Honor the Heroes of the Game, Preserve Its History, Promote its Values & Celebrate Excellence Everywhere
The October 21, 1942 edition of the Chicago Tribune reported that George Halas, the 45-year-old owner-coach of the Chicago Bears "will enter the Navy as a commissioned officer next week." It was Halas' second enlistment, having also served during World War I. Halas, it was reported, was the sixth NFL owner to enlist since the war began. Other NFL owners to join the military were Dan Topping, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Marines; Dan Reeves, co-owner of the Cleveland Rams, Army Air Corps; Fred Levy, Jr., co-owner of the Cleveland Rams, Army Air Corps; Wellington Mara, co-owner of the New York Giants, Navy; Alexis Thompson, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, Army.
On August 14 and 15, 1945 thousands of young Americans put aside the horrors of war to celebrate the Japanese surrender which ended World War II. Among the celebrants were many NFL players who survived four years of the war that was fought in every corner of the globe.
"The PA system called for all personnel to come topside," recalled New York Giants Hall of Famer Andy Robustelli, a 20mm gunner on the destroyer escort U.S.S. William C. Cole. "When we got up there, the Captain announced that Japan had surrendered …People were screaming and jumping overboard into the water. We had made it, and we were going home."
Many athletes had willingly given up their athletic careers, or at least postponed them, to serve their country. Some returned to play again; some never made it back to the game because of injury or age, and others sadly are numbered among the heroes who did not survive the battles.
One remarkable story of survival is that of former Chicago Cardinals fullback Mario "Motts" Tonelli (left). Taken prisoner in Bataan in April 1942, he and 75,000 other American and Filipino troops were forced to march 60-plus miles often without food or water over a seven-day period, a trek from which 7,000 to 10,000 did not survive.
Tonelli was later transported from Manila to Japan aboard the infamous "hell boats," another graveyard for POWs. Having survived almost three and one- half years as a POW, Tonelli could hardly believe his eyes when a U.S. dive-bomber dropped a package of cigarettes into the prison compound. Attached was a handkerchief bearing the message "Hostilities have ceased. Will see you soon."
Though he shrank to a mere 90 pounds, "Motts" attributed his survival to the rigorous workouts of pro football. Amazingly, after much needed rest and recuperation, Tonelli returned to the gridiron as a member of the 1945 Cardinals.
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