Any way you slice it, the most uncoordinated of military members is still more physically capable than many civilians. At the very least, they’ve passed the standard PT tests required to get through basic training.
But there is not, in fact, a large margin of uncoordinated people in the military. Athletes seem to be drawn to service — it’s a way to use their physical gifts for a cause greater than them, and many take advantage of it. So it’s not surprising that there are a great number of renowned athletes who took the military oath.
While some of these men were willing to give up small fortunes in missed games to serve their country, make no mistake: It’s rare. For every professional athlete sworn in, there’s a dozen more who would rather be collecting a paycheck.
In recognition of this unique sacrifice, take a look at 15 famous athletes who served:
Athletes Who Served
13. Bobby Jones
One of the most influential golfers in history, Jones helped design the Augusta National Club and co-founded the Masters Tournament. He is known for his “Grand Slam,” where he won all four major golf tournaments of 1930 (pre-Masters): The Amateur Championship, The Open Championship, U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur.
Jones enlisted in World War II when he was already in his forties. He started work in aerial map analysis, but was insistent on being put in the action. He specialized in prisoner interrogation and was on the front lines in Normandy.
Jones’s career ended in 1948 when he was diagnosed with syringomyelia, a fluid-filled cavity in the spinal cord that paralyzed him. He passed away in December 1971 at the age of 69.
Also Read: 9 Famous Golfers Who Served in the Military
12. Whitey Ford
You may know this star Yankees pitcher as “The Chairman of the Board.” He spent 16 years with the Yankees, winning the World Series six times and securing All-Star status 10 times. His uniform number, 16, was retired by the Yankees in 1974 — also the year he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Born and bred in Queens, Ford was made for the baseball field. He played for the minors for three years — where he was called “Whitey” due to his hair color — before he made it to the MLB in 1950. He busted onto the scene, winning AL Rookie of the Year. However, he would go on to miss the 1951 and 1952 seasons while he served during the Korean War.
Now 91 years old, Ford is considered the best living Yankee of all time. He won 236 games for the franchise (236-106 record), the most ever, and he has a winning percentage of .690.
11. Rocky Bleier
Pittsburgh Steelers fans remember Rocky Bleier well. He’s the only halfback on our list of athletes who served, and he worked in tandem with star running back Franco Harris to lead the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories in the 1970s. But before the Super Bowls, fresh off his rookie season, Bleier was drafted into the Vietnam War, volunteering for service in South Vietnam.
Bleier deployed with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade in May of 1969. He was what’s known as a squad grenadier, or essentially someone who operates a grenade launcher. Less than four months into his tour, Bleier was shot in an ambush, the bullet lodging into his left thigh. He also sustained shrapnel injuries into his lower right leg, and lost part of his foot when a grenade exploded. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, but when we returned to the Steelers in 1970, he found he couldn’t walk properly and had lost over 30 pounds.
That didn’t stop him. Bleier worked hard, knowing he would regret it later if he didn’t, and played on special teams rather than sitting on the bench. He packed on the weight he had lost and eventually earned his way to the starting halfback position.
On the field, Bleier was known for his incredible lead blocking ability that allowed Harris to become one of the all-time great rushers; but Bleier wasn’t a bad rusher himself. In 1976, both backs rushed for over 1,000 yards, making the Steelers only the second-ever NFL team to do this (behind Mercury Morris and Larry Csonka of the ‘72 Dolphins). And, of course, Bleier won Super Bowls. The highlight of his career was perhaps the touchdown pass he caught from Terry Bradshaw that cemented the Steelers’ lead over the Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII.
10. Tom Seaver
Tom Seaver is one of baseball’s greatest pitchers of all time. Though he bounced around quite a few locker rooms in his career, he’s best known for his 1969 World Series run with the Mets.
Seaver wasn’t called Tom Terrific for nothing. A right-handed pitcher, he snagged the NL Rookie of the Year Award in ‘67, and won three Cy Young Awards as the league’s best pitcher. He’s still the Mets’ all-time leader in wins, known not only for his World Series run, but his no-hitter in 1978 and his 12-time All-Star status. All in all, Seaver enjoyed a very successful 20-year MLB career.
But before he was ever all that terrific, Seaver served in the U.S. Marine Corps. During the Vietnam War, he spent three months at boot camp, three months in active duty at Camp Pendleton, and over five years as a reservist. He later attributed his success in baseball to the military.
“The principles that I learned in boot camp were the principles that I took to the mound — focus, dedication. I wouldn’t have made it without the Marine Corps.”
9. Hank Greenberg
Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg was the star of the Detroit Tigers team in the ‘30s and ‘40s. He’s considered one of the greatest sluggers of all time, with a batting average over .300 in eight seasons and two World Series titles under his belt.
When Greenberg entered the baseball scene, he was the youngest-ever MLB player at 19 years old. And he knew how to hit ‘em. In 1938, Hammerin’ Hank narrowly missed breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record with 58 home runs. He had 11 games that season with multiple home runs — a record that was finally tied by Sammy Sosa in 1998.
In 1940, Greenberg became the first American League baseball player to register for the U.S.’s peacetime draft. It was only eight days after the Tigers had lost the World Series to the Reds. Even though he was deemed unfit for serious service due to flat feet, Greenberg requested to be reexamined, and was cleared in April 1941. As an Army soldier, his yearly salary was cut from $55,000 to $252, but Greenberg seemed to take it well. “I made up my mind to go when I was called. My country comes first.”
Although he was honorably discharged two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Greenberg reenlisted in the Army Air Corps and went to Officer Candidate School. He served in the China-Burma-India theater for six months scouting for B-29 Bomber bases. All in all, he served for 47 months of active duty during World War II, the longest period of any baseball player.
He was also a proud Jewish man, sitting out Yom Kippur in 1934 despite the fact that the MLB didn’t recognize the holiday. Greenberg was one of the few baseball players to publicly welcome Jackie Robinson to the league in ‘47.
8. Ted Williams
Ted Williams played left fielder for the Boston Red Sox for 19 years, from 1939 to 1960. Nicknamed “The Kid,” Williams was a star hitter, 19-time All-Star, two-time AL MVP, six-time AL batting champion, and two-time Triple Crown winner. After nearly two decades of hitting the ball, he came out with a .344 batting average and 521 home runs. His .482 on-base percentage is the highest of all time.
In 1942, Williams’ career was put on hold when he was drafted. He joined the Navy Reserve in May and went on active duty in 1943, before being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. While he was posted in North Carolina — training to be a naval aviator — Williams had the opportunity to play on an All-Star team managed by Babe Ruth, who told him, “You’re one of the most natural ballplayers I’ve ever seen. And if my record is broken, I hope you’re the one to do it.”
Although he was discharged from service in 1946, Williams ended up getting called back in ‘52 for the Korean War. Before he left for Korea, the Red Sox had a “Ted Williams Day” in Fenway Park, in which he received gifts and encouragement from his friends and fans.
Today, Williams’ hitting technique — detailed in his book “The Science of Hitting” — is still widely regarded by modern baseball players. His .406 batting average in 1941 is the last time an MLB player ever posted a batting average over .400 in a season.
7. Chad Hennings
Chad Hennings is an airman and patriot through and through. He is one of the athletes who served that didn’t seem to place his sport above the military. In fact, his first success on the gridiron came playing for the Air Force Academy Falcons, and he won the Outland Trophy during his senior year — an award given to the best lineman in college football.
The following year, 1988, Hennings was drafted in the 11th round of the NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys. He dropped so late because of his eight-year commitment to the Air Force, but Cowboys GM Tex Schramm decided to take a chance on him.
Hennings did serve his commitment. He went into immediate flight training, and became an A-10 pilot for the 92nd Tactical Fighter Squadron. He deployed twice to the Persian Gulf; flying 45 missions for Operation Provide Comfort, which provided aid to Kurdish refugees in Northern Iraq. He was twice awarded the Air Force Achievement Medal for his humanitarian efforts.
After the Gulf War ended, Hennings was able to have the last four years of his active-duty commitment waived, although he continued his service for nine years as a liaison officer to the Air Force Academy. However, leaving active duty meant he could join the Dallas Cowboys team as a 26-year-old rookie. For years, he was in a key rotation spot on one of the best defensive lines in the history of football; finally moving up to first string in 1995. Jimmy Johnson’s star-studded team won the Super Bowl in ‘93, ‘94, and ‘96.
6. Willie Mays
Mays — or “The Say Hey Kid” — is one of the most famous names on this list of athletes who served. He spent almost his entire 22-season professional career with the New York/San Francisco Giants, and finished with the Mets.
Mays’ time in the MLB culminated in a .302 career batting average and 660 home runs. He is also one of only five players to post eight consecutive 100-RBI seasons. An all-around athlete, Mays is considered by many to be the greatest offensive baseball player of all time; someone who can do it all: hit for a high batting average or for power, run the bases well, throw well, and field well.
Despite his many career accolades, Mays only secured the World Series once, in 1954 with the then-New York Giants.
But many people don’t know about Mays’ time in the Army. Drafted in 1952, he missed most of that season and all of the 1953 season; a total of 266 missed games. He made up for it by spending much of his time serving on the field at Fort Eustis, where he learned the basket catch. Mays was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
5. Roger Staubach
Although Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman led the Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories in the ‘90s, it was Staubach and Landry who began the Cowboys’ tradition of winning.
Staubach attended the Naval Academy, where he won the Heisman Trophy in 1963 before doing a tour of duty in Vietnam. He served as a supply corps officer at Chu Lai base/port, which provided relief for Da Nang Air Base. But after he returned to the homefront in 1967, Staubach had a one-track mind: football.
Joining the NFL in 1969, Staubach would spend his entire 11 seasons there with the Dallas Cowboys. He and Tom Landry are considered one of the greatest coach-quarterback combinations of all time. Although the duo only took home two rings, they marched the Cowboys to five separate Super Bowl appearances in the 1970s.
His first Super Bowl win — and the most impressive — was the Cowboys’ 24-3 victory over Don Shula’s perfect Dolphins team in 1972. His second came five years later against the Denver Broncos, where Staubach threw for 183 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions. His only weakness appeared to be the Steel Curtain; a nickname for the defensive line of the ‘70s Pittsburgh Steelers.
4. Tom Landry
The other half of the great ‘70s duo, Landry’s head coaching career with the Cowboys was even more impressive than Staubach’s playing career — lasting almost three decades.
Landry was also a Veteran. His brother’s death early in the Second World War spurred him to join up and become a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot. He flew 30 dangerous combat missions between 1944 and 1945, and seemed to genuinely enjoy flying aircraft — even after a crash landing once in Belgium.
After returning from war, Landry went on to play five years with the New York Giants at cornerback. However, his true talent was in coaching. He only spent a year pioneering the Giants defense before he was hired on as the Cowboys head coach — a position that would rocket him into the record books. His greatest achievement, aside from his five Super Bowl appearances and two wins, was his coaching record. At 270-178-6, Landry is one of the winningest coaches in NFL history, and had an amazing 60% win rate.
3. Joe Louis
Joe Louis is widely considered one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time. Competing between 1934 and 1951, he was called the “Brown Bomber.” He had an all-time record of 69-3, 52 knockouts, and defended his world heavyweight title 25 consecutive times.
But aside from Louis’s smashing success in the ring, he helped break the color barrier in America. He experienced a torrent of racism throughout his career — so much so that he had to abide by strict rules to stay out of trouble, including:
- Never having his picture taken with a white woman
- Never gloating over a fallen opponent
- Never engaging in fixed fights
- Living and fighting clean
But despite these unfair standards, Louis maintained a polished profile and great attitude, propelling him into nationwide fame. He also helped integrate the sport of golf in the 1950s.
Louis was a hero for many young African American boys. A hero in sports, and a real-life hero — the day after fighting a charity match for the Navy Relief Society in 1942, Louis enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army. In that year, he donated his profits from two separate fights — a total of nearly $100,000 — to the Army and Navy relief societies. He went on to serve in the Special Services Division to raise the spirits of the troops.
Although he never saw combat, he did regularly fight against racism. On one occasion, a military police officer ordered Louis and fellow boxer Sugar Ray Johnson to move to the back of a bus depot. Louis refused, and argued his way out of punishment. On another, he defended baseball star Jackie Robinson when he punched a captain who had used a racial slur against him.
When asked to comment on the racial segregation in the Army, Louis said, “Lots of things wrong with America, but Hitler ain’t going to fix them.”
2. Jackie Robinson
Another famous athlete who served, Jackie Robinson is known for being the first African American player in the MLB. Robinson, who played for a decade, won Rookie of the Year in 1947, All-Star for six consecutive seasons, and NL MVP in 1949. He played in six World Series matches for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Before he was ever the famous Jackie Robinson, No. 42, however, he was an Army soldier. Robinson served as a second lieutenant from 1942 to 1944. Unfortunately, Robinson’s time in the Army was marked by racism. For refusing to move to the back of a bus, he was court-martialed, transferred to another battalion, and charged on multiple false offenses, including public drunkenness. The proceedings prevented him from ever being deployed, and gave him a taste for the racial attacks he would later experience during his MLB career.
It’s not all bad news, though. Much more than his baseball accolades was his national profile. Robinson heavily influenced the civil rights movement, and his presence in the national eye paved the way for all black athletes in the pros — not just baseball players. Robinson’s influence was so that his jersey number, 42, was retired across every team in the league in 1997 — the first time any pro athlete has ever been honored in such a way.
1. Pat Tillman
Every service member knows this name, and for good reason. While any service is good and honorable, Tillman didn’t have to be drafted to take the military oath. Instead, he turned down a multimillion-dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army after 9/11. Instead, he pushed himself to become an elite Army Ranger and serve his country with distinction.
Tillman’s football career began as a linebacker for Arizona State University. He was drafted into the NFL in 1998, and started 10 of 16 games at safety during his rookie season with the Cardinals. Tillman broke out of his shell in 2000, posting 155 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recovers, nine pass deflections, and one 30-yard interception: He was an undeniably explosive player.
Eight months after the September 11 attacks, when Tillman had finished the 2001 season, he turned down a $3.6 million, three-year contract offer for Army service. He was, in fact, no stranger to saying no — he had previously turned down $9 million from the Rams out of loyalty to the Cardinals. He and his brother, Kevin, ended up enlisting together, both earning the title of Army Ranger before they deployed to Iraq.
In September 2003, the Tillman brothers came back stateside to complete Ranger School at Fort Benning. Then, they were redeployed to Afghanistan, on what would be Pat’s last tour. He died on April 22, 2004, from what was later determined to be friendly fire. The Army faced much criticism after they initially tried to cover up the incident.
Although Tillman’s time in the Army was short, his legacy has lasted much longer. His wife, Marie, founded the Pat Tillman Foundation, which provides scholarships to service members, Veterans, and spouses, empowering them to succeed.