Professional athletes in the military: a look back

After honoring our veterans yesterday, I have put together a list of professional athletes who have served in the military. These men were either academy graduates or decided to put their professional careers on hold to fight for our country.

Pat Tillman
The former Arizona Cardinals safety played the entire 2001 season before quitting the NFL to become an Army Ranger. Tillman played four seasons in the NFL, including an All-Pro season in 2000. The former Arizona State player was a seventh-round draft pick and managed to amass 238 tackles during his short professional career. Tillman fought in the initial invasion of Iraq before being redeployed to Afghanistan. He died on April 22, 2004, at the age of 27. His sacrifice earned the former NFL player a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.

Bob Feller
Feller was the first of many baseball players to volunteer for service after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The Indians great served for four years on the USS Alabama before returning to Cleveland. Feller finished his Hall of Fame career as one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history with 266 wins and more than 2,500 career strikeouts. He won the 1948 World Series and finished his career with three career no-hitters.

Ted Williams
Arguably the greatest hitter in the history of baseball, the Red Sox legend left professional baseball in 1942 to join the Marines. Williams hit for the Triple Crown twice in his career, and is the last player to hit above .400 in a season. After fighting in World War II, Williams returned to baseball before serving again in the Korean War. The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Williams in 1966, and he became a member of the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999. Williams passed away in 2002 at the age of 83.

Jackie Robinson
The first African-American player in MLB history was a member of the Army during WWII. This player broke the color barrier in professional baseball, and is often credited as being selected because he could take the abuse he was sure to get. During his time in the military, Robinson served in a segregated unit until he was court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a bus on a military base. The Dodger great went on change sports history, along with winning an MVP and a World Series title. Robinson died in 1972 at the age of 53, but in 1997 his legacy was honored when every MLB team retired his jersey number, 42.

David Robinson
The best basketball player in Naval Academy history was drafted first overall by the San Antonio Spurs in 1987. Robinson, nicknamed the “Admiral,” fulfilled his active-duty obligation with the Navy before joining the Spurs in 1989. The Admiral won the 1995 MVP award, and was named as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history in 1996. He won his first NBA Championship in 1999 before ending his career by winning the 2003 NBA Finals.

Roger Staubach
The Dallas Cowboys drafted the 1963 Heisman Trophy winner in the 10th round of the 1964 NFL Draft. Staubach, a graduate of the Naval Academy, served one tour of duty in Vietnam before returning to professional football. During his 10-year career, Staubach won two Super Bowls and five NFC Championships. Along with being honored in the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor, Staubach threw for 153 touchdowns and more than 22,000 yards to earn himself a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.

  • Updated Nov. 11, 2012 at 7:10 pm
  • Edited by Christy Khamphilay