Honor the Heroes of the Game, Preserve Its History, Promote its Values & Celebrate Excellence Everywhere
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Joe Horrigan, the Hall’s Executive Vice President, is the foremost historian on the game.
When considering a name for this blog, I wanted something that was a football term – like “overtime” – but at the same time something that suggested an historical perspective like “over time.” After all, a key component of the Hall’s Mission is to preserve the Game’s history. You can also listen to me each week as I co-host “Pro Football Hall of Fame Radio on SiriusXM” from 2-4 ET every Saturday with Hall of Fame selection committee member Howard Balzer.
Usually when we say an “NFL veteran,” we’re referring to a player whose career has made it to at least a second NFL season. But today, as we celebrate Veterans Day, my reference to “NFL veterans” refers to those who were members of an NFL team and more importantly, also members of the U.S. Armed Forces team. And there are many. More than you are likely aware.
While every man or woman who serves in our Armed Forces, whether during a time of war or peace, deserves our unconditional gratitude, today I focus on a few of the 1,200-plus NFL war-time veterans. I salute the players, coaches, owners and administrators who either interrupted or postponed their pro football careers to serve their country during time of war.
That 1,200-plus list of names includes 24 NFL men who made the ultimate sacrifice, loss of life, while defending our country. It includes three Congressional of Medal of Honor recipients. And like with so many armed forces veterans, it includes countless examples of personal sacrifice and acts of true heroism.
On the list of “NFL veterans” who served during war there are many familiar names. Names like Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame Coach Tom Landry, who as a 19-year-old enlisted in the Army Air Corp during World War II. Landry flew 30 missions as a co-pilot of a B-17 bomber, and survived a crash in Belgium after a bombing run over Czechoslovakia. And there’s Buffalo Bills founder and Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson, Jr. who served as a skipper on a minesweeper in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters during WWII. Ralph, a decorated veteran, was also the first American to respond to and witness the devastation after the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.
Chuck “Concrete Charley” Bednarik, the Philadelphia Eagles Hall of Fame Center/Linebacker, was a waist gunner on a B-24 Liberator and took part in 30 long-range bombing missions over Germany. For his courageous service he was awarded the Air Medal and four Oak Leaf Clusters, the European Theater Operations Medal and four Battle Stars, and the Good Conduct Medal.
Chuck Bednarik (front, left) with crew.
During the Korean War, Eddie LeBaron, who later quarterbacked the Washington Redskins and the Cowboys, and was a long-time NFL and team executive, spent seven months on the front line and was wounded twice. For his heroic efforts in a hard-fought battle at Korea’s Heartbreak Ridge he was awarded the Bronze Star.
Two NFL rookie guards, Bob Kalsu, who played for the 1968 Buffalo Bills and Don Steinbrunner of the 1953 Cleveland Browns, died while serving in Vietnam. Both Kalsu and Steinbrunner were reservists who were called to active duty. Kalsu, after eight months of heavy combat was killed in action while defending Firebase Ripcord, a remote jungle mountaintop. Steinbrunner, who after a year with the Browns, decided on a career in the Air Force, lost his life when his plane was shot down over Kontum, South Vietnam in 1967. There were no survivors.
Two lesser-known NFL players, but remarkable military veterans Ralph Heywood and Harry Marker have the distinction of being the only players to serve as members of the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Heywood, after his initial discharge from the Marines following WWII, embarked on a four-year pro football career with the All-America Football Conference’s Chicago Rockets (1946), the NFL’s Detroit Lions (1947-48), Boston Yanks (1948) and the New York Bulldogs (1949). A reservist, he returned to active duty in 1952 during the Korean War and then later commanded the 26th Marines Regiment in Vietnam.
Marker, a defensive back out of West Virginia, played just one game as a member of the 1934 Pittsburgh Pirates (now known as the Steelers) before deciding on a military career in the U. S. Army. He also served with distinction during WWII, Korea and Vietnam.
And the list goes on and on.
Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman cut short his pro football career to join the Army Rangers. He too gave his life for his country. NFL and Chicago Bears founder, player and coach, George Halas, twice interrupted his football career to serve during WW I and WWII. Lieutenant General Earnest C. Cheatham, a defensive tackle for the Steelers and Baltimore Colts in 1954, was the highest ranking military officer to play professional sports and served with distinction in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. And there’s the remarkable story of survival involving Mario “Motts” Tonelli a Chicago Cardinals fullback who as a WWII prisoner of war survived the infamous Bataan Death March and more.
I know and understand fully that there are hundreds, no, thousands, of similar stories surrounding our Armed Forces veterans, but today, Veterans Day, I guess I just wanted to reflect on a few of the men that we remember as “Heroes of the Game” and recognize them as true “American Heroes."
Each week in my blog, I update the results of the Super Bowl rematches taken place throughout the season leading up to Super Bowl 50. Here they are through Week 9.