Veterans Day: 11 great athletes who served in the United States military
On this Veterans Day, Fox Sports shares the stories of 11 great athletes who served in our nation's miltary.
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A Navy grad, Robinson grew so much in college, where he went from basketball newbie to the nation's best player in four short years, that the Navy sliced his five-year requirement to two years because Robinson was "not physically qualified as an unrestricted line officer in the United States Navy.'' Translation: Dude was too tall. Try walking around submarines or airplanes at 6-foot-1 let alone 7-foot-1. (That Robinson was already one-inch taller than the Navy's 6-foot-6 maximum upon his arrival in Annapolis has always been sort of a wink-wink kind of thing.)
The quotable catcher was a 19-year-old gunner's mate during D-Day, firing upon German defenses while Allied troops stormed the beaches. After that, those 10 World Series titles and all the records he set for catchers, the Yankees and the Fall Classic must have seemed anticlimactic.
In 2002, the Arizona Cardinals safety turned down a multimillion-dollar contract to join the Army Rangers to fight in the war on terror after 9/11. He was killed in Afghanistan two years later. At first, authorities claimed he'd died by enemy fire but it was later revealed a mix-up during a desert ambush led to a friendly fire death.
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After hitting .406 in 1941, Williams played in 1942 off a deferment from the military but soon after enlisted in the Navy. His stint as a flight student eventually led to becoming an instructor in 1944 after large amounts of fighter pilots were no longer needed in the Pacific theater. He returned to baseball after three missed seasons and then, in 1952, was called out again to serve as a fighter pilot in Korea. Stories about Williams eagerly leaving Fenway six games into the '52 season to defend his country aren't true - he was bitter to have to leave - but after he flew 39 combat missions, including one in which he had a belly-first landing after an explosion rocked his plane. Williams landed the jet, which was totaled and walked away. Overall he missed four years of his prime due to war service and though he didn't want to leave that second time, he ended up enriched by the experience. "The guys I met in the Marine Corps were the greatest [guys] I ever met," he said.
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The Cleveland Indians star served in the Army for three years, seeing WWII action in the Pacific. The year after he got out of the Army, he broke the color barrier in the American League and went on to have a Hall of Fame career.
The future New York Giants All-Pro and legendary Dallas Cowboys coach enlisted in the Army reserve after hearing his brother died when his B-17 was lost over the Atlantic. Landry, who left the University of Texas for the war effort, went on to fly 30 combat missions with Army Air Corps and survived a crash landing in Belgium.
The South Carolina native, who didn't play high-school football, joined the Marines after graduating. But he caught some attention playing for his regiment team, went to Somalia and Kenya for peacekeeping work, finished his stint in the Marines, excelled in junior college, starred at Utah and became a 27-year-old sixth-round pick by the running-back happy Denver Broncos. In December of his rookie season he set the single-game NFL record for most rushing yards by a rookie and was named Offensive Rookie of the Year.
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After winning the Heisman in 1963, Staubach, then a junior at the Naval Academy, was taken as a 10th-round futures pick by the Dallas Cowboys even though he still had his senior year to play. But Staubach was something of a future-future's pick, as upon graduating from the Naval Academy in 1965, he had a required five-year service to the Navy. He was active duty for four of those years and served in Vietnam in one. Staubach was a 27-year-old NFL rookie and didn't assume full-time duties until he was 29. From there, he won two Super Bowls, was the QB on the NFL's 1970s all-decade team and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1985.
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The former Oklahoma star, who was in the ROTC, played one year with the Bills before voluntarily going to Vietnam. In July of 1971, his battery was stuck atop a rock formation 700 feet above the jungle floor taking heavy fire from the enemy. As recounted later by his best friend in the service, Kalsu was sharing a story about his wife having their second child when an 82-mm mortar hit near the bunker door, killing Kalsu just hours before his wife gave birth. He was the only American professional athlete to die in Vietnam. In 2001, Sports Illustrated put Kalsu on the cover with a brilliant accompanying story by William Nack. On this Veterans Day, take some time and read it.
Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Feller, then 23, became the first American athlete to volunteer for the war effort - getting sworn in two days after the attacks. ("I was mad as hell," he said of the bombings.) Though he was given an exemption (like many athletes, he could have stayed stateside or taken on a safer role overseas), Feller volunteered for combat missions anyway. He was a gun captain on an antiaircraft mount on the USS Alabama.
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A 16th-round pick by the Steelers in 1968 who had just six carries his rookie year, Bleier was drafted to serve in Vietnam and found himself in combat at a time when the few athletes who were drafted were able to go into the reserves stateside. One year later, he was shot in the left thigh while on patrol in Heip Duc and also took a grenade thats shrapnel went through the lower half of his right leg and foot. He recovered, went back to the Steelers and was a constant presence on the offense during the '70s. In 1976, Bleier ran for 1,036 yards and over a 10-year career following his service he started 13 playoff games and was on four Super Bowl-winning teams.