the peak of their careers, whilst there are also many that enlisted before their careers got going and were then able to thankfully come home safely and start their careers.
These athletes who served in the military will often have an upper hand on their opponents once they return to their sport. The discipline, concentration, ability to follow orders and physical challenges of serving in the military lends itself well to the field of play, and sometimes you can tell a player has served their country just by the way in which they conduct themselves whilst performing. Many coaches are also military veterans which again lends itself well to the role, most notably Gregg Popovich who served five years in the United States Airforce. Popovich runs his team like a well drilled regiment and the influence the experience had on him is clear.
These athletes have put their promising careers on the line so that they can serve their country, and for this they command the utmost respect. Fortunately most come home safe and can then continue with their career, but sadly this is not always the case.
Here are 20 brave athletes who put everything on hold to serve their country.
20 Jack Dempsey
Many accused boxer Jack Dempsey as a draft dodger as he had not served in the military when the U.S. entered World War I, and this made him unpopular with the public despite his incredible run of defending his heavyweight title five times over six years. Much later he would he would serve as lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard. He became a commander in 1944, and was finally given an honorable discharge in 1952. Although many did not like Dempsey earlier in his career, he put things right after his retirement when World War II began, and for this he became highly respected in the sporting, and wider, world.
19 Shauna Rohbock
Shauna Rohbock was a standout athlete at school, and she would go on to play professional soccer for the San Diego Spirit before the league collapsed. She then found a love for bobsled and began competing, including the 1999 U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton federation tryout. In 2000 she enlisted in the Utah Army National Guard where she remains today, and she continued to progress with her bobsleigh career. She became the driver for the 2006 Winter Olympics, and here she won a silver medal. She has gone on to win numerous World Championship medals whilst continuing to serve in the National Guard.
18 Rocky Marciano
Legendary heavyweight boxer Rocky Marciano is famous for winning an unrivaled 49 straight fights (43 won by knockout), but he did not start boxing until he was drafted into the army in 1943. Here he was stationed in Wales and Fort Lewis where he honed his skills and participated in amateur fights, seeing him win the 1946 Amateur Armed Forces boxing tournament. Two years later, Marciano was out of the army and began his career as a professional boxer, winning his first 16 fights by knockout. He won the world heavyweight championship in 1952, and would go on to defend his title six times (five by knockout) before retiring in 1956.
17 Joe DiMaggio
Joe DiMaggio enjoyed a hugely successful pro baseball career which saw him win nine World Series, three AL MVP awards and 13 All-Star selections as well as set a new record for most consecutive games with a hit (56). He stayed with the Yankees his entire career, but he put all of this on hold in 1943 for three seasons when he enlisted in the Army Air Forces. Here he became a physical education instructor and was stationed in the USA and became a sergeant. He then returned to the Yankees and picked up where he left off before retiring in 1951. He later married Marilyn Monroe and was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He may not have participated in active duty, but DiMaggio put his successful career on hold in his prime so that he could serve his country.
16 David Robinson
In 1983, a young David Robinson followed in his father's footsteps by enlisting in the Naval Academy. Here he continued to play basketball, and after a seven inch growth spurt he became a dominant force on the court and picked up the Naismith Player of the Year. He was the hottest prospect in the country and entered the 1987 draft, where he was selected with the 1st pick by the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs picked Robinson even though he still had to serve a two-year commitment before he could make his debut.
He turned out to be worth the wait, winning Rookie of the Year in 1989 and going on to win MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and two NBA titles. Due to his Naval background he earned the nickname “The Admiral” and is widely considered to be one of the greatest centers of all time. Despite being on the brink of becoming a global superstar, Robinson honoured his commitment to the Navy and earned the respect of the nation (in particular Gregg Popovich, I’d assume).
15 Hobey Baker
Clearly a man of many talents, Hobey Baker became one of the most respected athletes of all time. He is the only athlete to be named to both the college football hall of fame and hockey hall of fame, but he also served his country in World War I after he enlisted and was trained as a pilot. Baker sadly was killed shortly after the war had finished while flying a test plane, but his legacy as one of the greatest hockey players to grace the ice lives on. Baker attended Princeton where he guided both the football team and hockey team to national championships, and now an award named after him is awarded to the top U.S. college hockey player each year. Whilst in the army, Baker painted his plane in Princeton’s orange and black.
14 Jerry Coleman
A true American hero, MLB player Jerry Coleman served in both World War 2 and the Korean War, and for his service he received 13 Air Medals and two Distinguished Flying Crosses. The second baseman for the Yankees interrupted his career to fly in both wars, and during his playing days he won four World Championships and was named MVP in the 1950 World Series. He went on to become a Hall of Fame broadcaster and was famous for phrases such as “oh, doctor!” and “you can hang a star on that!” Coleman sadly passed in 2014 at the age of 89, but he will always be remembered for his contributions both to his country and baseball.
13 Warren Spahn
No left handed player has more wins than Warren Spahn, who spent most of his career with the Braves and would win a World Series title, a Cy Young award and earned 14 All-Star appearances to warrant a Hall of Fame election in 1973. He made his debut with the Braves in 1942, but a season and a half into his career he was drafted into the Army and would spend three years in Europe. Here he played an important role in a number of key battles, and for his service he earned a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, a battlefield commission and a presidential citation. He then returned to the Braves and went on to have a legendary career. In 2003, the Braves erected a bronze statue of Spahn at their field in Atlanta.
12 Ty Cobb
Ty Cobb is widely considered to be one of the greatest baseball players of all time, and he set dozens of records and won an incredible 13 batting titles (nine consecutive). When he was at the peak of his career, Cobb applied for the Chemical Warfare Service in 1918, and he was soon accepted and called up. After accelerated training, Cobb and his unit sailed to France where they undertook training exercises. Something went wrong on one of these exercises, seeing Cobb and his unit be exposed to poison. Many of his unit died due to the exposure, but Cobb was lucky to survive. After the war was over, Cobb returned to baseball in 1919 where he would win his final batting title.
11 Joe Louis
One of the all-time great boxers, Joe Louis became heavyweight boxing champion in 1937, and he would keep hold of this title for a mammoth 12 years and 25 fights. During his reign as heavyweight champion he enlisted in the army after participating in a 1942 charity fight for the Navy, and he also donated much of his winnings to military relief funds. Louis would travel and fight at charity events to boost morale, but in addition to this he also helped to encourage African Americans to enlist and ensure that they were well taken care of and had opportunities for advancement (including legendary baseball star Jackie Robinson). Upon leaving the military and returning to the ring to continue defending his title, Louis was awarded the Legion of Merit medal.
10 Ted Williams
Hall of Famer Ted Williams is widely considered to be one of the greatest hitters of all time. He had a sensational career that saw him win two AL MVP awards and the Triple Crown twice, he had a career batting average of .344, hit 521 home runs and is the last player to hit over .400 for a season. From 1943 to 1945, Williams stepped away from the game to serve in the Navy, where he trained as a pilot and gunner. He then returned to baseball and picked up where he left off, but a few years later Williams once again responded to the call of duty and saw combat in the Korean War. He flew 39 combat missions before leaving the Marines in 1953. Once again he returned and continued to put up astonishing numbers until he retired in 1960. Overall, Williams missed five years of his stellar career to serve his country and this is a huge amount of time for any athlete.
9 Bob Feller
Bob Feller was the first baseball player to enlist in WW2, doing so just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Feller was in the prime of his career at this stage and he would spend four years with the U.S. Navy, afterwards stating “I didn’t worry about losing my baseball career. We needed to win the war and I wanted to do my part”. He spent his entire playing career with the Cleveland Indians, and would retire a World Series Champion and 8x All-Star, he earned the Triple Crown and became famous for pitching faster than anyone in his generation. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1962.
8 Roger Staubach
In 1961, Roger Staubach enrolled in the Naval Academy. Here the quarterback begun to shine and would lead the team to a 9-1 record in his junior year, compiling 15 TDs for the season. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1963, and he then became eligible for the draft in the spring of 1964. Despite being a hot prospect, many teams passed up on Staubach as he had a four year Naval commitment, which included a year in Vietnam. He was selected by the Cowboys in the 10th round, and after graduating he began his service. He then reported to Cowboys training camp in 1969 and begun his career as a pro football player. Staubach eventually got the starting QB role, and would go on to win two Super Bowls (and one Super Bowl MVP). He would go on to be elected to the Hall of Fame, but importantly he also served his country for a lengthy period of his promising career.
7 Yogi Berra
Few players are as decorated as Yogi Berra, who is known to be one of the greatest catchers of all time. Over his career with the Yankees, Berra won 10 championships, three AL MVP awards and played in 18 All-Star games. Before this incredible career got underway, Yogi Berra served in the Navy and was involved in the historic and world famous D-Day invasion on Normandy Beach. Berra was part of a six man Navy rocket boat, and he was responsible for launching rockets and firing machine guns at the German defenses on the beach (gunner’s mate). He then returned home and would become the Yankees catcher in 1946, and after retiring in 1963 he would become the team manager.
6 Willie Mays
Willie Mays was first called up to the majors in 1951 for the Giants, and after helping them reach the World Series he was named the NL Rookie of the Year. Things were looking very promising for Mays, who possessed extraordinary defensive skills, but he was then drafted for military duty in 1952 and served in the Korean War. He missed an entire season, but this did not show on his return to the Giants. That season, Mays led the National League with a batting average of .345, he would win MVP and guide the Giants to a World Series championship. In this series, against the Cleveland Indians, Mays made “The Catch”, where he made an improbable running, over the shoulder catch. He became known as one of the greatest all-around players to play the game, earning 12 Golden Gloves and 24 All-Star game selections. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.
5 Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson is an MLB legend and important figure in sports history. He became the first African American to play in the major leagues in 1947, but prior to this he was assigned to a segregated Army unit in 1942. Here he served as second lieutenant but would not see combat, and in 1944 he was arrested and court-martialed after refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus. He was later acquitted and received an honorable discharge. This would be the first barrier he broke down, and he soon made history by becoming the first black player to play in the MLB. In his first year Robinson won Rookie of the Year, and he would go on to win NL MVP in 1949 and win a World Series in 1955. He became the first African American to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962, and to honor his importance every MLB team retired his jersey no.42 in 1997.
4 Rocky Bleier
After being selected with the 16th pick by the Steelers in 1968, Rocky Bleier was drafted into the army after his rookie year to help in Vietnam. His platoon was ambushed in 1969 and he was left with shrapnel from an exploding grenade in his leg and foot. When Bleier returned to the States he reported to Steelers training camp in 1970, despite struggling to walk or run and losing a huge amount of weight. Despite being waived, he continued to fight and eventually bulked up and became a starter in 1974. He would catch the decisive TD pass from Terry Bradshaw to win an epic Super Bowl XIII and would go on to win another three to become a Steelers, and national, hero.
3 Bob Kalsu
The story of former Buffalo Bills offensive lineman Bob Kalsu is a tragic one, as he was unfortunately killed in action after being called up to serve in Vietnam. He is the only professional football player to die in combat in the war, and this also came at the time that his wife had given birth to his second child. Kalso had only played his rookie season with the Bills and had both impressed and endeared himself to the organisation, seeing him win the Buffalo Bills Rookie of the Year. He has since been selected to the Bills Wall of Fame and remains an important figure in their organization.
2 Jack Lummus
Drafted by the Giants in 1941, Jack Lummus showed great promise and helped the Giants to the Eastern Division title. Shortly after this, Lummus joined the U.S. Marine Corps and would become company commander. In February 1945, he and his platoon stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima in what has become a famous battle where nearly 7,000 Americans died in the month long battle. This battle gave the world one of the most famous photos of all time, of six marines raising the U.S. flag on top of Mt. Suribachi taken by Joe Rosenthal. Despite suffering heavy blows and losing his legs, Lummus continued to battle on but was then hit by a landmine. He was taken to a battlefield hospital, where his last words on his death bed were “I guess the New York Giants have lost the services of a damn good end.” Lummus was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor which was presented to his mother in 1946.
1 Pat Tillman
Pat Tillman was selected by the Arizona Cardinals in 1998, and he was enjoying a stellar professional career that saw him set a new team record for number of tackles in the 2000 season. After 9/11 and the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, Tillman decided to leave his career behind and turn down a $3.6 million, three year contract to fight the war on terror. He married his girlfriend before he and his brother trained to become Army Rangers.
He served in several tours, including Iraq, before he was deployed to Afghanistan. Here, Tillman was tragically killed in action in 2004 in what turned out to be a friendly fire incident. Tillman was posthumously awarded Purple Heart and Silver Star medals, and his number was retired by his college (Arizona State), as well as by the Cardinals. In 2010, he was inducted into the College Hall of Fame.