Stars And (Their) Stripes: Athletes Who Served In The Military
Going to war on the field takes on a totally different meaning for these athletes who actually served their country and know firsthand what the expression really means. These were the athletes who swapped pads for bullet-proof vests and football helmets for combat helmets, bats for guns. Here are some of the most notable sports heroes who were actual heroes in every sense of the word.
Ted Williams, aka “The Splendid Splinter,” is widely regarded as one of the greatest players in baseball history. With amazing eye-hand coordination, Williams quickly became one of the best hitters in the game, and is the last player to hit above .400 for a season. It’s that same combination of coordination and reflexes that also made Williams one of the best fighter pilots, as well.
Williams’ baseball career was interrupted twice due to mandatory military service as a Marine during both World War II and the Korean War. During the Korean War, Williams, a Naval aviator, flew 39 combat missions and became one of the most decorated athletes to ever serve in the military.
The most famous athlete-veteran since World War II, Pat Tillman’s story is both inspiring and tragic. On one hand, the former safety from Arizona State became a national hero after turning down multiple million-dollar contract offers and chose to give up football for the military. Following 9/11, Tillman and his brother enlisted in the U.S. Army and became Rangers. Both of them participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
On the flip side, his story is heartbreaking. On his second deployment — this time to Afghanistan — Tillman was killed by friendly fire, becoming the only athlete-veteran casualty since the Vietnam War. What’s more horrible than his death was the government’s deceit and lack of transparency regarding his death. Originally, reports stated that Tillman was killed by an enemy combatant. Later, the truth finally emerged and the record was corrected that Tillman was killed by friendly fire.
A great patriot and even greater boxer, Joe Louis is an American hero. Widely considered to be one of the greatest boxers of all time, Louis defended his belt 25 times and is known for some historic mega-fights that captured the attention of the nation. It was Louis’ impact outside of the ring, however, that dwarfed his boxing accomplishments. Prior to his enlistment in the Army, Louis donated large chunks of his purse to the Army and Navy as America fully ramped up its war effort. But that wasn’t enough for the champion. Louis was later drafted into the U.S. Army and served in a special role, touring the country doing charity boxing matches to boost morale and raise money.
Louis, the proud American that he was, wasn’t blind to the social injustices going on at the time, however. When asked why he was doing so much to promote and benefit the Army, which at the time was segregated and deeply racist, Louis responded, “Lots of things wrong with America, but Hitler ain’t going to fix them.”
Imagine having to work your whole life to achieve your goal of becoming a professional football player. Then, one season after realizing your dream, you are drafted into the United States Army to go fight in Vietnam. While in Vietnam lugging around a machine gun in the oppressive heat, with your football career — your dream — on hold, you are severely wounded. A bullet has hit you in the leg, and, a short time later, a grenade blast has sent shrapnel spiraling into your other leg. Finally, you are evacuated from the chaos and shipped to a hospital in Japan where the doctor tells you that your dream to return to the NFL is just that, a dream.
This story isn’t fiction. It’s Rocky Bleier’s, a four-time Super Bowl Champion and Vietnam War veteran. And that story is true, except it was Bleier, not the doctor, who determined his fate. After coming back from the war, Bleier rehabbed his leg and fought for two years to earn a roster spot with the Steelers. When he finally did make the team, it came as a massive surprise to everyone except Rocky. As a running back, Bleier teamed up with Franco Harris to lead the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories and became one of only six running back tandems in history to each gain 1,000 yards rushing in the same season.
Yogi Berra is fondly remembered for his famous “Yogi-isms” and his remarkable baseball career. A Yankee for every season but one, Berra has some astounding stats that are rarely seen in modern sports, including 18 All-Star appearances and an almost unimaginable 10 World Series rings. Berra’s impressive career, however, could have been over before it started.
Before joining the Majors, Berra was manning a machine gun spraying bullets at the Germans perched high atop the cliffs of Normandy. That’s right, the goofy Hall of Fame catcher was in the Navy during World War II, participating in the massive D-Day invasion. For his heroics, Berra earned numerous medals, such as the Purple Heart, and his unit was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation.
Hall of Fame quarterback and Heisman Award winner Roger Staubach was one of the nation’s most prolific college players. Yet his path to stardom in the NFL wasn’t direct. Following his impressive career at the Naval Academy, Staubach fulfilled his military commitment and served a year long tour of duty in Vietnam with the Naval Supply Corps.
After his tour of duty, Staubach went onto to play for the Dallas Cowboys, where he led his team to two Super Bowl victories and six Pro Bowls. Post-retirement, Staubach was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. After football, Staubach founded a successful real estate company worth millions of dollars.
Most notable for his 56-game hitting streak, Joe DiMaggio played his entire career for the New York Yankees, becoming a 13-time All-Star, 9-time World Series champion, and 3-time MVP. However, like many players of his generation, his stellar career was interrupted during WWII. But unlike some aforementioned athlete-veterans, DiMaggio’s role in the war was comfortable. For the two and half years he served, he was primarily stationed in California and Hawaii as a physical education instructor. When the day was over, he’d be on the beach sipping beers or playing baseball with his buddies.
Although his role in the Army was relatively easy, he did leave the game for three years during his prime and could have, if he fought for it, avoided military service in general thanks to his role as a star ball player.
One of baseball’s all-time greats, Willie Mays’ outstanding career saw him appear in 24 All-Star games, win one World Series, and make one of the most famous catches in baseball history, the over the shoulder basket catch more commonly seen on the gridiron than the baseball diamond.
According to Mays, he also caught a bit of a tough break when he was drafted to serve in the Korean War, a war he had zero interest in fighting. In total, Mays missed 260 games while serving. Mays has said that had he been able to play baseball during that time, it would have been him, not Hank Aaron, who would have broken Babe Ruth’s home run record.
Following the hiatus, Mays returned to the big leagues and clobbered home runs until his retirement in 1973.
Born in Van Meter, Iowa, Bob “The Heater From Van Meter” Feller was one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers in history and helped guide Cleveland to their most recent World Series title in 1948. Feller played for 18 seasons and racked up eight All-Star appearances, led the Majors in strikeouts seven times, and was a six-time AL wins leader. And those numbers could be significantly better had he not given up three seasons to serve in the U.S. Navy during WWII.
Originally, Feller had the option to serve stateside as a physical education instructor and play on military baseball teams. However, Feller was determined to serve in a more meaningful way and fought his way to a combat position. As a Naval Chief Petty Officer, Feller served aboard the USS Alabama and saw combat in the Pacific Theater, becoming a decorated sailor along the way.
After his service, Feller returned to the Majors and pitched 12 more seasons before retiring following the 1956 season.
After an impressive rookie campaign in which the Yankees’ Whitey Ford was awarded the AL Rookie of the Year Award by Sporting News, the young pitcher with blindingly light-blonde hair was forced to switch uniforms and enter a different campaign: the Korean War.
Ford would miss the next two seasons serving stateside in the United States Army. Fortunately for Ford, who would become a 10-time All-Star and six-time champion, his primary role in the military was pitching. He played for the army baseball teams and jokingly called his service “rough” because the army wanted him to pitch three times per week.
The man who broke the color barrier in baseball was an American hero years before he put on a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform and became the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues. Fighting institutional racism in baseball is what Robinson is best known for, but that fight for equality preceded his ball playing days.
While in the U.S. Army, Robinson, who was determined to be an officer and serve in a combat position, was court martialed on unfounded charges. The court-martial proceedings essentially derailed Robinson’s military career and prevented him from joining his unit overseas. Following this racist incident, Robinson asked to be discharged from the Army and was given an honorable discharge.
Then Robinson had to continue fighting another war, this time against a racist society who was determined to keep baseball segregated. Following his military service, Robinson played in the Negro Leagues before being signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Minor League squad, the Montreal Royals. After proving himself in the Minors, the Dodgers decided to call up Robinson in 1947, a historic feat for Robinson and the African-American community.
Despite facing overt racism on and off the field throughout his career, Robinson managed to perform at an exceptional level and became a six-time All-Star, World Series champion, and NL MVP. Since retiring, Robinson had his number 42 retired across baseball and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
His legacy as a player, patriot, and citizen who fought for what was right, regardless of how that fight would impact his life and career, will never be forgotten and has been rightfully woven into the American story.
Before Pat Tillman was killed in action, Bob Kalsu was the last NFL player to be killed while serving in the armed forces. Kalsu was an All-American tackle at Oklahoma University before being drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the 1968. After his rookie season, where he was the Bills’ starting guard, Kalsu, a member of Oklahoma’s ROTC program, fulfilled his commitment to serve in the military and was sent to Vietnam.
In Vietnam, the towering Kalsu served with the prestigious 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. The day before his second child was born back in America, a mortar killed Kalsu as he and his team faced heavy enemy fire.
Four years in the Marine Corps with stops in Kosovo and Afghanistan. That was Ahmard Hall’s path after high school, a path he chose when no college programs offered the Texas native a scholarship opportunity. After his service, the lifelong University of Texas fan enrolled at UT under the G.I. Bill. At Texas, Hall walked onto the team as a fullback and was a member of the 2005 National Championship team.
Just as he had walked on to Texas, Hall had to battle his way into the NFL. He went undrafted and, after showcasing his athletic ability and unstoppable work-ethic, Hall signed with the Titans as a 26-year-old rookie. In total, the fullback lasted 85 games over six seasons and was a team captain.
Nicknamed the Admiral, center David Robinson never quite reached that ranking but honorably served his country nonetheless. Considered one of the greatest athletes to attend the Naval Academy, Robinson was chosen first overall by the Spurs in the 1987 NBA Draft. But before he could suit up for San Antonio, Robinson had to fulfill his active duty obligation.
He spent two years in the Navy, mostly at a submarine base in Georgia before his Navy contract expired. Due to Robinson’s height, the standard five-year commitment Naval Academy Cadets sign on for was reduced to two years.
When the center did make it to the league, there were minimal signs of rust. A Hall of Fame center, Robinson’s career accolades are lengthy, but some highlights include Rookie of the Year, two-time champion, 10-time All-Star, and two-time Olympic Gold medalist. He’s also the only Naval Academy graduate to get drafted first overall.
The man with an arm that wouldn’t tire. Tom Seaver doesn’t have the overwhelming stats that many other Hall of Fame pitchers have, but what he does have is consistency and longevity. Over the course of his 20-year career, the former Marine who enlisted straight out of high school, pitched 231 career games, won a World Series, was a three-time Cy Young Award winner, and 12-time All-Star.
When Seaver was elected into Cooperstown, he set the record for highest percentage of votes at 98.84%. Ken Griffey Jr. would later eclipse this mark with 99.32%. Until Mike Piazza went into Cooperstown, Seaver was the only player in the Hall to don a Mets cap on his plaque.
It’s pretty amazing that a pitcher who holds the MLB record for no-hitters (seven) and strikeouts (5,714), who has his jersey retired by three teams, who led the league in strikeouts 11 times and who played for 27 seasons, never won a Cy Young Award. It’s pretty amazing that, despite the dominance that spanned four decades of baseball, one of Ryan’s most well-remembered highlights was his flawless decimation of Robin Ventura of the Chicago White Sox in a one-sided brawl.
Ryan’s military career during the Vietnam War was short-lived and was spent in the United States. It did, however, force the future Hall of Famer to miss one year of professional baseball while he was with the Mets. Maybe it was basic training that taught him those sweet fighting moves.
The dapper Tom Landry was head coach for the Cowboys during the franchises’ first two Super Bowls victories and popularized the 4-3 defense and shotgun formation. Rightfully so, Landry is most well-known as a head coach, but before his time in a suit jacket and fedora hat, Landry was a versatile Pro Bowl and All-Pro player for the New York Giants.
And before Landry was a professional football player, he was a combat fighter pilot during WWII. He flew over 30 missions and survived a daring crash landing when his B-17 bomber ran out of fuel. That explains why Landry was such a calm and collected coach. The two-minute drill doesn’t compare to crash landing your plane.
The second man to break baseball’s color barrier and first African-American to play in the American League, Larry Doby led an impressive career that culminated with a plaque in Cooperstown. The center fielder was seven-time All-Star and World Series champion while playing the majority of his career with the Cleveland Indians.
But before Doby was a Major Leaguer, he was a Negro League player. During that tenure, Doby’s career was interrupted due to his service with the United States Navy, where he served on a variety of bases both stateside and in the Pacific.
Although definitely less famous than Jackie Robinson, Doby’s impact on the game was still profound and deserves more recognition than it currently receives.
Roberto Clemente didn’t break MLB’s color barrier, but he broke a massive cultural barrier that players of Hispanic origin faced. Born in Puerto Rico, Clemente got his first taste of professional baseball in the Minor Leagues. Warding off overt racism and discrimination, Clemente, who had trouble speaking English and was black, needed to both ignore the constant provocations he faced and prove himself more than the average player in order to get a call from the Majors.
When the time did come, the outfielder was ready. Drafted by the Pirates, Clemente spent his entire career in Pittsburgh. He won two World Series, an MVP, and 12 Gold Glove Awards. The man was also a feared hitter and joined the exclusive 3,000 hit club during his final season.
Besides being a Pirate, Clemente was a patriot and served in the USMC. He spent six months of active duty at Parris Island and served six years in the Marine Corps Reserves.
He tragically died in 1972 when his plane crashed while delivering goods to Nicaragua following a devastating earthquake.
Mike Anderson didn’t play football in high school. He was in the band. Fast forward a decade and Mike Anderson is the 27-year old rookie for the Denver Broncos that, at the time, set the team’s rookie rushing record. So how did he get there? Via the Marines. After high school, Anderson joined the Marines so he could save up money for college. In the Marines, Anderson went on several peacekeeping missions to Africa. In his spare time, he swapped his kevlar for football pads, suiting up for a Marine football team.
There, a scout from a junior college noticed the potential in Anderson and offered him a spot on the team once his service was complete.
Two years of solid play at the junior college earned Anderson a spot on the Utah Utes football team. Two seasons later, Anderson joined the Broncos as a sixth-round pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.
Anderson played seven years in the league and rushed for over 1,000 yards twice, including during his rookie season.
Senator, presidential candidate, shooting guard, and member of the Air Force Reserve. Bill Bradley was a man of many talents. As a guard for Princeton, Bradley was one of the more prolific Ivy Leaguers in history. In 1964, Bradley won a gold medal as a member of the United States Olympic squad. Now one of the more decorated amateur athletes in basketball, Bradley elected to attend Oxford College as a Rhodes Scholar, deferring his NBA career.
The highly educated and talented Bradley yet again delayed his entry into the NBA by joining the Air Force Reserves following his time at Oxford. After six months of active duty, Bradley finally made his NBA debut.
In total, the Senator’s highly-decorated NBA career saw him win two NBA titles and appear in one All-Star game.
Jack Dempsey has consistently been ranked among the greatest boxers of all time. He was a world champion and considered one of the most powerful punchers of his generation. Many Americans also considered Dempsey a slacker for not drafting into World War I. With America fully engaged in WWII and Dempsey being recently retired from the ring, the timing was right for him to redeem himself and his tarnished reputation. No one questioned his punching ability, but everyone questioned his character as citizen.
During WWII, Dempsey served with the Coast Guard and was stationed in the Pacific. In the Coast Guard, Dempsey was a physical education instructor and used his status as a boxer to raise money for the war efforts. He boxed at fundraisers across the country.
Hank Greenberg, one of the greatest Jewish athletes of all time and nicknamed the Hebrew Hammer, was a formidable slugger primarily for the Detroit Tigers. In his ninth season, 1940, Greenberg became the first pro baseball player to register for the draft. Following his enlistment, Greenberg trained to be a tank gunner and missed all but 19 games during the 1941 season due to training. But, due to his age, Greenberg was honorably discharged from the Army two days before Pearl Harbor. A few months after the attack, Greenberg re-enlisted into the Army. Greenberg, wanting to serve in the highest capacity possible, requested to serve overseas. Now a Captain, Greenberg served in the China/India/Burma Theater of Operations doubling as both a scout for bombers and a physical educator.
When the war concluded, Greenberg served for a total of 47 months and missed nearly four years of professional baseball. His time in the Army turned out to be the longest tenure of any baseball player.
Greenberg played three seasons following his return to the States and retired a two-time champion and two-time MVP.
John Wooden — The Wizard of Westwood — was and still is the greatest basketball coach in UCLA’s illustrious history. As a coach, Wooden won 10 National Championships in a 12-year span. However, to become a legendary coach, one usually needs to be a respectable athlete first, and Wooden was. Playing at Purdue University during the pre-NCAA Tournament years, Wooden was an All-American and national champion.
Post college, Wooden enlisted in the United States Navy and served for two years as a physical education instructor. Due to appendicitis, Wooden was prohibited from going to the Pacific. Since Wooden’s retirement, UCLA basketball has relatively floundered, failing to find the success they once had.
The most wins in baseball history for a left handed pitcher belongs to Warren Spahn. A 17-time All-Star, World Series Champion, and Hall of Famer, Spahn dominated on the mound. Widely regarded as the greatest lefty of all time, Spahn’s numbers could be even more impressive had he not missed three full years due to his time in the Army, where he was just as decorated as he was on the diamond.
As a combat engineer, Spahn spent time in Europe and fought in the famous Battle of the Bulge and at the Ludendorff Bridge. For his heroic actions in Europe, Spahn was awarded a Purple Heart and was promoted to a Second Lieutenant. His unit received the Distinguished Unit Emblem.
Returning to baseball following the war and injury was, by comparison, a walk in the park.
Dual-sport athlete and Princeton graduate Hobey Baker was an All-American in every possible way. At Princeton, Baker excelled in both hockey and football, becoming a team captain and being named the school’s best athlete. After graduation, Baker was at a loss and his life lacked purpose. Enter flying, and later World War I. As a pilot, Baker was eager to see combat and deployed to France to fight. As a pilot, Baker racked up confirmed kills and became a highly-decorated pilot with the 103rd Aero Squadron. Shortly following the armistice, Baker was tragically killed in a plane crash outside of Toul, France, while testing a repaired plane.
Posthumously, Baker was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, the Hockey Hall of Fame, and the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. To date, he’s the only player to accomplish this.
The eponymous Hobey Baker Award, founded in 1981, is given annually to the best player in college hockey.
Usually, the Big East Player of the Year, third-team All-American, and first-round draft pick (25th overall in 1999 NBA Draft) goes on to have an impressive basketball career. Usually, they don’t join the military following the conclusion of their playing days. But Tim James was a man of many mysterious, one who defined the norm and veered left when everyone went right.
And so Tim James defied tradition and went on the road less traveled. After earning more than $3 million playing professional, James opted for a different experience and enlisted in the Army. He deployed to Iraq and generally kept his NBA identity hidden from fellow soldiers.
Bobsledding is a relatively obscure sport that resurfaces about once every four years during the Winter Olympics. But when the Olympics are in full effect, and the country is fully engaged with their athletic-heroes competing abroad, bobsledding becomes one of the more household events in the games. And when America, led by Steven Holcomb, won gold during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, breaking a 62-year gold medal drought, he became a national hero. And when he won two Bronze medals during the 2014 Winter Olympics, Holcomb solidified himself as a bobsledding legend.
However, before Holcomb was an Olympic hero, he was a hero wearing a different uniform. Holcomb was a member of the Utah National Guard from 1999 to 2006 and received numerous military commendations.
Holcomb shockingly passed away at the age of 37 in 2017.
Ken Norton Sr.
The second man to defeat Muhammad Ali was Ken Norton, the powerful heavyweight from Jacksonville. Enlisting in the Marines, where he’d serve for three years, wasn’t his first plan. But following an argument with his college coach, Norton decided to join and become a man. There, he’d become more than a man. He’d become one of the greatest boxers in the Marine Corps. There, he was taught discipline and left hooks.
Following his time in the Corps, Norton, a Hall of Fame boxer, got his big break. He was offered the chance to fight Ali, and that big break turned into a big break for Ali. Norton, the winner of that superfight, broke Ali’s jaw in the later rounds. Despite losing the final two rematches — both close bouts — Norton is remembered as a champion.
Rocky Marciano retired a perfect 49-0, the only heavyweight to retire with a perfect record. In 1943, four years before his first professional fight, Marciano was drafted into the U.S. Army. Marciano was a combat engineer stationed in Wales, where he and his unit were decorated for their actions in securing the English Channel. The Army was also where Rocky unofficially began his boxing career.
When Rocky turned pro in 1947, the bodies started hitting the canvas in rapid succession. He retired from the sport with one of the highest knockout-to-win percentages in boxing history and that perfect record. Sadly, this Rocky was not the namesake behind the movie series that made Philadelphia famous, “Rocky.”
The list of Air Force Academy graduates who have played in the NFL is small. It’s even smaller when counting Super Bowl winners. But Chad Hennings, a defensive lineman for the Cowboys who graduated in 1988, was able to accomplish both. In fact, he won three Super Bowls and was a key member of the dynasty’s vaunted defense. Yet, like many others on this list, Hennings needed special clearance to shorten his service. Because of that, he started off as a 26-year-old rookie. In his case, shortening his service length was even more rare because he was a pilot.
Thanks to a lucky break, Hennings, who flew combat missions over the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s, was able to shave off four years of his service. Dallas took a chance on the former All-American and Outland Trophy winner once he was released from the Air Force. The move proved to be very successful as Hemming was a team leader and solid player.
Leon Spinks fought for his country in more ways than one. First, he was a United States Marine. While a Marine, Spinks learned to box and the latent talent soon became an obvious skill. While serving in the Marine Corps, Spinks went to the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal and won a gold medal. One could say that Spinks literally fought for his country.
After the Olympics, Spinks turned pro and won his first title fight against Muhammad Ali in 1978. It was the first time in Ali’s career that he lost his belt in the ring. Spinks had an up and down career that was marked by massive victories and a bunch of close, crushing defeats.