There was an interesting article last year in which Jared Allen, the beast defensive end for the Vikings, actually went and trained with some top tier US military personnel (elite marines, Navy SEALs and Rangers). Allen, who is the spitting image of a musclebound, athletic maniac, was floored by the intensity of military training along with the fitness, motivation and overall strength of the men with whom he worked out. Obviously football players, and most athletes overall, are in peak physical condition. Some notable exceptions are poker players (is it actually a sport? Why is that on ESPN?), bowlers and darts players (again, does darts belong on sports channels? Isn’t darts a way to enjoy your time in a bar among people with whom you can’t have a conversation?). But while athletes are fit, the argument would be that the true epitome of fitness is a tier 1 special operator in a reputable western military. When we say tier 1, we mean Delta Force, Navy SEAL teams, JTF2 for the Canadians, and units in Europe like the British SAS and Russian Spetznaz. If I didn’t mention a special ops group from your country, I apologize but this isn’t a list of spec ops/elite units and those are the first six that came to mind.
Say what you want about the physical conditioning of athletes, but it does not compare to the requirements for top tier military personnel. Sure a marathon runner can run 40 km or however long a marathon is, but can he/she do it with 100 lbs of gear on their back, including multiple weapons, a healthy supply of ammunition, food, water, maps, other navigation equipment and grenades? Doubtful, at best. Adversely, a football player, and for argument’s sake, let’s say a defensive end like Jared Allen, can push around 300+ lb men, and carry 200 lbs like it’s nothing, but tell him to haul that run 20 km over rough terrain, and he’d probably start dry heaving after 5 minutes. Let’s be honest, these guys are conditioned for 5-15 second plays and then a half minute break. I’m not saying they aren’t fit, but I am saying, even Jared Allen was unable to keep up, saying that during an exercise, he collapsed after 20 yards.
The other NF players who were a part of these workouts and the same USO events were Drew Brees, Clay Matthews and Larry Fitzgerald. According to Allen, none of them were even close to the Marines, Rangers and Special Operators with whom they worked out. Apart from just fitness, it takes a special type of person with intense training to handle the realities of combat. Sure, the adrenaline before a big game is huge and larger than most will ever experience, but it doesn’t take a genius to consider that it cannot compare to the emotional roller coaster that results from bullets zipping by.
Firstly, a large shout out to all the fighting men and women around the globe. Now, here is a list of football players who have served in war. There will be no ranking for this list, as you can’t rank sacrifice and selfless action, just chronology. I will cover the years from World War 2 until the present day War on Terror.
10. Tom Landry – New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys: World War II
This shouldn’t be news to any of you, but Tom Landry is one of the greatest coaches in the history of American football. He’s also a personal hero of Homer Simpson, who purchases his famous hat in the episode “You Only Move Twice”, in an effort to better motivate employees. Landry was also a cornerback in the NFL who had a few very respectable seasons and actually worked as a player/coach for a couple of years. He had one Pro Bowl year and was an NFL champ as a player and as a coach. He was coach of the year twice and won two more Super Bowls with the Cowboys. He also served in the US Army Air Corps during World War II. He was inspired to join out of respect for his brother, who died early on in the war. He became a 2nd lieutenant and was the co-pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress; a bomber famous for its 13 Browning machine guns and ability to take loads of punishment and remain flight worthy. He flew over 30 missions and survived a crash landing.
9. Al Blozis – New York Giants: World War II
Al Blozis was a New York Giant back in the early 1940’s and was a Pro Bowl selection in 1943. He was a big guy, playing offensive tackle in both college and the professional league. Although he was too large for military service, he was able to have that restriction overlooked in 1943 and was originally assigned to be a physical instructor but managed to get transferred to officer school, becoming a second lieutenant in the 28th Infantry Division. In January 1945, his unit was in France, near the German border. After two of his men did not return from a patrol, he went to search for them but was killed. He was not found until April of that year.
8. Art Donovan – Baltimore Colts, New York Yanks, Dallas Texans: World War II
Art Donovan received a scholarship to Notre Dame, but did not last long in the school. In 1942, after just one semester, he quit and joined the US Marine Corps. He spent the next four years in the Pacific Theatre with the Marines and participated in both the Battle of Luzon and Iwo Jima. His football career began in 1950. He played one year with the Baltimore Colts, one year with the New York Yanks and finally a year with the Dallas Texans before the Colts formed a team again in 1953 and he played there until 1961. During his time with the Colts, he was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and a two-time NFL champion.
7. Jack Lummus – New York Giants: World War II
Lummus played just nine games for the Giants in the season of 1941. In early 1942, however, he joined the Marine Corps and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. He was assigned to the Marine Raiders, but after they were disbanded he was sent to the 27th Marines, who would eventually end up attacking Iwo Jima. He led his platoon on the first day of the assault on the island and while on the island he served as a forward observer, calling in air support and artillery strikes on targets in the mountainous terrain of the island. While leading his platoon late in the battle of Iwo Jima, he was fatally wounded by a land mine. After being carried to an aid station, he told the doctor operating on him: “well Doc, the New York Giants lost a mighty good end today”. For his actions and leadership on Iwo Jima, Jack Lummus was awarded the Medal of Honor.
6. Bob Kalsu – Buffalo Bills: Vietnam War
An ROTC member at the University of Oklahoma, Kalsu was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1968 and played the entire season. In 1969, however, he entered the US Army because he was required to serve due to his ROTC obligations. As an officer, he made it to Vietnam in 1969 and was a member of the 101st Airborne. In 1970, he was killed after his unit came under heavy fire. He had a daughter and a wife back in the United States. He is the only active pro football player to be killed in Vietnam.
5. Roger Staubach – Dallas Cowboys: Vietnam War
There have only been two Heisman Trophy winners from the US Naval Academy. The first was Joe Bellino in 1960, and the second was the great Roger Staubach in 1963. After he graduated from the academy, Staubach served and even completed one tour in Vietnam. As he was partially color-blind, he was unable to be on a ship (due to inability to discern red from green, starboard from port in nautical navigation). He became a supply officer and served in Chu Lai, Vietnam until 1967. After his military service he started playing for the Dallas Cowboys at age 27. He became a five-time Pro Bowler, two-time Super Bowl champion and was the NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP once apiece.
4. Rocky Bleier – Pittsburgh Steelers: Vietnam War
Bleier played for the Notre Dame fighting Irish in college. He played his rookie season for the Steelers in 1968 but was drafted shortly after and was sent to Vietnam in 1969. In August 1969, he had a rough day, taking a bullet in the left leg and getting hit with grenade shrapnel in the right leg. He was taken to Tokyo to be treated but the doctors advised him that the damage to his legs was too severe and he would never play football again. He returned to the United States and spent 1971-1973 on the Steelers’ practice squad, being underweight and in constant pain. 1974 saw Bleier get back to 215 lbs and gain a spot on the starting roster. He was not only a fantastic rusher but also a beast of a blocker and played in four Super Bowl wins with the Steelers. Not that he needs my damn approval, but with two seriously wounded limbs, and constant pain, he was able to fight back to win four Super Bowls, and that’s a testament to human determination and perseverance.
3. Chad Hennings – Dallas Cowboys: Gulf War/Operation Provide Comfort
Here’s a quick history lesson for those of you not familiar with the finer points of the Gulf War from the early 90’s. There is an ethnic/cultural group in Northern Iraq known as the Kurds. Saddam Hussain gassed the Kurds in the 80’s resulting in thousands being killed. Many argue this was an act of genocide. After the United States curb-stomped the Iraqi armed forces and liberated Kuwait, there was an attempt to support Kurds fleeing northern Iraq and cripple Iraqi military capabilities in that region. This was known as Operation Provide Comfort. Also involved in this operation was the establishment of a no-fly zone in much of Northern Iraq.
Although Chad Hennings was drafted by the Cowboys, before he started his career in the NFL, he was an aviator in the Air Force, fulfilling his military obligations. The plane he flew was an A-10 Thunderbolt, also known as the warthog. Ever heard of the plane designed around a gun? That’s it. The Thunderbolt is a twin engine attack aircraft that specializes in taking out tanks. If you’re not impressed yet, this machine shreds vehicles with a GAU-8 Avenger Gatling cannon, which can hammer 4000 30mm shells into whatever happens to be in its cross-hairs per minute. Now wipe off the drool and read about Chad Hennings’ football career.
After his military service, Hennings started playing for the Cowboys in 1992, and played on the second string for four years. In 1996, he finally became a starter. While he was a solid defensive tackle, he was a true presence on the team with an unbreakable attitude and phenomenal leadership qualities. He helped the Cowboys have one of the best defenses of the 90’s and won three Super Bowls in 1993, 1994, 1996.
2. Ahmard Hall – Tennessee Titans: War on Terror/Afghanistan
At age 19, Ahmard Hall signed up for the United States Marine Corps and served four years including a tour in Afghanistan as a radioman. He served until 2002 and attained the rank of Sergeant. Upon his return to the United States, he became a fullback for the University of Texas. He won the National Championship with the Longhorns in 2005 and went undrafted in 2006, but was signed by the Titans with whom he played until 2011. He has been a free agent since. As a fullback, he never got many rushing opportunities but did manage to rack up 72 receptions and 2 touchdowns in his time with Tennessee.
1. Pat Tillman – Arizona Cardinals: War on Terror
This name should ring a bell. Football player turned soldier, Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan after leaving the Arizona Cardinals to serve with the US Army Rangers, an elite force that is routinely on the forefront of any conflict in which the United States is involved. He was a solid safety for the Cardinals and ended his career with 238 tackles over four years. He was also a great player and student in college at Arizona State, earning a 3.85 GPA. This is the one name on the list that also sparked serious controversy. After his death, he was widely turned into a propaganda tool by news people and more than a few politicians in the United States. That’s what everyone wants as part of their legacy right? To be belched onto a flag by politicians and then be spoken about with undue familiarity by ratings-hungry talking heads on the 6 pm news.
Anyway, when he was first killed, the report said that he was killed in an ambush, but after a great deal of digging his family was able to have an inquiry launched, which determined that he was more than likely killed in a friendly fire incident. In short, if you haven’t watched The Tillman Story, finish this reading this sentence then check it out, it will probably make you nauseatingly angry. It’s on Netflix, last I checked.