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Shutdown Corner

Things to know about NFL men who served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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Tom Landry and Roger Staubach had more than football in common. (Getty Images)

Happy Memorial Day, Shutdown Corner readers!

We'd like to share this great page of remembrance from the Pro Football Hall of Fame website, entitled "Football and America: The National Football League Answers the Call." You can read about people you may have known who served their country and played pro football, and you will also read stories you may not have known. Did you know, for example, that Tom Landry was a decorated fighter pilot in World War II? And Chuck Bednarik, who could kick Chuck Norris' ass even today at age 87, took part in 30 long-range bombing missions over Germany.

For every Pat Tillman and Roger Staubach whose stories you probably know, there are many more you may not. Definitely worth a read on this special day.

[Also: Pat Tillman among pro athletes who died for our country]

World War II

1. There were three games going on when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, there were NFL games happening at New York's Polo Grounds, Chicago's Comiskey Park, and Washington's Griffith Stadium. After the attack in the early afternoon ET, servicemen and government officials were told to report to their units and offices, without the reason being announced.

2. Concrete Charlie treated the Germans like so many running backs. Bednarik, the man who missed just three games in a 14-year career in which he played both offense and defense, was even tougher when his country called. "There was anti-aircraft fire all around," Bednarik recalled of his days as a waist-gunner in a B-24 Liberator. "You just waited for your turn to get hit, but ours never came." Bednarik was awarded the Air Medal and four Oak Leaf Clusters, the European Theater Operations Medal and four Battle Stars, and the Good Conduct Medal. He then went on to play in the NFL from 1949 through 1962.

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You'd better hope Bednarik doesn't look up. His glare alone could mess you up. (Getty)

3. The NFL gave more than its service. Green Bay Packers Curly Lambeau, Cecil Isbell, and  Don Hutson once raised $2.1 million for the war effort by selling that much in war bonds in a single event. The NFL also gave the proceeds from 15 different preseason games to service charities, and the $680,384.07 donated was believed to be the most given by any athletic organization.

4. The "Steagles" were the result of a manpower shortage. The Cleveland Rams were so short of players in 1943, they suspended play that season. And the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers combined forces that same season to form the "Steagles." The new teams split their home games between the Steelers' and Eagles stadiums. That idea lasted the one season, after which the Steelers combined with the Chicago Cardinals to form something called the "Card-Pitt Combine." Whatever that thing was, it went 0-10 on the season, and that was the end of such mergers.

5. Tom Landry was a tough guy. The Hall of Fame coach is known for his fedora and thousand-yard stare, but 19-year-old Tom Landry had bigger things on his mind during World War II. Landry flew 30 missions and survived a crash in Belgium after an attack on Czechoslovakia. He certainly understood future Cowboys Roger Staubach, who served in the Supply Corps in Vietnam after his time at the Naval Academy.

The Korean War

1. Eddie LeBaron was anything but little when he served. The 5-foot-9, 168-pound quarterback played for the Redskins and Cowboys from 1952 through 1963, serving as the Cowboys' first quarterback. But if you think that surviving an expansion team was LeBaron's biggest challenge, think again. "The Little General" spent nine months at the front during the Korean conflict and was twice wounded. From the site:

In a hard-fought battle at Korea's Heartbreak Ridge, LeBaron left cover under heavy fire to contact the forward observation post of a mortar platoon, in sight of the enemy. After an assaulting rifle platoon in his area lost its commander, he took charge and resumed the attack. For his heroic efforts, he was awarded the Bronze Star.

Deciphering a bear front blitz seems rather simple in comparison, no?

2. Fourteen NFL players served in world War II and Korea. But the most impressive service record among those fourteen has to be Ralph Heywood's.

[Heywood] is the only NFL player to serve in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Upon his discharge from active duty following WWII, he began a four-year pro football career with the All-America Football Conference's Chicago Rockets (1946), the NFL's Detroit Lions (1947-1948), Boston Yanks (1948), and New York Bulldogs (1949). A reservist, he returned to active duty in 1952, during the Korean War, and later commanded the 26th Marines in Vietnam.

Now, that's what I call veteran presence.

Vietnam

1. Two NFL players lost their lives in Vietnam. In 1970, Buffalo Bills rookie guard Bob Kalsu left the NFL to serve, and lost his life while under heavy fire defending a firebase on a mountaintop. For many years, it was thought that Kalsu was the only NFL player to suffer the ultimate sacrifice, but the Hall of Fame recently learned of Don Steinbrunner, who played for the 1953 Cleveland Browns. At age 35, Steinbrunner believed that he was better-prepared to serve than those younger, declined less-dangerous missions, and was shot down over South Vietnam in 1967. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

2. Rocky Bleier beat the odds after his war injuries. Bleier suffered severe injuries to both legs during an attack in which he was subject to gunfire and grenade blasts. Doctors told him he'd never play football again, but he spent years after the war working like crazy to prove them wrong. The Steelers added him to their active roster in 1972. he rushed for over 1,000 yards in 1976, and he retired as the team's fourth-most prolific rusher.

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