Put Down the Ball and Pick Up the Gun
By Pete Henry
Many professional athletes have served in the various branches of the military for the United States.
Some have done so while at the height of their professional careers because they felt that protecting
our great nation was a cause much greater than scoring touchdowns or hitting home runs.
Memorial Day is the day we commemorate the soldiers of our military who have died while serving
our country. One man who did this was Pat Tillman. He left the NFL when he was in the prime of his
career to become an Army Ranger. He felt a greater calling when the 9/11 attacks occurred in 2001.
Tillman was not just a token on the Arizona Cardinals’ roster, he was a standout safety who was making
millions of dollars; all of which he forfeited when he went to Afghanistan to serve his country.
Rocky Bleier was a star running back for the Pittsburg Steelers in the 1970’s. Bleier was drafted in
the 16th round of the NFL draft out of the University of Notre Dame in 1968. He was drafted a second
time later that same year. This time it was Uncle Sam who chose the gritty half back. Bleier was sent
to Vietnam in May of 1969. He was put into combat early on and was wounded in a serious fashion as
his platoon came upon an ambush. Bleier was struck with rifle fire and shrapnel from a grenade in his
legs. He was barely able to walk. His professional football career appeared to be over before it really
started. Bleier received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service.
After two years of dedicated rehabilitation, Bleier made the Steelers roster and eventually earned
a spot in the starting backfield. He was a huge part of the four Super Bowl wins the Steelers achieved
while he played. Bleier is an inspiration to us all.
Former Philadelphia Eagle Chuck Bednarik joined the Air Force right after high school. Bednarik was
a B-24 waist-gunner for the Eighth Air Force. He flew in thirty combat missions over Germany in World
War II. Bednarik was highly decorated. After his services, he attended the University of Pennsylvania
to play football. The player who eventually became known as “Concrete Charlie” was a true 60-minute
man. This meant he played every snap of the game, at both linebacker and center. He was drafted by
the Eagles in 1949. Bednarik is considered by many to be the greatest player in Eagles’ history.
Roger Staubach is thought to be one of the best quarterbacks of all time. He played for the Dallas
Cowboys but not before serving a year in Vietnam for the United States Navy. Staubach could have
done all of his time with the Navy in the United States but instead volunteered to go to Vietnam where
he was a Supply Corps officer until 1967. He joined the Cowboys in 1969.
There have been many other professional athletes who served their country. Some of these include
New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, who served in the Navy during World War II; Hall of Fame pitcher
Hoyt Wilhelm received a Purple Heart for his actions in the Battle of the Bulge during WWII; Jackie
Robinson served as a lieutenant for a tank battalion in World War II and Ted Williams, who is assumed
by many to be the greatest hitter baseball has ever seen, served in both World War II and the Korean
War. Williams gave several of his best playing years to the military. There were so many more athletes
in addition to those I mentioned that had put aside their professional sports careers for what they felt
was a greater cause.
These brave men are to be saluted for their sacrifices and courage and they will surely never be