Pat Tillman: Eight months after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Pat Tillman chose to leave his professional football career with the Arizona Cardinals (and $3.6 million contract) and enlist. An Army Ranger, he served a tour in Iraq before being redeployed to Afghanistan. On April 22, 2004, he was killed in a friendly fire incident. He was awarded a Silver Star, Purple Heart and a posthumous promotion, and his number was retired both by the Cardinals and college team Arizona State.
Ted Williams: While serving two tours as a Marine pilot, baseball legend Ted Williams lost a total of five years of his professional career. When he enlisted for the first time in 1942, he had just completed his first Triple Crown season. After excelling in training, Williams served as a flight instructor during World War II. In 1952 at the age of 34, Williams was recalled to active duty for the Korean War. He eventually flew 39 combat missions before suffering an inner ear infection that disqualified him from flight status. In his 21-year career with the Boston Red Sox, Williams twice won the Triple Crown, was an All Star 17 times, was the last player to bat over .400 in a single season and twice was the American League MVP. In 1966, he was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. His number was also retired by the Red Sox.
Jerry Coleman: The only Major League Baseball player to have seen combat in two wars, Jerry Coleman first postponed the start of his career to fly as a Marine aviator in World War II and then left baseball to fly in the Korean War (during which he escaped a scary crash). In all, he flew 120 combat missions and was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses and 13 Air Medals. “The Colonel” won four World Series championships (1946, 1950, 1951, 1956) as a second baseman with the New York Yankees. He went on to have a lengthy broadcasting career, earning an induction into the broadcasters’ wing in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005 and into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2007.
Art Donovan: For four years prior to college, Art Donovan Jr. served with the U.S. Marine Corps as an anti-aircraft gunner during World War II. Also stationed on his ship, the USS San Jacinton, was future President George H.W. Bush. After spending 13 months from 1943 to 1945 at seas, Donovan volunteered for the Fleet Marine Force and was sent to Okinawa. At the end of his military career, Donovan had received the Asiatic Pacific Area Ribbon and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon. Donovan, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968, went on to help the Colts win two straight NFL Championships in 1958 and 1959 and was the first pro football player enshrined in the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame……..and he was on The Tonight Show……and he was hilariously entertaining, and couldn’t possibly be more of a “football guy”:
Joe DiMaggio: In Joe DiMaggio’s storied baseball career, he won nine World Series championships and three American League MVP awards, was an All Star center fielder 13 times and had a record 56-straight games with a hit. A New York Yankee for the duration of his career, DiMaggio did have a hiatus between the end of the 1942 season and the start of the 1946 season when he served in the military. On Feb. 17, 1943, DiMaggio enlisted in the Army Air Forces. While stationed in California, Hawaii and New Jersey as a physical education instructor, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. DiMaggio left the service in September of 1945. Ten years later, he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Joe Louis: One day after fighting a charity bout for the Navy, boxer Joe Louis enlisted as a private in the Army. Assigned to a segregated cavalry unit, Louis continued to fight at charity events and was the focus of a military recruitment campaign aimed at encouraging African Americans to enlist. He also took time to help those who did join the Army, pushing for an end to the delays preventing a group of African American men from entering Officer Candidate School. One of those men was baseball legend Jackie Robinson. When released from military service in 1945, Louis was a Sergeant and had been awarded the Legion of Merit medal. In addition to holding the heavyweight boxing title from 1937 to 1949 (participating in 27 championship fights), Louis also broke golf’s color barrier by competing in a PGA event in 1952.
Bob Kalsu: The only professional football player to lose his life in the Vietnam War, Bob Kalsu was killed on July 21, 1970 when his unit came under enemy mortar fire. Just hours after his wife gave birth to their second child, she was informed of her husband’s death. In addition to being an All-American tackle at the University of Oklahoma, Kalsu also was in the ROTC. To satisfy his program responsibilities, Kalsu was sent to Vietnam in November of 1969 as a Second Lieutenant. Just one year earlier, he had been selected by the Buffalo Bills in the eighth round of the draft and started the entire 1968 season at the offensive guard position. Kalsu was named the Buffalo Bills Rookie of the Year for his efforts.
Bob Feller: Just two days after Pearl Harbor was attacked, Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller became the first MLB player to volunteer for active duty in World War II. After spending four years dedicated to the war effort as an anti-aircraft gun captain on the battleship USS Alabama (and earning five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars), he returned to baseball. When he retired in 1956 after an 18-year professional career, Feller was a World Series champion and eight-time All Star and had earned baseball’s Triple Crown, won 266 games and struck out 2,581 players and pitched three no-hitters. In 1962, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Hobey Baker: Only one athlete in history has been named to both the College Football Hall of Fame and Hockey Hall of Fame: Hobart “Hobey” Baker. Baker led Princeton University to national championships in both sports, taking the football title in 1911 and hockey titles in 1912 and 1914. An award named in his honor is presented each year to the nation’s top male U.S. college hockey player. With World War I underway, Baker enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 and was trained as a pilot. As the commander of the 103rd Aero Squadron, Baker painted his plane in Princeton’s orange and black. Awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government for his wartime actions, Baker was killed just a few weeks after the war ended while flying a test plane.
Jackie Robinson: Assigned to a segregated Army unit after being drafted in 1942, Jackie Robinson subsequently was accepted into Officer Candidate School and commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was court-martialed in 1944 after being taken into custody by military police for refusing to move to the back of an Army bus. He was acquitted by an all-white panel of officers, but the proceedings kept him from being deployed with his tank battalion (the first black tank unit to be used in World War II combat). After being honorably discharged, Robinson signed with a Negro League baseball team. In 1947, Robinson became the first player to break baseball’s color line when he played his first game with the Dodgers and was named the Rookie of the Year. The second baseman went on to become a six-time All Star, 1949 National League MVP and World Series champion. A member of the Hall of Fame, Robinson’s No. 42 was retired by every MLB team in 1997.
Roger Staubach: A Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1963, Roger Staubach went on to win two Super Bowl titles with the Dallas Cowboys. He was named the MVP of Super Bowl VI. But before he made his mark in the pros, Staubach had to fulfill his required Navy service. After being drafted in the 10th round in 1964, Staubach spent a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam. He resigned his commission in 1969 and headed straight to Cowboys training camp. Staubach’s jersey was retired at the Naval Academy, and he was elected to the College Hall of Fame in 1981. He also was a six-time NFC Pro Bowl selection.
Jesse Ventura: Serving during the Vietnam War, James Janos was a Navy SEAL. While he never saw combat, he did earn the National Defense Service Medal and Vietnam Service Medal. Later becoming the governor of Minnesota, he had his SEAL instructor stand by his side. As Jesse “The Body” Ventura, he wrestled both for the American Wrestling Association and for the World Wrestling Federation before becoming governor of Minnesota.
David Robinson: Following his father into the Navy, David Robinson matriculated into the U.S. Naval Academy in 1983. Competing for the Midshipmen, he was a two-time consensus All-American and won both the Naismith and Wooden Awards his senior year. Even though he had to serve two years of duty with the Navy following graduation, the San Antonio Spurs still selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1987 draft. He was worth the wait, winning Rookie of the Year honors in 1990. Nicknamed “The Admiral,” Robinson finished his 14-year NBA career as a two-time NBA Champion, 1995 NBA MVP, 10-time All Star, 1992 Defensive Player of the Year. He also helped the U.S. Olympic team win two golds and a bronze.
Yogi Berra: One of thousands of men who played a role in the D-Day invasion, legendary New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra was serving as a gunner’s mate while stationed just off the coast of Normandy Beach on a U.S. Navy boat that day. Just over a year later, he made his major league debut with the New York Yankees. In his 18-year career, Berra was a World Series champion 10 times, an All Star 15 times and an American League MVP three times and elevated his name into consideration as the greatest catcher ever. He also won three World Series titles as a coach for the New York Mets and New York Yankees. In 1972, Berra was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Bobby Jones: One of the greatest golfers in history, Bobby Jones competed only as an amateur. While he retired at the age of 28 with nine wins — seven of which were in majors — Jones is perhaps best known for winning all four major tournaments in 1930. Motivated by a desire to give back to the sport of golf by hosting a major tournament, Jones purchased land in Georgia and built the course that has hosted the Masters every year since 1934 but three. From 1943-1945, Jones, an officer in the U.S. Army Air Forces, instead used the grounds to support World War II efforts by raising cattle and turkeys on the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club.
Jack Dempsey: During World War I, boxer Jack Dempsey was bedeviled by accusations that he was a draft dodger. Although he produced evidence showing he had tried to enlist but was turned down, he finally had a chance to completely silence his critics when World War II broke out. Retired from the sport in 1927 after holding the world heavyweight title from 1919-1926, Dempsey spent some years appearing in exhibitions before joining the New York State National Guard and then the Coast Guard Reserve. He reported for active duty in 1942 and was on an attack transport for the invasion of Okinawa. In 1952, he received an honorable discharge.
Bill Bradley: When Bill Bradley signed a contract with the New York Knicks in 1967, he expected to join the pro team in the middle of the season after serving six months in the United States Air Force Reserve. But he was released from duty earlier than he had expected and instead began practicing with the team in December. Bradley, who had won Olympic gold in 1964, spent his entire 10-year NBA career with the Knicks, winning two championships during that time. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982.
Christy Mathewson: With the use of poisonous gas a major concern for soldiers in World War I, the United States Army’s Chemical Corps became a high-profile unit. It was in this division that Christy Mathewson served following his baseball career. In 1918, Mathewson enlisted and was sent to France. While there, he was accidentally gassed and developed tuberculosis. He died in 1925.
Dizzy Dean: At the age of 16, Jerome Dean convinced recruiters he was 18 and enlisted in the Army. It was while he was stationed in Texas that he earned the nickname “Dizzy,” both for his habit of doing stupid things and because his fastballs made batters on opposing military teams dizzy. Dean left the Army in 1929 and played his first full major league season in 1932, leading the league in strikeouts and innings pitched and earning 18 wins. The following year, in addition to winning 20 games, Dean set a record by striking out 17 in one game. A World Series champion and four-time All Star, Dean was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1953.
Warren Spahn: After finishing the 1942 season in the minor leagues, Warren Spahn enlisted in the Army. As a combat engineer who served in the Battle of the Bulge and at the Ludendorff Bridge, he received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. When he returned to baseball, Spahn was 25 years old. Playing in the pros from 1946-1965, the pitcher went on to win 20 games in 13 seasons, including compiling a 23-7 record when he was 42 years old. Spahn’s overall record of 363-245 makes him the sixth-winningest pitcher ever, trailing record-holder Cy Young by 148 wins. Spahn won the Cy Young Award once and was the runner-up three times, had one World Series title and was a 14-time All Star. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972.
Hank Greenberg: After breaking into the majors in 1930 at the age of 19, Hank Greenberg had his first breakout year for the Detroit Tigers in 1933. He played for the Tigers until 1941 and again from 1945-1946 after serving in World War II. While Greenberg was initially classified as not fit for military duty due to flat feet, he was later cleared for duty and drafted in 1940. After being honorably discharged because he was over 28 years of age, Greenberg chose to re-enlist as a volunteer in the Army Air Forces, eventually serving in the China-Burma-India theater. He played baseball for three more seasons before retiring in 1947 as a two-time American League MVP, five-time All Star and two-time World Series champion. Greenberg was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1956.
Pee Wee Reese: Enlisting in the U.S. Navy in 1943, Pee Wee Reese served in the Pacific during World War II. The Dodgers, who had finished 42 games out during one of the three seasons Reese missed, rebounded when Reese returned in 1946. Prior to his military service, Reese was named an All Star once. When he returned, he picked up nine additional All Star bids and won a World Series championship in 1955. Nicknamed the “Little Colonel” while serving as the Dodgers’ team captain from 1950 until his retirement in 1958, Reese was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984.
John Wooden: A three-time consensus All-American and 1932 National Championship winner while playing basketball at Purdue, John Wooden spent several years playing professionally in the National Basketball League. With the outbreak of World War II, Wooden enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and eventually gained the rank of lieutenant.
Ken Norton Sr.: While serving in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1963-1967, Ken Norton started to hone his boxing skills. During that time he compiled a 24-2 record and won three All-Marine Heavyweight titles before turning professional. In 50 fights, he had a 42-7-1 record. Thirty-three of his victories came courtesy of a knockout. One of his biggest wins came against Muhammad Ali in 1973, giving Norton the North American Boxing Federation Heavyweight Championship title. Norton is enshrined in four Halls of Fame: the World Boxing Hall of Fame, International Boxing Hall of Fame, United States Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame and WBC Hall of Fame.
Nolan Ryan: Drafted by the military in 1966 (the same year he made his Major League Baseball debut), Nolan Ryan completed his six-month term in the Army Reserves by 1967. He spent much of that year in the minor leagues, returning to the New York Mets in 1968. It was the first full season of his record 27 he played with four different teams.
Rocky Marciano: After being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, Rocky Marciano discovered his skill in boxing while stationed in Wales and Fort Lewis, Wash. Representing the Army, he won the 1946 amateur armed forces boxing tournament. Although he took a brief hiatus from the sport with the intention of making a Major League Baseball team, Marciano soon turned pro in boxing. He compiled a 49-0 record with 43 knockouts, holding the heavyweight championship title from Sept. 23, 1952 to April 27, 1956 when he retired.
Chad Hennings: Following his graduation from the United States Air Force Academy in 1988, Chad Hennings, who had been honored with the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top interior lineman his senior year, had a promising professional football career ahead of him. First, however, he had to fulfill his four-year Air Force commitment. Hennings flew 45 missions in support of Operation Provide Comfort in Iraq, providing relief and humanitarian aid to refugees. His efforts were rewarded with two aerial achievement medals, a humanitarian award and an outstanding unit award. In nine seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, Hennings had 28 sacks, six fumble recoveries and one TD. Hennings is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Tom Landry: While best known for his success as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Tom Landry also was a Pro Bowl selection in 1954 as a player with the New York Giants. Landry honed his skills at the University of Texas, but his college experience was interrupted by his service in the Army Air Forces during World War II. Assigned to the 860th Bomb Squadron as a co-pilot in a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, Landry served in 30 combat missions and once survived a crash landing after his plane ran out of fuel.
Willie Mays: One year after winning 1951 Rookie of the Year honors, Willie Mays was drafted by the U.S. Army to serve in the Korean War. After missing about 266 games, he returned to the San Francisco Giants in 1954 and put up impressive numbers, leading the league with a .345 batting average and crushing 41 home runs. Throughout his lengthy career, Mays won one World Series title, was a 20-time All Star, 12-time Gold Glove Award winner and two-time National League MVP and had eight consecutive 100-RBI seasons. In 1979 in his first year of eligibility, Mays was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Lee Trevino: Shortly after turning 17, Lee Trevino enlisted in the Marine Corps. During his four years in service, Trevino was a playing partner with many officers. He later claimed it was those golf outings that helped him receive a promotion to lance corporal. Golf later became Trevino’s career. Included in his 29 PGA Tour victories were six major titles. Trevino also had 29 wins (including four majors) while competing on the Champions Tour circuit.
Leon Spinks: Trying to escape a tough neighborhood in St. Louis, Leon Spinks joined the Marine Corps. His time in the military gave him an opportunity to train as a boxer, and he a gold medal in the light heavyweight division in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. As a professional, Spinks compiled a 26-17-3 record. In his eighth fight, he faced off against Muhammad Ali with the heavyweight title on the line. Beating Ali in a 15-round decision, Spinks became the only man ever to take a belt away from Ali.
Gregg Popovich: Most Spurs fans know Popovich as the coach who led the team to five NBA championships. Fewer people know about his days spent in the Air Force in the 1970s. He attended and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Soviet Studies from The Air Force Academy, and he underwent Air Force intelligence gathering and processing training. At one point, Popovich considered a career with the Central Intelligence Agency. Popovich served five years of required active duty in the United States Air Force, during which he toured Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union with the U.S. Armed Forces Basketball Team. In 1972, he was selected as captain of the Armed Forces Team, which won the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championship. This earned him an invitation to the 1972 U.S. Olympic Basketball Team trials. Popovich returned to the Air Force Academy as an assistant coach in 1973 under head coach Hank Egan, a position he held for six years.