It takes a lot of time and effort to become a professional athlete. First of all, you need to have the innate talent that gives you a chance of getting to an elite level. That’s not enough though: you need to have the work ethic and mental discipline to ensure all of that talent doesn’t go to waste. It can take years to get to the top level. However, some star athletes served their country as members of the military.
Not only are they heroes on the sports field, but they’re also heroes for their country. Some entered through the draft while others volunteered. At the end of the day, they all did their duty. Prepare for a whole bunch of legendary baseball players who served in WW2. A special mention goes to Muhammad Ali who refused to fight in Vietnam. He said “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Congs,” and we respect that.
Professional athletes are often treated as heroes. But some sports stars are actually heroes. Check out 40 pro stars who served on active duty via The Sports Drop.
40. Alejandro Villaneuva
Villaneuva currently plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL. The offensive tackle is a two-time Pro Bowler but his achievements off of the playing field are even more incredible. There aren’t many active NFL stars who can say that they served in Afghanistan. However, Villaneuva did exactly that. After he played for Army, he served for three tours of duty in the Middle East.
The former serviceman underwent many missions and even saw active combat. Villaneuva is a true American hero because he rescued some of his fellow troops under fire. After this, the Army awarded him with the Bronze Star for valor. The former ranger is a unique personality to have in a locker room because he saw things that no man should ever have to endure.
A two-time NFL MVP award winner, ‘The Greek Freak’ is one of the best basketball players on the planet. The Milwaukee Bucks superstar also won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award in 2020. He is a supreme athlete and also very interesting because he had a tough childhood. Antetokounmpo endured a lot of difficulties before his rise to the top of his sport.
For the first 18 years of his life, Giannis had no country because of his family’s immigration status. However, he finally became a naturalized Greek citizen. As a result, he completed the nation’s mandatory military service in 2016. This might not seem significant but Greece maintains a tense relationship with its Mediterranean neighbor, Turkey. In the end, Giannis only completed three months as an overseas Greek citizen.
Three separate MLB franchises retired Ryan’s jersey numbers after he retired because he had such a powerful influence upon their fortunes. One of the greatest players of his generation, he entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999. He also spent time in the military during the Vietnam war, but the Army never deployed him overseas. However, it impacted his time with the Mets in a bad way.
The all-time leader in no-hitters, Ryan was a magnificent player during a golden era for the sport. He was also an eight-time All-Star and an 11-time strikeout leader. Very few of his fellows established a playing record as impressive as he achieved. Finally, Ryan has the most strikeouts in MLB history and has a massive lead over Randy Johnson who sits hundreds behind him.
Chan Sung Jung is a UFC fan favorite for his all-action striking style. The MMA fighter is a top featherweight athlete and guarantees action every time he steps into the cage. However, all South Korean males must undertake two years of mandatory military service because they remain in a state of war with their neighbors North Korea. Many celebrities and athletes attempt to avoid this but there are no exceptions.
Zombie underwent his military service in 2014 and returned in 2016. Furthermore, he won his return fight. Many fans wondered how he would do when he returned. His time on the sidelines didn’t hurt him much as he continues to stay active at the top of the division. Another top UFC fighter, Doo Ho Choi is in the same position as Zombie was, and must finish his active service before returning to professional fighting.
Not many people talk about long snappers, but Cardona is definitely the most interesting in the NFL. He joined the New England Patriots in 2015 and became a two-time Super Bowl winner with the team. However, he might never have played in the NFL because he played for the U.S. Navy for four years. If the Naval Academy failed to approve his request to play pro football, he would never be able to play.
Cardona maintains the active rank of lieutenant in the U.S. Navy reserves and has the respect of his fellow athletes. Only four long snappers in history made the NFL through the draft, of whom Cardona was the final one. This is a testament to his talents because not many teams get excited about this position. However, Cardona is definitely a specialist when it comes to it.
One of the most unique athletes on this list, Jones was an iconic marathon runner during the 1980s. The Welshman held the British record for 33 years before Olympic star Mo Farah broke it. Jones also famously broke the world marathon record in his first race in Chicago. To call it his first attempt would be inaccurate because he didn’t wear a watch and even stopped to use the toilet along the way.
Jones didn’t even know there was a record at the time but proceeded to smash it. The long-distance runner first started training as a member of the RAF. He served as a technician for the UK Air Force for several years before he became a full-time athlete. The British athlete is a national treasure and maintains the respect of many international coaches and athletes.
Technically, Ventura wasn’t an athlete in the purest sense of the word. However, as a professional wrestler, he was in supreme physical condition and trained rigorously throughout his athletic career. Ventura enjoyed a colorful life in sports entertainment and later, as a politician with the Reform Party. Meanwhile, he also served his country as a member of the U.S. Navy.
Ventura had six years in the Navy during the height of the Vietnam War. While he never saw combat, he did engage in active service as a member of a Navy demolitions team. During the conflict, these teams surveyed Vietnamese borders and also cleared waterways in support of other military missions. In short, this was a crucial role even if it wasn’t very glamorous.
Tottenham Hotspurs’ forward Son is one of the most exciting forwards on the planet. The Korean soccer star is a brilliant athlete and has sublime skills. A megastar in his native Korea, Son is also extremely focused. He said that he is refusing to date any woman until he retires from soccer. However, his country’s mandatory national service was a major blow to his ambitions.
As previously discussed, all Korean men must undertake national service. Usually this is two years, however, exceptional achievements enable some athletes to reduce this period to just two months. If a Korean soccer player wins an international competition as a member of the national team they are eligible for this reduction. In 2019. Korea won the Asian Games and Son breathed a sigh of relief because he didn’t lose two years of his career.
Quessenberry definitely isn’t the most famous name in the NFL, but he has a fascinating backstory. A member of the New England Patriots’ practice roster in 2020, he shouldn’t even have been in the league. He played for Navy before he served for five years in the Marine Corps. Quessenberry was a platoon leader and served his nation with distinction throughout this time period.
Both of Quessenberry’s brothers play in the NFL and he wanted to pursue his dream. So he attended San Diego State’s Pro Day and the Patriots took interest in him. Bizarrely, they even used him out of position. Not only did he take five years away from the sport, but Quessenberry didn’t even play in his most comfortable spot. He may never make it as an elite player, but his journey deserves respect.
9/11 literally changed the way we think about the world today. Pat Tillman exemplified the spirit of a nation when he decided to walk away from a blossoming career in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the US army. He turned down a $3.6 million contract to join the army. From there, he served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Army Rangers, on several tours of duty before he tragically died.
Tillman died as a result of friendly fire. He became the first professional football player to die in combat since Bob Kalsu, who was killed in 1970 during the Vietnam War. The military posthumously promoted him from specialist to corporal and was also awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star medals.
Jackie Robinson broke down all sorts of barriers. He was the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues way back in 1947, starting at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. This basically ended racial segregation in professional baseball that went all the way back to the 1880s. As well as multiple All-Stars, Robinson was the first black player to win the MVP award back in 1949.
Before all this though, he was drafted to serve in a segregated Army cavalry unit. However, he was court-martialled for refusing to get up from his seat on a non-segregated bus and face false accusations of drunkenness and other charges. Robinson didn’t drink. He received an honorable discharge in 1944 and never entered combat.
David Robinson was one of the best basketball players in the country when he was in his prime. No relation to Jackie, David was always passionate about his sport but didn’t see much interest from major colleges after high school. Because of this, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the US Navy.
During his time in the Academy, Robinson blossomed and the San Antonio Spurs drafted him with the first pick in the 1987 NBA Draft – despite the fact that he still had a two-year commitment with the Navy. Robinson fulfilled that commitment and returned to basketball two years late, winning the Rookie of the Year for the Spurs in 1989. Respect.
Rocky Bleier’s story is a crazy one. In the middle of the Vietnam War in 1969, the Army drafted him after his rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a very sudden change for a young man who had shown a lot of promise. He served with distinction in one of the bloodiest conflicts of the twentieth century. During his tour of duty, his platoon was ambushed and Bleier’s leg was injured by an exploding grenade.
Incredibly, he was able to come back from this adversity and would recover to play football again. He returned from the war in 1971 and went through extreme rehabilitation to get himself back as close to the condition that he was in before. Bleier would star in the NFL for nine more years and scored the winning touchdown in Super Bowl XIII. A true hero.
Baseball Hall-of-Famer Warren Spahn is widely regarded as one of the best left-handed pitchers ever. In fact, he was so good the award for the Major League’s best left-handed pitcher is named after him. He won 363 games and his career lasted for a lengthy 21 years. Even so, Spahn chose to enter World War II to help his country in 1944 and served with distinction.
Alongside many other Major League Baseballers, Spahn enlisted in the army and was trained as a combat engineer. He won a Purple Heart and saw action at the Battle of the Bulge and at the Ludendorff Bridge. He returned to baseball in 1946 after serving his nation with distinction and went on to play at the highest level until the age of 44.
Another very famous baseball player who served in World War II was Yogi Berra. The New York Yankees icon played for 19 seasons in Major League Baseball. Sensationally, he was an 18-time All-Star and won 10 World Series Championships – more than any other player in the history of the sport.
Like Spahn, Berra enlisted in his country’s military during World War II but decided to enter the Navy. He also served his nation proudly and took part in the D-Day landings. Serving on the USS Bayfield, he was part of a six-man crew on a rocket ship, firing explosives and machine guns at German defenses. He won a Purple Heart for his efforts after he served his country by putting his body on the line.
A true great of the game, Roger Staubach was an excellent quarterback in the NFL, spending eleven seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. He won the Superbowl five times with the Cowboys, and four times as the starting quarterback. He was also named MVP in Superbowl VI.
Staubach’s impressive record extends off of the playing field. He entered the Naval academy in 1961 and served in the Vietnam War as a lieutenant in the Supply Corps. He spent a year there, mainly based at Da Nang airbase. Then he returned to the United States in 1967 and remained there for the rest of his military career.
Very famous in his native Britain, Nigel Benn is the first athlete on this list to have served in the Royal Army. A former WBO middleweight and WBC super-middleweight champion, Benn was an excellent boxer who competed during the early 90s. Renowned for his savage power, 35 of his 42 wins came by either KO or TKO.
But it’s his time outside the ring that truly defines him as an inspiration. Benn served in the UK Army for four-and-a-half years, including time stationed in West Germany and Northern Ireland. Members of his regiment, the Royal Fusiliers were recognizable later at his professional fights, often attending in their uniforms. In sum, he was both a brilliant athlete and a hero for his nation.
He might not be very famous to US readers but Joshua Lewsey will be well-known to UK based readers. The former England rugby international played 55 times for his country over a ten year period between 1998 and 2008. He won the World Cup in 2003 with his nation, playing as a full-back, and was a first-choice player up until 2007.
Lewsey also famously served in the military during his time as a professional. He was an active member of the Royal Artillery Regiment. However, he found it almost impossible to balance both commitments and had to make the tough decision to leave the Forces to focus on his career as a professional athlete.
The third amazing baseball player on this list to serve in the Second World War, Ted Williams has some incredible playing stats. One of the sport’s best ever left-hitters, he spent his entire playing career with the Boston Red Sox. A 19-time All-Star, the Baseball Hall-of-Famer was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.
Williams’s career is all the more astonishing when you consider that it was interrupted twice by two wars. He was drafted into the US Marine Corps during World War 2, going on active duty in 1943. He was livid to be recalled for the Vietnam War, interrupting his career once again. A legendary figure in US baseball.
‘The Heater from Van Meter’ played for 18 years with the Cleveland Indians. A true prodigy of baseball, Bob Feller bypassed the minor leagues to become the first pitcher to win 24 games in a season before the age of 21. Ted Williams – the man one place above him on this list – called him ‘the fastest and best pitcher I ever saw in my career.’
Feller joined the navy after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Despite playing for six full seasons before the war, he took four years out to serve as Chief Petty Officer on the USS Alabama. Originally the navy assigned him as a physical training instructor, but he wanted to see combat and would fight in the Battle of the Philippines Sea.
One of the greatest boxers ever to lace up a pair of gloves, Joe Louis won the heavyweight title in 1937 and held the belt for almost twelve years. Over the course of 140 months, he would defend his title 25 times. Louis joined the Army in 1942, and he was placed in their Special Services Division, alongside the likes of ‘Sugar Ray’ Robinson.
Louis’s cultural impact is renowned. He used his privileged position to speak out on behalf of fellow African-Americans. While he encouraged them to enlist in the forces, he also demanded that they receive the same arrangements as everybody else in the Army. He was awarded the Legion of Merit in 1945.
The first athlete on this list to fight in World War I, Ty Cobb was an outstanding baseball talent. Nicknamed ‘The Georgia Peach,’ he spent the majority of his career with the Detroit Tigers, before finishing up with the Philidelphia Athletics. Furthermore, he set 90 MLB records, including the most home runs in the division’s history.
In 1918, he enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the Chemicals Corps, becoming the captain of his unit. During a training session, something went terribly wrong and the majority of his troop had their lungs poisoned, after contracting tuberculosis. Cobb was lucky to survive and would return to baseball in 1919.
Perhaps best known for his 56-game hitting streak – a record that still stands – Joe DiMaggio is one of the greatest players ever to pick up a baseball bat. His nine career World Series rings are second only to Yogi Berra who won ten. DiMaggio also served as a member of the US Air Force although he was never a pilot.
Getting drafted into the military can be a huge wake-up call for a lot of people, but DiMaggio’s celebrity allowed him to have as comfortable a career as possible. He served as a Physical Instructor in California, Hawaii, and Atlantic City. He actually gained 10lbs in weight from a special athlete only diet and spent most of his days tanning on the beach. Embarrassed by his lifestyle, he requested to see combat action but the army turned him down.
Many believe that Willie Mays is the best five-tool baseball player of all time and it’s easy to see why. He also shares the record for most All-Star games played with an incredible 24. Spending almost all of his career with the New York/San Francisco Giants, he moved to the Mets for a year before retiring.
Mays also served in the Korean War after getting drafted in 1952. He’d miss the majority of two seasons, but it didn’t actually harm his game. He never saw combat and spent most of his time playing baseball at Fort Eustis in Virginia. He actually learned his famous catch there from fellow outfielder Al Fortunato.
Bob Kalsu was one of only two professional football players to die in the Vietnam War. After a successful rookie season for the Buffalo Bills, where he played as a guard, he enlisted in the military to meet his ROTC obligation. Kalsu was made a second lieutenant and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division.
The Buffalo Bills Rookie of the Year took part in active combat. His unit came under heavy mortar fire at Fire Support Base Ripcord near the A Shau Valley and he died in action. Tragically, his wife found out about his death just hours after giving birth to their second child.
The Battle of Iwo Jima was one of the most savage in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. The tiny island was seen as a vital point to capture and provide a staging area for attacks on the Japanese mainland. It lasted for five weeks and was a bloody, brutal affair, with fanatical Japanese soldiers launching suicidal banzai charges throughout the conflict.
One of the most high-profile victims of this battle was former New York Giants star, Jack Lummus. A US Marine, he took out three enemy strongholds with his team, before both of his legs were blown off by a landmine. Finally, the military posthumously awarded him a Medal of Honor. His last words were: “The Giants lost a good End Man.”
One of the biggest sluggers in baseball history, ‘The Hebrew Hammer’ was the first Jewish superstar in American team sports. A proper power hitter, he was the first player to hit 25 or more home runs in a season in each league. He spent twelve of his thirteen seasons playing for the Detroit Tigers, before finishing up his career in Pittsburgh.
Greenberg was originally considered for limited duty in 1940 because of his flat feet, but was later deemed fit for military service. At the age of 28, the military discharged him, but in 1942 he rejoined the Air Corps. After the war ended in 1945, he’d return to baseball and continue his Hall-of-Fame baseball career.
Widely regarded as England’s greatest ever goalkeeper, the 1966 World Cup Winner made 679 professional appearances over a 20-year career. His save against Pele in 1970 is believed by many to be the best ever in the history of the game. Banks was before his time, with superb positioning, great athleticism, and incredible reflexes.
National service was mandatory in the UK up until 1960. Banks served his two-years from the age of 17, joining the Royal Signals. Then the army posted him overseas in Germany and that’s where he met his wife Ursula, who would have three children with him. Possibly the most romantic military story on this list.
We all know about the legend that is Rocky Marciano. Due to his in-ring prowess, he is the only undisputed heavyweight champion to have retired from the sport with an unbeaten record. In short, he defended his title six times. Marciano went 49-0 in an incredible career thanks to his heavy hands, durability, stamina, and relentless nature.
The Brockton Blockbuster actually started boxing when he was drafted into the Army in 1943. He reportedly only started the sport to get out of kitchen duty. The army served him an honorable discharge in 1946, following the end of the war. That’s when he made the decision to pursue a professional career. And the rest is history.
The only professional baseball player to see combat in both World War II and the Korean War, Jerry Coleman is famed for the immortal line, “Your country is bigger than baseball.” The Yankees star still managed to win the World Series four times, despite spending so much time overseas on active duty.
Coleman won two Distinguished Flying Crosses during his time as an aviator in the Marine Corps, flying 120 combat missions. Finally, he retired from the army as a lieutenant colonel. The San Jose native entered the Baseball Hall-of-Fame in 2005 and is immortalized for his achievements.
The first golfer on this list, Arnold Palmer is a true icon of his sport. ‘The King’ won an incredible 62 PGA tour titles from 1955 to 1972 and just as significantly, he helped to change perceptions of the sport. Coming from a working-class background, the charismatic, plain-spoken Pennsylvanian was the son of a Country Club greenskeeper.
After the tragic death of his best friend Bud Worsham, he entered the US Coast Guard where he served for three years. At the training center in New Jersey, he built a nine-hole course where he continued to hone his skills. When his term of enlistment ended, he made the decision to turn pro.
Few people on this list are as accomplished as Shauna Rohbock. An Olympic silver medallist, a former professional soccer player, and a member of the National Guard, she really has a lot going for her. She joined the Utah National Guard in 2000 and then became a member of their Outstanding Athlete Programme.
Furthermore, Rohbock won silver in the bobsled event at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Still a serving member of the National Guard, she finished sixth in bobsled at the 2010 Olympics. Next, she coached the Brazilian men’s team in 2018. Oh, and she played for the San Diego Spirit in the WUSA in 2003. To sum up, she is incredibly talented and self-motivated.
It’s a burden for many athletes who are drafted into the military to have to fulfill a national service obligation. First of all, their career earnings can take a massive hit. They also risk the chance of people forgetting about them. Finally, crucial development time in their sport is lost due to being gone for so long. Roberto Clemente had a totally different mentality about military service.
The former Pittsburgh Pirates legend actually chose to join the US Marines during the 1958-59 off-season because he believed that the skills and training he’d learn would benefit him when he was back on the playing field. It’s definitely one of the most unique attitudes on this list but it is admirable.
For many years, Don Streinbrunner was not recognized as the first of two professional footballers to die in Vietnam. The Cleveland Browns offensive tackle played one full season, helping his side to the 1953 NFL Championship final. He opted to enter the Air Force the following year, to fulfill his military requirement.
Steinbrunner chose to stay in the Air Force and leave the professional game behind because of a knee injury. He’d take part in the Vietnam war and lost his life when the Viet Cong shot him down on a defoliation mission as he sprayed Agent Orange. All five crewmembers on his bomber lost their lives. Finally, the Browns honored him in 2004.
The New York Yankees Icon spent 13 years in the MLB, where he played as a shortstop. One of the best bunters in the history of the game, ‘The Scooter’ was extremely popular and one of the slickest players of his generation. But, like many baseballers, Rizzuto found his career interrupted by World War Two.
He’d serve in the navy from 1943 until the end of the war in 1945. Rizzuto also contracted malaria while in the Pacific. Finally, the navy sent him to Australia to recover. There, he spent the rest of the war coaching the US Navy Baseball team. His service ended well because he was able to enjoy a lot of downtime.
A cultural icon, Jack Dempsey was the heavyweight champion of the world from 1919 to 1926. His aggressive fighting style and ferocious punching power made him one of the most popular boxers in history. Furthermore, he was so popular that his fight against George Carpentier was the first $1 million gate.
Dempsey served in the US National Guard from 1942. When World War 1 went down, fans criticized him for not enlisting. But he bowed to the pressure and enlisted. As a result, he was present on the USS Wakefield for the invasion of Okinawa in 1945. The navy released him from active duty the following year, but he remained in reserve until 1952.
MMA fighters are a special kind of tough but Tim Kennedy takes this to the extreme. The former UFC middleweight contender servedn the National Guard while fighting at the highest level of combat sports. Then he signed up with the US Special Forces in 2004. This forced him to balance his professional fighting career alongside overseas deployment and military duties.
Kennedy left active duty in 2009 before returning to the Green Berets in 2017, where he remains today. The Bronze Star for valor under fire award is one of his proudest accomplishments from his career. Meanwhile, the highlight of his combat sports career was when he headlined the UFC Fight for the Troops event in 2013, where he beat Rafael Natal.
Whitey Ford spent 16 years with the New York Yankees and boy, they were some incredible years. A 1o-time MLB All-Star and six-time World Series Champion, Ford also led the American League in wins three times and in earned run average (ERA) twice. Because of all these achievements, the Hall-of-Famer is one of the sport’s most legendary figures.
Ford also served in the army during the Korean War. He spent two years in his nation’s service from 1951 to 1952. After completing his tour, he promptly returned to New York to become one of baseball’s best-ever players. That’s how you do it, ladies and gentlemen.
Lieutenant Caleb Campbell is a serving member of the US Army. Furthermore, he was also a former linebacker for the Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts, and Kansas City Chiefs. But he struggled to balance a career at the top of the game in NFL alongside his military commitment. Campbell’s story is interesting because it was a wonder he even made it to the NFL.
Campbell looked like he was going to benefit from a rule change that allowed top military athletes to participate in a professional sport of their choice if they gave two years of service and remained in reserve. However, the day after he signed a contract with the Detroit Lions, the rules changed again. This was a devastating blow for Campbell but a reminder that military servitude is a massive commitment.