Notable NFL Players with Military Experience
January 28, 2014 by Jake Butler
When applied to the world of sports, the term veteran describes a player who has enjoyed a long and successful career – usually out of sheer will, determination and hard work.
In that way, players share a lot of things in common with military veterans. That's probably why so many men in the NFL have put their careers on hold to answer the call of duty over the years. Since the league's creation in 1920, the NFL has seen well over 1,200 players, coaches and front office personnel serve in the military. Many eventually returned to continue on with long and storied careers, while others made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
With the Super Bowl just around the corner, it's time to reflect on this game's rich tradition and the impact the NFL has had on military service over the years. This post will highlight some of the most memorable NFL players and coaches ever to serve in the military – so let's get to it!
WORLD WAR II
The list of World War II veterans connected to the NFL is by far the most extensive of any war, with more than 1,000 men total. Among them, the most significant may be the two who were awarded a Medal of Honor for their bravery in battle: Jack Lummus and Maurice Britt. Lummus fought and died at the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945 at the age of 29. Britt played for the Detroit Lions in 1941 and later lost his right arm in a battle against the Germans in Mignano, Italy.
In total, 23 men of the NFL gave their lives in battle – 21 players, one head coach and one team executive.
Although he has no direct connection to the NFL, Joe Foss also received a Medal of Honor for his heroism. He was the commissioner of the American Football League, the NFL's rival league, from 1959 to 1966. During that time, he helped the league expand and gain exposure on national television. He stepped down in 1966 just months before the two leagues worked out a deal to create the Super Bowl.
Chuck Bednarik (photo from: profootbalhof.com)
In total, the list of WWII veterans includes 44 Hall-of-Famers. Among them are players, coaches, owners and a commissioner – big names like Chuck Bednarik, Wellington Mara, Tom Landry, George Halas and Pete Rozelle.
- Chuck Bednarik enlisted in the Air Force immediately out of high school and he flew on 30 combat missions over Germany during WWII, becoming a decorated B24 waist-gunner. What happened after the war? Just a Hall of Fame career with the Philadelphia Eagles, starting both ways – at center on offense and linebacker on defense. He won two championships, was selected to the Pro Bowl eight times in his career and eventually had his number retired.
- After serving from 1943-1946 in the Navy, reaching rank of Lt. Commander, Wellington Mara went on to become one of the most prominent and influential owners in NFL history. He inherited the New York Giants franchise from his father and would oversee the team as it won six NFL titles, including two Super Bowls.
- Tom Landry represents the coaches here among the WWII veterans. Inspired by his brother, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942. Landry co-piloted a B-17 in more than 30 combat missions and even survived a crash landing in Belgium. He became the first head coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 1960, eventually leading them to two Super Bowl Championships. He is also revered for inventing the 4-3 defense, which is still widely used at all levels of football.
- George Halas, a Hall of Fame coach and owner of the Chicago Bears, is one of the most significant men on the list. He originally served as an ensign in the Navy during World War I. While he's typically remembered as a coach and an owner, he was also a great player – he was the MVP of the 1919 Rose Bowl, a game played between the Great Lakes Navy and the Mare Island Marines in place of other college football teams that had been greatly depleted by the war. Halas was one of the original NFL coaches when the league formed in 1920. He would again answer the call of duty in World War II, rejoining the Navy as a lieutenant commander. After serving for 20 months, he was released from duty with the rank of captain in 1946. Halas' career features 324 wins as a head coach and eight NFL titles as either a coach or owner. His Bears are now remembered as the "Monsters of the Midway." He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
- Pete Rozelle was drafted into the Navy in 1944, serving 18 months on an oil tanker in the Pacific. His career in the NFL would turn out to be much more impactful. He worked for the L.A. Rams for a number of years before becoming the commissioner of the NFL in 1960. During his time, he oversaw the AFL-NFL merger, helped create the Super Bowl and worked to establish the NFL at the forefront of American sports culture. He took the league from 12 teams playing in front of half-empty stadiums to 28 teams playing a 16-game schedule in front of sold-out crowds and millions of TV viewers.
The Korean War
In 1949, the NFL had just negotiated a deal to merge with the rival All-American Football Conference, which added the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Colts and San Francisco 49ers to the league. One rival was eliminated, but another war was on the horizon.
In 1950, President Truman ordered U.S. forces into Korea, and once again the men of the NFL answered the call of duty. In total, 226 NFL personnel served in the military during the Korean War. Among them are Hall-of-Famers Dick "Night Train" Lane, Ollie Matson, Mike McCormack, Les Richter and Don Shula. A sixth Hall-of-Famer, Al Davis, was never deployed to Korea but did land his first coaching gig with the Army base squad at Fort Belvoir, Virginia in 1953. He went on to a prominent career as the owner of the Oakland Raiders, coining the now-famous "just win, baby" catch phrase.
Shula is perhaps the most notable of the six. He served for 11 months in the Ohio National Guard between stints with the Cleveland Browns in the early 50s. He played seven seasons as a defensive back before moving on to coaching in 1958. Shula is best known for leading the Miami Dolphins to the NFL's first and only undefeated season, going 17-0 en route to a Super Bowl championship.
Miraculously, all 226 of the NFL personnel involved in the Korean War made it home safe.
Rocky Bleier (source: armchairgeneral.com )
The war in Vietnam, however, would claim the lives of two NFL players. Lt. Bob Kalsu played 14 games at guard for the Buffalo Bills in 1969. He was killed by mortar fire while defending Base Ripcord in 1970 with the 101st Airborne.
Maj. Don Steinbrunner only played one season with the Cleveland Browns in 1953 before retiring with a knee injury. He was sent to Vietnam in 1966, where he flew a C-123 in the Air Force. His aircraft was shot down on July 20, 1967, and all five men on board were killed. He was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart for his service.
In total, 29 members of the NFL served in Vietnam, including Hall-of-Famers Charlie Joiner, Ray Nitschke and Roger Staubach, as well as four-time Super Bowl champion Rocky Bleier.
Staubach in particular is one of the most famous NFL war veterans. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1963 as quarterback of Navy, although his Midshipmen fell short of a national championship in losing to Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
He would put his NFL career on hold and serve in the Navy Supply Corps from 1964 to 1968. He resigned his naval commission in 1969 and joined the Dallas Cowboys, even though he was drafted 5 years earlier.
Staubach played 11 seasons in the NFL, earning six Pro Bowl selections and one NFL MVP in 1971. He and coach Tom Landry led the Cowboys to four total Super Bowls, winning two of them.
Pat Tillman, Mike Anderson, and Chris Gezzi (source: www.nfl.com)
Of all the NFL personnel who have served over the years, only one man gave up millions of dollars to do so. Pat Tillman, inspired by the events of 9/11, left the Arizona Cardinals at the peak of his career to join the Army Rangers. He famously rejected the team's 3-year, $3.6 million contract offer in the process. Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, but lives on as a shining example of patriotism in an all-volunteer military.
Other notable recent veterans:
- Mike Anderson spent four years in the Marine Corps before winning the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2000 when he rushed for 1,487 yards as a Denver Bronco.
- Chad Hennings, a former A-10 pilot in the Gulf War, won three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys in the 90s. His eight-year career in the NFL is the longest of any Air Force grad.
- Ahmard Hall, a fullback and former Marine, was the lead blocker for Chris Johnson on the Tennessee Titans in 2009 when he rushed for more than 2,000 yards.
- Chris Gezzi was a U.S. Air Force Reservist in 2001 when he played for the Green Bay Packers. He was the first one charging out of the tunnel carrying the American flag on the first Monday Night Football game after 9/11.
There are currently three service academy veterans playing in the NFL, one free agent hoping to extend his career and even one cheerleader:
- Eric Kettani, a running back from Navy, is now a free agent still looking for a team.
- Collin Mooney is a running back out of Army. He's currently on the Tennessee Titans' roster as a backup.
- Josh McNary is a linebacker out of Army currently in a backup role with the Indianapolis Colts.
- Chad Hall is a wide receiver out of Air Force who spent 2013 with the Kansas City Chiefs. He played in four games this season and hauled in two passes for a total of 20 yards. He was cut from the Chiefs' 52-man roster late in the season.
- Megan Welter is an Iraqi War veteran and currently a cheerleader for the Arizona Cardinals.
In addition to the players, coaches and ownership personnel who have enlisted for service, the NFL has also been a long-time supporter of the military and all its endeavors. For example, the league's efforts helped sell $4 million worth of war bonds in 1942 alone. It also donated the revenue from 15 exhibition games to the service that year – more than $680,000 total, one of the biggest sums ever donated by a sports organization.
The NFL has also been a big supporter of the USO, from Rozelle to current commissioner Roger Goodell, who became the first sports commissioner to visit troops overseas when he toured with the USO in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008. He was also accompanied on the trip by current players Osi Umenyiora, defensive end of the Atlanta Falcons, and Drew Brees, the future Hall of Fame quarterback of the New Orleans Saints.
This season, the NFL honored our veterans with a month-long salute to those who serve, raising money for the Pat Tillman Foundation, USO and Wounded Warrior Project. For more information on the NFL's ongoing commitment to support the military, check out NFL.com/salute.