When you ask most young children who their heroes are, you most frequently hear the names of actors, fictional characters, and, of course, professional athletes. These are the personalities young ones are exposed to who have, at the time, an unparalleled ability to appear larger than life. When the unfortunate experience of conflict sets itself upon the nation, the public looks to different kinds of heroes, built from dedication, commitment and sacrifice. There are instances, however, where those childhood heroes materialize into the kinds of heroes we continue to look up to for the rest of our lives.
We take a look at professional athletes and coaches who have served in the military:
Jackie Robinson, U.S. Army
Four-sport collegiate athlete, champion over baseball’s color barrier and lieutenant during WWII. Robinson was drafted in 1942 and served in a segregated Army cavalry unit. After receiving an officer’s commission in 1943, Robinson was assigned to the 761st “Black Panthers” tank battalion.
Tom Landry, U.S. Army Air Corps
Before coaching the Dallas Cowboys from 1960-1988, the future Coach of the Year served in the 493rd squadron in the 8th Air Force. After earning a commission as a lieutenant, he was assigned to the 493rd Bombardment Group, flying a B-17 Flying Fortress. He completed 30 combat missions and even survived a crash landing when his bomber ran out of fuel over Belgium.
David Robinson, U.S. Navy
You may imagine that someone the size of Robinson may have served his time in the Navy on board an aircraft carrier or another large vessel. In actuality, Robinson’s 7-foot frame was stuffed into submarines for two years. He is considered by most to be one of the greatest basketball players to ever play for the Midshipmen. When his service was fulfilled, Robinson had earned the rank of lieutenant, junior grade.
Patty Berg, U.S. Marine Corps
After having won 29 amateur titles, Berg served as a lieutenant in the Marines from 1942-1945. As a procurement officer, she spent three years recruiting for the corps.
Yogi Berra, U.S. Navy
At the age of 18, Berra, just like so many other future pros, put baseball on hiatus in order to serve in WWII. On D-Day, Berra served on a boat as a gunner’s mate, protecting landing troops. He would later receive the Lone Sailor award.
Bob Kalsu, U.S. Army
After being named Buffalo Bills Rookie of the Year in 1969, Kalsu was called into active duty in Vietnam. He entered service as a second lieutenant in the legendary 101st Airborne. On July 21, 1970, Kalsu’s unit came under enemy mortar fire in the vicinity of the A Shau Valley. The 25-year-old guard was killed in action on that day.
Bob Feller, U.S. Navy
He was the first American professional athlete to enlist in the service for WWII. Feller was already one of the best in baseball when he volunteered for naval service two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Chief Petty Officer Feller served as a gun captain on board the USS Alabama, serving in both the European and Pacific water theaters. He became an honorary member of the Green Berets some time later.
Jack Dempsey, U.S. Coast Guard
Accepting a commission as a lieutenant in the Coast Guard Reserve in 1942, Dempsey had already retired from boxing. After being promoted to commander in 1944, he was on board the USS Arthur Middleton during the invasion of Okinawa.
Hank Greenberg, U.S. Army Air Corps
After the draft board denied Greenberg for flat feet in 1940, the five-time all-star nonetheless became the first American League player to be drafted that year. He was honorably discharged two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and promptly volunteered in the Army Air Corps. As a lieutenant, Greenberg served in the Far East, scouting locations as B-29 bomber bases. He ended his service as a captain.
Ted Williams, U.S. Marine Corps
In WWII, Williams served as a Navy reservist as an aviator. Upon his release in 1946, he remained in the reserves with the Marine Corps. In 1952, Williams returned to service as a fighter pilot, taking part in an air raid in Pyongyang, as well as 38 other missions. He left the service a captain.
Roger Staubach, U.S. Navy
His color-blindness, discovered during his junior year at the Naval Academy, allowed Staubach to serve at home during Vietnam. However, the 1963 Heisman winner opted to serve overseas as a supply officer on a one-year tour of duty, commanding 41 enlisted men.
John Wooden, U.S. Navy
In 1942, the Wizard of Westwood joined the Navy and served as a lieutenant in WWII. He served primarily as a physical education instructor and followed up that part of his life by becoming athletic director and what is now Indiana State University.
Warren Spahn, U.S. Army
After completing 1942 in the minor leagues, Spahn enlisted in the Army. As a combat engineer, Spahn saw action in the Battle of the Bulge, earning a Purple Heart and a battlefield commission. He returned to the majors in 1946.
Joe Louis, U.S. Army
After being assigned to a segregated unit, the Army discovered Louis’ ability to ease racial tensions within the branch. He was subsequently assigned to a Special Services Division, staging boxing exhibitions. His various services in the Army earned him the rank of technical sergeant in 1945, and he was awarded the Legion of Merit for his contributions to morale.
Bobby Jones, U.S. Army Air Corps
The pro golfer entered the U.S. Army Air Corps to serve during WWII. His unit was ultimately converted into an infantry unit to help storm the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. He was promoted to major and trained as an intelligence officer.
Pat Tillman, U.S. Army
An impressive 2000 season indicated a standout future for Tillman. The defensive back made 109 tackles that year and was likely to receive big contracts, as well as all the comforts that go along with being big-name NFL player. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Tillman finished out the season, and then left the league to serve as a U.S. Army Ranger. After taking part in the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Tillman’s unit was sent to Afghanistan. In April of 2004, Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Sperah. He was posthumously awarded the rank of corporal.