In my house growing up, I was always taught the importance of honoring our Veterans. My grandfather was a huge influence on my life, and I always looked up to him and his more than 30 years of service to his country in the United States Army, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Every Veterans Day, I would make the same phone call and give the same speech to him: “Just wanted to call and say happy Veterans Day to my favorite grumpy, old soldier. You’re my hero and I love you.”
I am forever grateful for my family members who risked their lives serving our great nation, and for all Veterans who had a part in ensuring that we can enjoy the many freedoms that most of us probably never even think about. Of those is the freedom to enjoy sports, thanks to the men and women that help defend our country. Amongst those Veterans are many notable professional athletes who also served in our military, and the purpose of this piece is to highlight their military careers as they are for more than just another player.
One of the most recent examples for Veterans in baseball is longtime manager and player Dusty Baker. Baker is of course a World Series champion as manager with the Houston Astros and one as a player with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981. Baker enlisted in the Marine Corps reserve unit and served from 1968 to 1974 as a mechanic in motor transport and credits his Marine experience for a lot of his success in baseball.
“I learned more about teamwork in the Marines, more than anything else. If we get in a fight or whatever there is, you better not touch my teammate.” - Dusty Baker
New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra is one of the most iconic players in the team's history and is of course a 10-time World Series Champion. Berra was also in action during the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach on June 6 of 1944 while enlisted in the Navy. That day would go down in history as a huge turning point for the allies in World War 2.
One of baseball’s all time great hitters, Ted Williams, also served in the Navy as a fighter pilot. In May of 1944, Williams commissioned and earned his pilot’s wings and went onto become an instructor Marine Corps Reserves. Williams was recalled to active duty during the Korean War, where he flew 39 combat missions before returning to the Red Sox to finish out his illustrious career.
Pittsburgh's Roberto Clemente also served part-time military service after he enlisted with the Marine Corps Reserve in 1958, serving full time during his off-seasons until 1964. Clemente of course was heavily involved in serving his community in Pittsburgh and his home in Puerto Rico up until the day he passed away.
Another Pittsburgh sports legend, Rocky Bleier, was drafted twice in 1968, once by the Steelers, and then again to serve in the Army and was shipped out to Vietnam in 1969. After a grenade sent shrapnel through his lower leg, Bleier was told he may never walk let alone play football ever again. Bleier would remain on the Steelers IR until 1974 where he would finally earn a spot on the active roster and went on to win four Super Bowls.
One of the original scrambling quarterbacks was Roger Staubach, and the Dallas Cowboys legend wouldn’t even sniff a starting spot in Dallas due to his military obligations after graduating from the Naval Academy, where he won the Heisman Trophy. Following four years of service in Vietnam, Staubach would join the Cowboys in 1969 and would go on to win two Super Bowls.
Pat Tillman was once told that he may be too small to play professional football, but he had a spirit as big as the stadiums he played in. The Arizona State product was drafted in the seventh round of the 1998 NFL draft and started 10 of 16 games his rookie season as one of the hardest hitters in football. Eight months following the September 11 attacks, Tillman turned down a contract extension from the Cardinals and enlisted in the Army with his brother Kevin, where they would both become Army Rangers. Tillman was sadly killed in a friendly fire accident in Afghanistan in 2004 and left behind a legacy of service before self.
David Robinson nearly quit the Naval Academy after fears that his height may limit his opportunities as an officer. It did allow him the ability to become one of the greatest NBA big men of all time, and prior to an incredible NBA career Robinson commissioned as a staff officer in the Civil Engineer Corps and served an active duty commitment of two years.
Boxer Joe Lewis was one of the most feared and dominant champions of his era, holding the heavyweight title from 1937 to 1949. During that time Lewis enlisted in the Army (ironically one day after a charity boxing match for the Navy) and became an integral part of the advancement of minority officers receiving fair treatment and opportunities. Twenty-six championship fights would go onto be just a footnote in the legends career, as he was also a huge part of the civil rights movement in America as well.
There are plenty of other incredible athletes that served in the armed forces, all of which contribute greatly to keeping America the land of the free and the home of the brave. Veterans Day is a time to reflect on what we are thankful for as Americans, as brave men and women serve their country every day ensuring we maintain all the values that we all hold true as Americans. Take a break from the sports this weekend to thank any service members you may know or meet along the way, as they deserve our respect and admiration.