November 11, 2009
Today, on Veterans Day, Yahoo! Sports Blogs looks at ten of the greatest athlete-veterans in sports history with a list that includes three Hall of Famers, five Purple Heart winners and a U.S. president.
By no means is this supposed to be a comprehensive list or a ranking of any sort. Rather, it's a glimpse into the stories of a select few athletes who served in combat (hence no Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio or David Robinson).
Rocky Bleier-- Bleier was drafted twice in 1968, once by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 16th round of the NFL draft and again by the U.S. Army. The next year he was shot in the leg while on patrol in Heip Duc, Vietnam. Defying the odds both medically and on the field (he was a 16th round pick, after all), the Notre Dame product returned to the NFL in 1971 and ran for over 3,500 yards in his career and won four Super Bowl rings with the Steelers. Though that hardware is nice, they don't compare to the Purple Heart and Bronze Star Bleier was awarded for his service.
Al Blozis-- Three men shared UPI's outstanding athlete of the year award in 1941: Ben Hogan, Joe Louis and Al Blozis. Though the third name on that list isn't nearly as well-known as the first two, it should be. Blozis was a two-sport star at Georgetown. He broke multiple world records in the shot put (including three on a single day during a 1940 meet at Madison Square Garden) and was an All-American tackle on the Hoyas football team. In 1942 he was drafted by the New York Giants, where he would be named an All-Pro for his special teams exploits. Because of his towering 6-foot-5 frame, Blozis wasn't allowed to serve in the military. But he argued for, and earned, a special dispensation to become inducted into the United States Army and promptly set a record for the longest grenade toss during training. Two months after his last NFL game he was killed in France during a skirmish related to the Battle of the Bulge. He was 26.
Dwight Eisenhower -- The five-star general turned president was first known as a football player, playing at West Point in 1912 as a starting running back and linebacker. In the famed Army-Carlisle game from that year (described in an excellent Lars Anderson book), Eisenhower made a tackle on the world's greatest athlete, Jim Thorpe.
Bob Feller-- Feller enlisted in the Navy on Dec. 8, 1941, one day after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Three months earlier, the All-Star pitcher had closed out his third straight 20-win season for the Cleveland Indians (leading the American League in both victories and strikeouts in each of those seasons). Upon his return to baseball in 1945, Feller earned 159 more wins. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962 on the first ballot.
Bob Kalsu -- The Oklahoma legend was the only professional athlete to lose his life in Vietnam. His story was told in an excellent 2001 Sports Illustrated cover story.
Roger Staubach-- Staubach won the 1963 Heisman Trophy while quarterbacking Navy, but had to fulfill his four-year commitment to the armed forces before getting a shot to play in the NFL. At 27-years old, Staubach made his debut with the Dallas Cowboys. He's now in the Hall of Fame.
Melissa Stockwell -- The Army first lieutenant lost her leg after getting struck by a roadside bomb five years ago in Baghdad. In 2008 she qualified for the Paralympic swim team and was elected by her teammates as the flag bearer at the closing ceremony in Beijing.
Pat Tillman -- Myth and reality have always conflicted in the retelling of Pat Tillman's story, but this much is certain: After 9/11, Tillman derailed a promising NFL career in order to join the U.S. Army Rangers. He lost his life in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004 and became the embodiment of what true sacrifice looks like.
Gene Tunney-- Seven years after serving in World War I, Tunney won the heavyweight championship in 1926 with a stunning win over Jack Dempsey. He also served in World War II, directing a program to keep naval personnel physically fit.
Ted Williams -- After missing three years of his prime while serving as a stateside gunnery instructor in the Navy and Marines during WWII, The Splendid Splinter was summoned back for service as a 33-year old for the Korean War. And he wasn't happy about it. But that didn't stop Williams from declining an opportunity to serve his time playing exhibition baseball and doing public relations the Corps. If the Marines needed fighters then he was going to fight. Williams learned to fly the F9-F Panther Jet and started flying combat missions in 1953.
To all of those men and women who have ever served in our Armed Forces, thank you.