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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veteran's Day Salute to Athletes

In the sports world, we often speak of teams "going to battle" and players "laying it all on the line."  As we celebrate Veteran's Day, it is important to remember that their are athletes who have done this in the literal sense.  These are just a few of the athletes who put country before self and interrupted promising careers for military service.

The men who paid the ultimate price, men such as Pat Tillman and Christy Mathewson, deserve to have their own columns on a day such as Memorial Day.  Therefore, this column is confined to men who served and returned to the sports world.  This is not a comprehensive list.  As someone who never served, it would be inappropriate for me to rank these men, so this list is presented in alphabetical order.

Rocky Bleier.  United States Army, 1968-69.  NFL.   Rocky Bleier is best known for winning four Super Bowl championships with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970's, but before those days of glory on the gridiron there were dark days in the jungles of Vietnam.  After a star career at Notre Dame, Bleier was drafted by the Steelers in 1968.  After his rookie season, the running back was drafted once again ... this time by the United States Army.  Bleier volunteered for duty in Vietnam.  In August of 1969, Bleier was wounded by a bullet and shrapnel while on patrol in a rice paddy near Heip Duc.  Bleier's wounds were serious enough that doctors told him he would never be able to play football again.  While recovering in an Army hospital, Bleier received a note of encouragement from Steelers' owner Art Rooney.  Bleier took Rooney's words to heart and eventually worked his way into the Steelers' starting lineup for the 1974 season.  In 1976, Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris combined for the rare feat of having two running backs on the same team rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.

Bob Feller
Bob Feller.  United States Navy, 1941-1945.  MLB.  While visiting his terminally ill father, Bob Feller heard that the Empire of Japan had attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor.  Two days later, the 23-year old Feller enlisted in the United States Navy.  Despite his young age, Feller was already an established star pitcher for the Cleveland Indians when he voluntarily headed to war instead of spring training.  Feller volunteered for combat duty and was assigned to the U.S.S. Alabama.  Feller later stated, "I told them I wanted to ... get into combat; wanted to do something besides standing around handing out balls and bats and making ball fields out of coral reefs."  Feller got his wish.  When Feller was discharged from the Navy in 1945, he had earned six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.

Warren Spahn.  United States Army, 1942-45.  MLB.  When the United States joined World War II at the end of 1941, Warren Spahn was struggling to earn a spot on the Boston Braves major league roster.  By the time Spahn retired in 1965, he was the winningest left-handed pitcher in the history of baseball.  In between, Spahn fought in the Battle of the Bulge.  During that campaign, Spahn suffered frostbite so severe that doctors considered amputating the pitcher's feet.  Fortunately for Spahn and for baseball fans, that drastic measure was avoided.  By the time Spahn left the service, he had achieved the rank of First Lieutenant and had earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.  After the war, Spahn recorded thirteen 20-win seasons and two no-hitters.  One of those no-hitters came after his 40th birthday, proving his battlefield toughness translated to the pitcher's mound.

Roger Staubach.  United States Navy, 1964-68.  NFL.  Veterans Day is not just a time to remember those who served in combat.  Everyone who volunteers for military service does so knowing that a combat deployment is a realistic possibility.  That's a tremendous sacrifice for any 18-year old to make, but it is an especially big sacrifice for someone with the talent to play top level college football.  When Roger Staubach enrolled in the Naval Academy, he signed up for a military commitment beyond his four years of college.  While playing quarterback at Navy, Staubach won the Heisman, the Maxwell and the Walter Camp Award.  Staunch was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, but his professional career was put on hold for four years while he fulfilled his commitment to the United States Navy.  During one of those years, Staubach volunteered for assignment in Vietnam.  Staubach finally made his professional football debut in 1969 as a 27 year-old rookie.  Staubach led the Cowboys to a Super Bowl victory in 1977.  Perhaps Staubach's most lasting contribution to the sports world was when he coined the term "Hail Mary" in the football context.

Ted Williams.  United States Navy, 1942-46, 1952-53.  MLB.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Ted Williams served two stints in the military.  Both were during wartime, and both were in the middle of his playing career.  The "Splendid Splinter" is widely regarded as the greatest hitter who ever lived.  In 1941, Williams batted .406.  No one has matched that mark since then.  World War II erupted after that historic season.  Williams went to do his duty during the war and became a naval pilot.  Williams did not see combat during World War II, but he was recalled to to active duty in the Korean War.  During the Korean War, Williams flew numerous combat missions.  Williams is possibly the greatest athlete on this list.

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