Athletes who gave their lives in service

Athletes who gave their lives in service

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image: Getty Images

It may be rare now, but there was a time when some of the best athletes went off to fight in war. Some did so willingly, others were drafted.

There were also athletes who, like thousands of other soldiers, never returned home. We remember those names and their stories in this long — yet incomplete — list below

Advertisement

2 / 22

Pat Tillman

Pat Tillman

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:
(Getty Images)

Months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Pat Tillman paused his NFL career to enlist in the Army and fight in Afghanistan. But instead of going there, Tillman’s Army Ranger battalion was first sent to Iraq for the U.S. invasion. By 2003, soldiers remember Tillman saying “this war is so fucking illegal.” The next year, Tillman died in a friendly fire accident in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon, however, said that the former safety had died heroically in combat. President Bush also quickly gave a statement, calling Tillman “an inspiration on-and-off the football field, as with all who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror.”

Five weeks after his death, military officials revealed the truth to Tillman’s family and to the public.

Particularly in the last few years, Tillman’s service and death have been co-opted by some looking to criticize “unpatriotic” Black NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality (not the flag or the military). In 2017, President Trump retweeted a tweet from one of his followers that read “NFLplayer PatTillman joined U.S. Army in 2002. He was killed in action 2004. He fought 4our country/freedom. #StandForOurAnthem #BoycottNFL.”

After the tweet was shared with Trump’s millions of followers, Pat’s widow, Marie Tillman, was compelled to release a statement criticizing the then President and partisans who misconstrue the life and legacy of her husband.

“The very action of self expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart — no matter those views — is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for. Even if they didn’t always agree with those views,” she wrote. “Pat’s service, along with that of every man and woman’s service, should never be politicized in a way that divides us. We are too great of a country for that.”

Advertisement

3 / 22

Bob Kalsu

Bob Kalsu

Image:

Before Tilman, Bob Kalsu was the last NFL player turned military man to die in war.

Kalsu was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the eighth round of the 1968 NFL/AFL draft. After winning Buffalo’s “Rookie of the Year” team award in his first season, he decided to leave the NFL to fulfill his ROTC requirement. The offensive lineman enlisted in the Army and was stationed in South Vietnam 101st airborne division. Less than a year later, Kalsu was killed in combat at the Battle of Fire Support Base Ripcord.

He was one of two NFL players to die in the Vietnam War.

Advertisement

4 / 22

Don Steinbrunner

Don Steinbrunner

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

Steinbrunner was another NFL player to die in Vietnam.

After just eight regular-season games with the Browns in 1953, Steinbrunner joined the U.S. Air Force. There, he took on roles in the air police, as a navigator, and as an assistant football coach for the academy.

In 1966 he was sent to Vietnam, where his plane was shot down during a defoliation mission.

After his death, he was honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross award.

Advertisement

5 / 22

Elmer Gedeon

Elmer Gedeon

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

Gedeon (above r.) was a standout athlete at the University of Michigan. He was an All-American in track and, while still in school, tied a world record in hurdles. He also played for the school’s football and baseball teams.

After graduating, he began playing professional baseball. And after two years bouncing between the minors and Washington Senators, Gedeon was drafted to fight in World War II. He served in the European theater as a bomber pilot. In 1944, his B-26 bomber was shot down in France.

Gedeon was one of MLB players killed in World War II.

Advertisement

6 / 22

Harry O’Neill

Harry O’Neill

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

After playing in just one game for the Philadelphia Athletics, O’Neill enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. There, he rose to the rank of first lieutenant and fought in various battles, including the Battle of Saipan in June 16, 1944, where he was wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel. He returned to active duty a month later to fight in the Battle on Tinian. On March 6, 1945, he was killed by a sniper on Iwo Jima.

Gedeon and O’Neill were just 27 years old when they died.

Advertisement

7 / 22

Hobey Baker

Hobey Baker

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

Baker is widely considered to be one of the best American hockey players, and athletes, of the early 20th century.

He led Princeton’s hockey team to three national titles and won a national amateur championship with St. Nicholas Hockey Club. He also played football for the Tigers.

Shortly after his amateur hockey career with St. Nicholas, Baker enlisted in the Army Air Service. He rose to the rank of captain and commander of the 141st Aero Squadron. But hours before he was supposed to return home, Baker crashed a plane he was test flying.

The two-sport athlete is the only person to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame.

Today, the “Hobey Baker Award” is given to the top men’s college hockey player in the country.

Advertisement

8 / 22

Eddie Grant

Eddie Grant

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

After playing 10 years of Major League Baseball (Cleveland Naps, Philadelphia Phillies, Cincinnati Reds and New York Giants), the Harvard Law grad opened a practice in Boston. Two years later, he enlisted in the Army upon the country’s involvement in World War I, where he served as a captain. While leading a search for fallen and wounded soldiers, Grant died from an exploding shell.

He was the first of eight major league ballplayers to die during World War I in battle or due to illness.

Advertisement

9 / 22

Al Blozis

Al Blozis

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

The All-Pro tackle for the New York Football Giants played just two years in the NFL before signing up for the military in December, 1943. He served in the Army as a second lieutenant in the 28th Infantry Division on the Western Front. But when two of his men went missing after a patrol, Blozis went looking for them and never returned.

His No. 32 was retired by the Giants.

Advertisement

10 / 22

Jack Lummus

Jack Lummus

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

Lummus, another New York Football Giant, fought and died in World War II. He lost his life at the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.

For his courage, the officer in the United States Marine Corps received a Medal of Honor and a Purple Heart.

He is a member of the Giant’s ring of honor.

Advertisement

11 / 22

Nile Kinnick

Nile Kinnick

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

Kinnick won the Heisman Trophy in 1939 and enlisted in the Navy days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. But a year and a half into his service, Kinnick died during a training flight.

The University of Iowa football stadium is named in his honor.

Advertisement

12 / 22

Bob Neighbors

Bob Neighbors

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

Neighbors played just seven games in the majors for the St. Louis Browns but had a 10-year career in the Air Force. He served in two wars; World War II and the Korean War. His plane was shot down in 1952 over North Korea.

Advertisement

13 / 22

Howard ‘Smiley’ Johnson

Howard ‘Smiley’ Johnson

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

After two seasons with the Packers, Johnson joined the Marine Corps. The First Lieutenant earned two Silver stars, in the Battle Saipan and Iwo Jima, where he was killed in combat.

Advertisement

14 / 22

Edwin Kahn

Edwin Kahn

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

Kahn won an NFL championship with Washington in 1937. Years later, he served in World War II as a First Lieutenant in the Army. He died from wounds suffered in the invasion of Leyte in the Philippines.

Advertisement

15 / 22

Keith Birlem

Keith Birlem

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

After one season with the Chicago Cardinals and Washington Football Team, Birlem joined the Army Air Force for World War II. He fought in the air over Europe and died while attempting to land his plane after a bombing mission.

Advertisement

16 / 22

Young Bussey

Young Bussey

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

The Bears quarterback enlisted in the Navy shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was killed at the battle of Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines.

He is the only Chicago Bear to die in war.

Advertisement

17 / 22

Charlie Behan

Charlie Behan

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

After one season with the Detroit Lions, Behan joined the Marine Corps. But he was killed by machine gun fire leading his troops at the Battle of Sugar Loaf Hill.

For his bravery, Behan was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

Advertisement

18 / 22

Walter “Waddy” Young

Walter “Waddy” Young

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

Waddy was a talented two-sport athlete out of the University of Oklahoma. There, he was a football player and a heavyweight wrestler. After college he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers (NFL) but left his career to fly B-24 bombers for the Air Corps in World War II. He was killed in a plane crash over Tokyo in January, 1945.

Advertisement

19 / 22

Mike Basca

Mike Basca

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

After a season with the Eagles, Basca enlisted in the Army. As a tank commander on the Western Front, Basca was killed when a German anti-tank round struck his vehicle.

Advertisement

20 / 22

Alex Ketzko

Alex Ketzko

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

After his rookie season with the Detroit Lions, Ketzko joined the Army. A year later, he was killed in combat in France.

Advertisement

21 / 22

Don Wemple

Don Wemple

Illustration for article titled Athletes who gave their lives in service
Image:

Wemple played just one season with Brooklyn Football Dodgers in 1941 — scoring a touchdown — before going off to World War II. He died in 1943 in a plane crash on The Hump air transport route.

Advertisement

22 / 22