By the end of World War II, 638 NFL players had gone into the war. George Halas, who was called up for Navy duty in the middle of the 1942 season, was one of them. In fact, so many players were fighting in WWII that some teams did not have enough players. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, for example, combined temporarily into one team, the Phil-Pitt Steagles, and the Cleveland Rams suspended operations during the 1943 season.
Twenty-one NFL players were killed during the war. One such hero was New York Giant Jack Lummus, who joined the Marines after the attack on Pearl Harbor. His picture hangs in the Medal of Honor Museum aboard the USS Yorktown at Patriot’s Point in Charleston, South Carolina. Lummus’s Medal of Honor came after a heroic display at Iwo Jima. The citation read in part:
“Although knocked to the ground when an enemy grenade exploded close by, he immediately recovered himself and, again moving forward despite the intensified barrage, quickly located, attacked and destroyed the occupied emplacement. Instantly taken under fire by the garrison of a supporting pillbox and further assailed by the slashing fury of hostile rifle fire, he fell under the impact of a second enemy grenade but, courageously disregarding painful shoulder wounds, staunchly continued his heroic one-man assault and charged the second pillbox, annihilating all the occupants.”
Lummus eventually returned to his position, encouraging his men to advance. After taking out a third Japanese installation, Lummus continued attacking, “... until, stepping on a land mine, he sustained fatal wounds.” What the citation does not entail is how Lummus, continued encouraging his men to advance — despite the loss of both legs. It did, however, reiterate his importance in having done so: “By his outstanding valor, skilled tactics and tenacious perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, First Lieutenant Lummus had inspired his stouthearted Marines to continue the relentless drive northward, thereby contributing materially to the success of his regimental mission. His dauntless leadership and unwavering devotion to duty throughout sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.”
Another NFL Medal of Honor recipient is the Detroit Lions Maurice Britt, who in 1941 gave up football to join the Army. Britt earned the Medal of Honor, continued fighting, and ended up losing his right arm. He won the top three valor medals during his time in WWII.
Ralph Heywood was drafted in 1943 while he was still playing for USC. He took time out of football again, however, during his NFL career, when he joined the marines during the Korean War. He didn’t retire from the military until after the Vietnam War.
More recently, Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, who gave up a multi-million dollar NFL career to join the Army Rangers after 9/11, paid the ultimate price when he was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in April, 2004. He had already turned down an even more lucrative salary from the St. Louis Rams to remain loyal to the Cardinals.
The NFL has not been short on heroes, but this is true heroism, not the gilded kind that comes with fame and fortune. On Veteran’s Day, I would like to honor the NFL’s true heroes, the men who have risked their lives, sometimes even given them, to ensure that the rest of us are free to live life and pursue happiness.
This post is dedicated to John Hartman, U.S. Navy; and Wilfred Valentine Haas, U.S. Marine; my grandfathers, World War II veterans, who literally helped save the world.