These sports stars put their professional careers on the line to protect their country in the Armed Forces.
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Pat Tillman, NFL
After four seasons with the Cardinals from 1998 to 2001, Pat Tillman had every bearing of a star in the making, recording 247 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and three interceptions at safety in 60 games. In June 2002, though, he decided to enlist in the United States Army. Even though Tillman had the chance to sign a three-year deal worth $3.6 million with Arizona, he opted to turn that down to fight for his country. Tillman served in Iraq and Afghanistan and was part of the Army Rangers before his death from friendly fire at the age of 27 on April 22, 2004. His memory lives on in the Pat Tillman Foundation, which was started by Tillman’s family and friends to provide academic scholarships, educational opportunities, and support to military veterans and their families.
Ted Williams, MLB
Williams is one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, but his career was interrupted multiple times for military service. After hitting for the American League Triple Crown in 1942, the Boston Red Sox star served in the US Navy and US Marine Corps from 1943 to 1945, training as a pilot while also playing baseball in the Army League. He dominated upon his return to the Major League, winning an AL MVP award and helping the Red Sox make it to the World Series—but in 1952 he went back to military service for the Korean War, where he served as a Marine combat aviator. Ultimately, Williams hit 521 home runs in his career and was the last MLB player to hit over .400 in a season. His fantastic hitting ability made many wonder what his numbers would have looked like if he did not have gaps for military service.
Jackie Robinson, MLB
Before breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Robinson was drafted into service for World War II. The future Brooklyn Dodgers star became a second lieutenant in 1943 after getting into Officer Candidate School, and was later assigned to the 761st "Black Panthers" Tank Battalion. Robinson didn’t see action overseas and was honorably discharged in 1944. He went on to be one of the most influential baseball players of all time, winning the National League MVP award in 1949 and the World Series with the Dodgers in 1955. His number 42 jersey is retired by all 30 MLB teams.
David Robinson, NBA
San Antonio Spurs star David Robinson earned his nickname “The Admiral” the old-fashioned way—he went to college at the United States Naval Academy and served in the Navy after graduating. The Spurs drafted Robinson in the 1987 NBA Draft, but he didn’t suit up for the team until 1989, as he had to serve for two years in the Navy. Robinson served as a civil engineering officer at the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia before starting his career with the Spurs, where he spent his entire NBA career, winning two championships.
Yogi Berra, MLB
Yogi Berra was one of the most successful baseball players of all time—he made it to 18 All-Star games and won 13 World Series during his career—but before debuting in the MLB, Berra served in World War II. Berra served in the U.S. Navy as a gunner’s mate and took part in the D-Day Invasion in 1944, helping to launch rockets and fire machine guns at the German forces on the beach. Berra was called up to the major leagues in 1946 and became one of the best (and most quotable) offensive players in history, finishing his career with 358 home runs.
Jack Dempsey, Boxing
“The Manassa Mauler” became famous as a boxer in the 1920s, holding the World Heavyweight Championship for a number of years. Long after that run, he served in World War II as a lieutenant in the Coast Guard Reserve. Dempsey was part of the USS Arthur Middleton crew during the invasion of Okinawa and was honorably discharged in 1952.
Roger Staubach, NFL
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach attended the U.S. Naval Academy in college, where he won the 1963 Heisman Trophy and finished runner-up behind the University of Texas for the national title. (Back then, college football national champions were named by voting, rather than with a championship game.) Staubach was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the 1964 NFL Draft, but he did not play for the team until 1969, due to his commitment to serve in the Armed Forces. The future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback served in the Supply Corps from 1964 to 1968 and spent a year of his service in Vietnam, helping supply Da Nang Air Base. Staubach won two Super Bowl titles during his career with the Cowboys and was selected to the Pro Bowl six times.
Joe DiMaggio, MLB
"The Yankee Clipper" was one of the best players in baseball—he'd just capped the longest hitting streak in baseball history with 56 games, a record that still stands—when he put a pause on his career to enlist in the United States Army Air Forces in 1943. He served for nearly three years before receiving a medical discharge in 1945. DiMaggio entered the Armed Forces during the prime years of his career—and he still finished his playing days with 13 All-Star appearances and nine World Series championships.
Arnold Palmer, Golf
“The King” spent time in the U.S. Coast Guard during the early days of his career, serving from 1951 to 1953. Palmer said in an interview that he enlisted after his roommate at Wake Forest was killed in a car accident and felt that he “needed to get away.” Palmer was able to continue his golfing career while serving in the Coast Guard, where was a yeoman for the commander of the 9th Coast Guard District Auxiliary. Palmer finished his career with 62 PGA Tour wins, including seven major championships.
Alejandro Villanueva, NFL
The 6’9”, 320-pound offensive lineman served three tours of duty in Afghanistan after attending the United States Military Academy, where he played for the Army football team at a number of positions, including left tackle, defensive lineman, and wide receiver. Villanueva served as an Army Ranger and was awarded a Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan. Villanueva first signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014 as a defensive end, but he was cut during the preseason. The Pittsburgh Steelers later signed Villanueva to the practice squad and had him gain weight to play as an offensive lineman, where he started 10 games for the team in 2015.
Mike Anderson, NFL
NFL running back Mike Anderson served in the United States Marine Corps after graduating high school, which is where he was spotted as a potential football prospect. Anderson was playing for the 11th Marines contact football team when he was offered the chance to play at Mt. San Jacinto Junior College, which led to an opportunity at the University of Utah, where he starred as a running back alongside fellow future NFL player Steve Smith. Anderson won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 2000 after playing with the Denver Broncos, rushing for 1,487 yards that season.
Joe Cardona, NFL
The New England Patriots selected the long snapper as a fifth round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft out of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he started for four years on the Midshipmen football team. Cardona was approved to have his Naval assignment delayed so that he could play for the Patriots in 2015; during that season he played in all 16 games for New England.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, NBA
"The Greek Freak” is an all-around beast for the Milwaukee Bucks—at 6’11” and 222 lbs, he has the strength and athletic ability to play all five positions on the court. Antetokounmpo hails from Athens, Greece, and like all Greek men, he is required to serve in the military. Giannis and his brother Thanasis both served during the summer of 2016 to fulfill their requirements for service.
Johnny Lujack, NFL
Lujack was attending the University of Notre Dame when World War II broke out, leading him to serve in the United States Navy as an officer. The quarterback helped the Navy search for German subs in the English Channel during his time in service. When he returned, he helped the Fighting Irish go 9-0 during the 1947 season. Following his time in college and the Armed Forces, Lujack played for the Chicago Bears and set a number of NFL records, including the most passing yards in a game and the most rushing touchdowns for a quarterback in a season (both of those records were later broken). Lujack won three national titles in college and made the Pro Bowl twice in the NFL.
Doc Blanchard, Football
“Mr. Inside” attended the United States Military Academy at West Point and starred on the football team, winning three straight national titles from 1944-1946 and making the All-American team in each of those years. Aside from maybe his counterpart, Glenn "Mr. Outside" Davis, Blanchard was an unmatched athlete during his time at West Point—he played linebacker, fullback, kicker, and punter for the team, and even competed for the Academy's track and field team. Although Blanchard never played professional ball—he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL—he was the first college junior to win the Heisman Trophy, and was unquestionably one of America's greatest sports stars at a time when college football dominated America's sporting attention.