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As World War II siphoned the ranks of the NFL, a severe manpower shortage emerged. In 1943, when the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers opened their training camp, only seven players from the 1942 squad were available. Several retired players, including three future Hall of Famers, answered their team’s S.O.S. Bronko Nagurski, a fullback with the Chicago Bears, who had retired in 1937, returned in 1943 to play tackle. Green Bay quarterback Arnie Herber, who last played in 1940, signed on with the 1944 New York Giants, as did halfback Ken Strong, who last played for the team in 1939.
More significantly, the player shortage forced the Cleveland Rams to suspend play for the 1943 season, while the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles agreed to merge. The “Steagles” as they were known, split home games between the two cities. The “Steagles” merger was dissolved prior to the start of the 1944 season, at which time the Steelers merged with the struggling Chicago Cardinals. Officially known as the Card-Pitt Combine, the team went 0-10, and was so bad that it was derided as the “Carpets.” The next year both Pittsburgh and Chicago operated separately, but the Boston Yanks and the Brooklyn franchise – renamed the Tigers – were forced to merge and played the 1944 season as the “Yanks,” with no city designation.
World War II claimed the lives of 21 NFL men – 19 active or former players, an ex-head coach and a team executive. Perhaps the best-known player was New York Giants tackle Al Blozis. The 6-6, 250-pound all-league tackle was killed by machine gun fire as he searched for missing members of his platoon on a patrol in the snowy Vosges Mountains of France, just six weeks after playing in the 1944 NFL Championship Game.
Blozis insisted on joining the Army even though he could have been exempted because of his size. A powerful man, he’d been a world-class shot-putter at Georgetown and set a U.S. Army record in the hand grenade throw during basic training (see photo to the right).
Three members of the military with pro football connections, Maurice Britt, Joe Foss, and Jack Lummus (left), earned their country’s highest military honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Britt played end for the Detroit Lions in 1941 prior to joining the Army.
Foss, who went on to become the governor of South Dakota, served as Commissioner of the American Football League from 1960 to 1966. Lummus, who was awarded his medal posthumously, was an end with the 1941 New York Giants.
Tom Landry (right), the long-time coach of “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys, knew what it was to be a part of the original “America’s Team,” as a co-pilot of a B-17 during World War II.
As a University of Texas freshman, the 19-year-old Landry enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Stationed in England, the future Hall of Fame coach flew 30 missions and survived a crash in Belgium after a bombing run over Czechoslovakia.
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