The word “hero” is probably a bit overused when it comes to professional athletes. There’s no doubt that sports stars of the modern age do incredible things on the field. Their finely-tuned bodies perform in ways we mere mortals can’t even begin to mimic. But most of us would probably stop short of deeming their competitive achievements as “heroic.” After all, it’s merely a game, right? Heroism is reserved for people like firefighters, first responders, and soldiers who serve for a greater purpose.
That demarcation hasn’t always been the case, though. In fact, sports stars of the past did actually serve their country in truly heroic fashion. From World War I all the way through Vietnam, and even occasionally in our more recent Middle East invasions, some of America’s pro athletes have stepped up in stunning ways. They fought for their freedoms and put their lives on the line for ours. Today, you’ll learn about ten sports superstars who walked away from the game they loved—and the often-lucrative contracts that came with it—to serve their nation and fight for freedom.
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10 Pat Tillman
Pat Tillman had it all in the late 1990s. He was a star football player at Arizona State University. Then, when he was drafted into the NFL in 1998, superstardom was at his doorstep. The tough-nosed tackler was the captain of the Arizona Cardinals. For several seasons, the safety led a vaunted group of defenders in Phoenix. And then, the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, happened. Tillman was deeply moved by the horrific attacks on New York and Washington.
Even though he was a millionaire starring in the hallowed world of pro football, he walked away from it all. After the attacks, Tillman joined the Army. His brother enlisted, too. In the end, Tillman turned away from a $3.6 million contract extension to serve his country. He also turned down all media interviews about the decision. He was worried about the media blitz that might come from his shocking career reversal. With that, Tillman’s actions proved he was far more concerned with service than fame.
By 2003, he was serving in Iraq. He was even deployed as part of the rescue of Jessica Lynch. However, he grew weary of the public relations and propaganda pushed out amid that rescue. He began to worry about being used as “a big public relations stunt” for Army recruitment. Still, he persisted in the fighting. In 2004, he was serving on active duty in Afghanistan. During a mission in a desert mountain area there, he was killed in a firefight. But as it soon came out, his death was not at the hands of enemy combatants. Instead, it was friendly fire.
Military investigations called the events leading to Tillman’s death “gross negligence.” Some officials have even wondered whether there was more nefarious criminal intent at play. The mystery around Tillman’s death remains a notable black mark on the Army and its recent Middle East exploits to this day. But there’s no question about the football star’s heroic actions. He chose to walk away from riches to fight for freedom—and paid the ultimate price.
9 Bobby Jones
World War II was an all-encompassing event. Millions of American men went into the armed services. Millions of women back home worked in factories to help the effort. On the domestic front, daily sacrifices were made to ration goods for the troops. Professional athletes weren’t immune to these moves. For the first part of the war, athletes took on fundraising roles to help the military. Throughout 1942, pro golfers held charity games and exhibitions to raise money. But after the Masters that year, one duffer wanted to do more.
Bobby Jones was one of the country’s best golfers that year, but he thought he could make more of an impact. So he walked away from golf and applied for a commission in the Army officer corps. Jones was 40 years old at the time, but he didn’t want his appointment to be ceremonial. “I don’t want to be a hoopty-da officer of some camp,” he told Army officials. They granted his wish.
When Jones joined up, he was made a captain of the First Fighter Command. A year later, he was promoted to Major and assigned to the Ninth Air Force. By the end of 1943, he was serving on active duty in England. And the next year, his unit was part of history. When the Americans invaded the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, the superstar golfer was there. Jones and his unit stormed the French beach on D-Day with more than 150,000 other Allied troops. Fighting valiantly during Operation Overlord, they waded through the waves and trudged across the sand. Jones and his men took heavy fire for hours.
Like many D-Day veterans, they witnessed horrors unimaginable to the rest of us. And they were the lucky ones. Jones lived to make it back to America, returning to his old life after the war in which so many other men had given theirs. Bobby quickly returned to golf stardom, too, upon being honorably discharged months after the invasion. But he carried his poignant and difficult military experience with him for the rest of his life.
8 Larry Doby
Jackie Robinson is known across America for breaking the color barrier in baseball. But the second Black pioneer was just as honorable. Larry Doby became the first Black player in the American League when he joined the Cleveland Indians three months after Robinson broke through with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Before that, Doby had honed his skills on the diamond with the Negro League’s Newark Eagles. And right in the middle of his career, during his physical prime, he stepped away from the game to serve in war.
Doby was born in South Carolina to a black father who served in World War I. His dad was a semi-pro baseball player after that, too. So Larry had baseball in his blood from a young age. But when he was just eight years old, his dad died in a tragic accident. Unmoored, his mother moved Larry north to Newark. As he got older, he sought solace in baseball. He became a local star in Newark before signing with the Eagles. For years, Doby led the way for the impressive Negro League bunch. Then, war came calling.
In 1943, Larry followed his father’s footsteps in another way. He joined the Navy that year to fight against the Axis powers. He was assigned to train in Illinois first. Then, he was shipped off to California. Finally, the Navy sent him halfway around the world. Doby recalled experiencing harmful discrimination while serving, but he stuck with it. At the height of the war, Larry was assigned to a unit in a faraway atoll called Ulithi in the Pacific Ocean’s Caroline Islands. He fought in battle and prepped for America’s push into the Philippines.
That move was destined to be followed by an invasion of Japan. Of course, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 changed that. But Doby saw real action in a difficult part of the Pacific Theater. By the time he returned to the U.S. and resumed his baseball career, he’d earned his reputation as a hero who stepped away from the game to serve his country. His pioneering bravery to break the color barrier in the American League only further cemented that impressive legacy.
7 Grover Cleveland Alexander
Grover Cleveland Alexander was one of the most impressive stars to ever play baseball. He began pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1911 and dominated the league for years. But right in the middle of his career, he stepped away to serve in World War I. Alexander, who was known by his nickname “Old Pete,” rose to the rank of sergeant after being drafted by the Army.
By 1918, he was serving on the front lines in France. While buried deep in the trenches, his unit engaged in months of grisly, scary combat. During that time, he suffered several awful gas attacks. Other times, his stronghold was rocked by grenade and bomb explosions. Alexander lived to make it back home after the war, but he was not the same man he’d been before fighting.
By 1919, Alexander had rejoined Major League Baseball. This time, he signed with the Chicago Cubs. He got back on the mound and continued pitching remarkably well. Physically, though, he was far different than he’d been before. His pitching arm had been mangled in an explosion during the war. He was deaf in one ear after sustaining shrapnel attacks in the trenches. His epileptic seizures had worsened greatly from the effects of battle. And he was suffering the devastating effects of what we now know as PTSD. Still, he pitched on.
Amazingly, “Old Pete” hurled fastballs across the league until 1930. He lived for another two decades after that. And by 1938, he achieved the highest honor in baseball when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Still, the horrors of war in Europe made the rest of his life remarkably more difficult—and altered his baseball career in ways untold.
6 Tom Landry
Today, Tom Landry is best known as the legendary head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. But during his earlier days, he was a star player in his own right. On the gridiron, Landry spent time with both the New York Giants and the New York Yankees. And his playing career was actually upended by war. During World War II, Landry served in the U.S. Army Air Force. He ended up flying more than 30 combat missions in the European Theater. He was trained to fly B-17 bombers and rushed to England to help troops there battle the Germans.
Landry was just 19 years old, but he had to grow up quickly. Soon, he found he excelled during combat. Most notably, he bombed an oil refinery in the German city of Merseburg while under constant fire from more than 600 anti-aircraft guns. “I never saw anything like that,” Landry recalled years later. “When we got there, it was just a cloud of black smoke from flak as you headed into the target. It was like flying inside a thundercloud.”
In later flights, Landry led other battle runs across Western Europe. In one instance, his B-17 crashed in France. Landry and the crew made it out of the crash alive simply because the plane had no fuel left on board when they went down. They landed roughly, but there was nothing to explode without fuel to set the mangled metal alight. By the end of the war, Landry had even flown missions in the notorious Battle of the Bulge.
But even though he made it out of battle unscathed, his family was not so lucky. Landry’s beloved older brother Robert also flew combat missions in the war. Sadly, in 1942, he was shot down on a battle run and died in the North Atlantic Ocean. Forever after, his little brother honored Robert’s memory with his own war heroics and later football exploits.
5 Bob Feller
Bob Feller signed with the Cleveland Indians straight out of high school in Van Meter, Iowa, in 1936. Three months later, he was in the big leagues. Over the next five years, he quickly rose to become baseball’s best pitcher. He led the Majors in wins for three seasons from 1939 through 1941—and then war put a pause on his career.
When the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Feller was back home in Iowa. He was preparing to sign his contract with Cleveland for the 1942 season that morning. Suddenly, news of the attack in Honolulu first broke. “It was about noon,” Feller recalled years later. “I had the radio on in the car and had just crossed the river into Quad Cities when I got the news. That was it. I had planned on joining the Navy as soon as the war broke out. Everybody knew that we were going to get in it sooner or later, and that was the day.”
Feller quickly made good his promise. Horrified by the tragedy of Pearl Harbor, he went down to a Naval enlistment office and joined up. Quickly, he became a chief petty officer in the Navy. He was assigned to the USS Alabama as a gun captain. The ship was then sent off to war. Feller and the Alabama’s convoy served in both the North Atlantic and South Pacific Oceans in both theaters of battle. He spent three years of the prime of his career away from baseball while on active duty.
Most notably, Feller and his crew fought the Japanese in the Marshall Islands and the Philippines. The group went on amphibious assaults and even survived a dangerous typhoon. After years at war, Feller returned to baseball and resumed his All-Star career. Eventually, it led him to the Hall of Fame as one of the greatest pitchers to ever play the game.
4 Jack Dempsey
Boxer Jack Dempsey had the chance to enlist and serve in World War I, but he didn’t take it. The pugilist claimed at the time that he was the sole provider and supporter of his wife, mother, and disabled sister. That was true. Dempsey really did work hard to support them. But he felt guilty for keeping away from active service during the Great War.
As his boxing career exploded over the next few years, the guilt grew. While other men went off to war and gave their lives for the country, Dempsey stayed home and became a star. In 1918, he was even photographed “working” in a Philadelphia shipyard as part of a publicity stunt. Eagle-eyed observers realized Jack’s clean clothes and shiny shoes made the “work” a charade. The negative publicity from that stint stayed with him for decades, even during a stellar career in the ring.
When Pearl Harbor happened in December 1941, Dempsey was already 47 years old. But he wanted to make things right after World War I. So he rushed to join the New York National Guard. That appointment eventually pushed him toward the Coast Guard. For a while, he was on a publicity tour with them because of his fame. But he got tired of that and pushed for active duty. The Navy gave it to him: Dempsey was assigned to the USS Arthur Middleton out in the middle of the Pacific.
Early in 1945, the ship was spiriting toward Okinawa for an assault on the Japanese. On April 1 of that year, the Middleton landed on Okinawa. Dempsey and the rest of his unit struggled to move up the beach while under fire. Thousands of men died around him as the Japanese mercilessly strafed the Americans. But Dempsey survived, and his heroic service stayed with him for the rest of his life. Even so, he played down his role in the fight. “They branded me a draft dodger in World War I and a hero in World War II,” Dempsey said later. “They got it wrong both times.”
3 Ty Cobb
Just like several other players on this list, Ty Cobb enjoyed a long career in Major League Baseball. And just like several others on this list, Cobb missed time in the prime of his career to serve his country. The Georgia-born star enlisted in the Army during World War I. Needing help on the front lines, they shipped him off to France. There, he was part of the Chemical Corps’ Gas and Flame Division. That unit was full of MLB stars.
During the Great War, more than 200 big leaguers served in the esteemed Chemical Warfare Service within that unit. Several Hall of Famers were among the group, including Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Branch Rickey, and George Sisler. For Cobb, serving was the only logical decision. “I feel mean every time I look at a casualty list,” he said of his hard-nosed on-field reputation. “I feel I must give up baseball at the close of the season and do my duty by my country in the best way possible.”
Cobb served in France near the tail end of the war. The slugger didn’t see active duty, but training within Europe was brutal enough. His unit was supposed to push through the no man’s land in between battle zones with chemical supplies. Their job was to douse enemy trenches with gas bombs and dangerous liquids. While training for that role ahead of the armistice, things went horribly wrong.
In one event, soldiers were sent into an airtight room for a planned gas release. They were supposed to get gas masks out to save themselves, but eight failed to do so and died. Cobb survived that and other training mishaps, but they affected his health forever. But he was lucky: Fellow future Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson was ravaged by a training mishap in the same Chemical Warfare Service. The star pitcher soon contracted tuberculosis and died in agony several years later. Cobb, on the other hand, returned to baseball and played another decade.
2 Rocky Bleier
Rocky Bleier was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers out of Notre Dame in 1968. He played his rookie year in Pittsburgh and seemed destined for stardom almost immediately. The Steelers’ famous Steel Curtain teams were dominating the competition. Bleier’s strong introduction to the league left fans ready for more. Then, he was called to serve in Vietnam. Early in 1969, Bleier was sent with a unit of Americans to serve in the South Asian nation.
In August of that year, the football star was with Charlie Company when they were deployed to rescue another group of soldiers. Bleier was shot in the leg and seriously injured. The star athlete thought he had made it back to safety moments later. But almost immediately, he discovered an enemy combatant had thrown a hand grenade at him. “It… rolled between my legs,” he recalled years later. “By the time I jumped to get up, it blew up. I was standing on top of it, and it blew up on my right foot, knee, and thigh.”
Bleier didn’t die when the grenade blew up, but he suffered severe injuries from it. He needed several immediate surgeries to save his legs and feet. In total, doctors pulled more than 100 pieces of shrapnel out of his body. The former Notre Dame star was certain his football career was over. However, rehab and recuperation worked wonders in his case. His strong, fit figure helped aid his recovery.
The next year, he returned to the Steelers. He stayed on injured reserve for a few seasons, but by 1972, he was back on the active roster. Through the rest of the 1970s, he starred in Pittsburgh. Around him, the team won four Super Bowls. And to think it all could have been over before it started had that grenade struck him just a bit differently back in Vietnam…
1 Jerry Coleman
Jerry Coleman was a decorated second baseman for the New York Yankees through the 1950s. Along with a famed group that included Joe DiMaggio, Coleman went to six World Series with the Bronx Bombers. Later in his life, he managed the San Diego Padres and then broadcast for that team for decades. But by far, his most proud accomplishment came prior to all that, during World War II.
Coleman was given his pilot wings on April 1, 1944. He then went on to serve on 57 missions in the Pacific Theater for the U.S. Marines. After an exceptional World War II run, Coleman went back to baseball. Then, several years later, the Korean War came calling. In 1952, he flew another 63 missions in a single-person fighter jet during that conflict. Every time he went up in the air, he put his life on the line. But even late into his life, Coleman explained how he’d do it all again. “The most important thing in my life was not what I did in baseball,” he once told USA Today, “but what I did in my service as a Marine in two wars.”
Along the way, Coleman had a number of close calls in the air. At one point, he had a near-collision with another jet upon takeoff. Another time, a malfunction flipped his jet on the runway during takeoff. He survived it all, though, and was never shot out of the sky by enemy fire. By the end of his two turns in the service, Coleman had a host of awards, medals, and citations to his name.
However, he also experienced some horrible lows. The worst of those was watching his best friend and roommate, Max Harper, die after being shot out of the sky just ahead of Coleman. “I had to follow him down to see if he got out in a parachute, but there was no chance,” the baseball star recalled years later. “I can still see his face today. I had an awful lot of heroes, and very good friends. Now, they’re all dead.”