Cover Story Article

When Professional Athletes Went to War


Pat TillmanWhen Pat Tillman, the hard-charging safety for the Arizona Cardinals, relinquished a multi-million dollar contract to join the Army with the professed goal of making it as a Ranger, he immediately became an anomaly: In this era of pampered, million-dollar ballplayers, he is a throwback to an earlier age, when the best athletes in America gave some of the best years of their professional careers to serve in the Armed Forces during a time of war.

How times have changed.

Baseball, our “National Pastime,” was once the province of working-class young men possessed of a special talent with bat, ball, and glove. Many hailed from blue-collar backgrounds, and felt unbelievably lucky to have made it to the Big Leagues to earn their keep, if only for a little while. As Chester (“Red”) Hoff said when I interviewed him for a book I was doing on America’s centenarians, “Playing ball was better than having to work to earn a living.”

Although numbers are not easy to come by, the National Baseball Hall of Fame has derived some telling statistics. In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 500 major leaguers served during the war, including 29 who would eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame. Five Hall of Famers served during the war in Korea.

Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller became the first major leaguer to volunteer for active duty, enlisting in the Navy two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor engulfed America in the Second World War. He became an anti-aircraft gunner on the battleship Alabama, which fought at Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and in the Marshall Islands. For his service, he earned five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars. Despite losing four years to the war, Bullet Bob won 266 games and struck out 2,581 batters during an exemplary 18-year career highlighted by a trio of no-hitters and a dozen one-hitters.

Warren Spahn, with 363 victories the winningest southpaw in baseball history, spent three years as a combat engineer. He has the distinction of being the only professional athlete to have earned a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant. A foot wound obviously didn’t hurt his pitching skills much.

The inimitable Yogi Berra served in the Navy, and was stationed aboard a rocket launcher off the coast of Normandy Beach just after D-Day. Rubber-armed Hoyt Wilhelm, who pitched in more than a thousand games and became the first closer to enter the Hall, earned a Purple Heart in the Battle of the Bulge. Umpire Nestor Chylak, an Army Ranger, lost his sight for ten days during that battle; his actions earned him a Purple Heart and the Silver Star.

The ‘Human Howitzer’

Professional football players answered the call as well. Of the 638 NFL players who served in World War II, 355 were commissioned as officers, 66 were decorated, and 21 lost their lives.

Al BlozisAmong them was an offensive tackle for the New York Giants named Al Blozis (seen left) . The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Blozis played football and was a weight thrower on the track team at Georgetown University. He won the NCAA, IC4A, and AAU shotput championships indoors and outdoors three years in a row, from 1940-42, and was the IC4A discus champion all three years as well. Along with golfer Ben Hogan and boxer Joe Louis, Blozis was selected by United Press International as one of three outstanding athletes of 1941.

Graduating in 1942, he was drafted by the Giants in the third round and quickly became an anchor at tackle. Having been granted a dispensation to serve in the military because of his size, Blozis, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, entered the Army as a lieutenant.

On his first patrol, less than two months after playing his last game on the gridiron, he was killed in the Vosges Mountains during an encounter related to the Battle of the Bulge. Lieutenant Alfred Blozis was 26 years old.

While Al Blozis may not be a “household name” for most fans of the game, his death robbed football of a standout player, and, many believe, track and field of a virtually certain Olympic gold medalist.

During the long years of America’s involvement in Vietnam, a paucity of our finest athletes managed to serve on active duty. Scores fulfilled their military obligation by joining the Reserves or the National Guard. A Pentagon study in the spring of 1967 found 360 pro players in the Reserves and the Guard. Among them were Boston Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg, New York Mets pitchers Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan and second baseman Ken Boswell, and New York Knicks stars Cazzie Russell and Bill Bradley.

Of those who served in Vietnam, Rocky Bleier, the storied running back who helped the Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowls, is perhaps the most prominent. Picked by the Steelers late in the 1968 draft after a sterling collegiate career at Notre Dame, he was drafted again, this time for service in the Army as an infantryman. He suffered crippling wounds in both legs when hit by enemy rifle fire and shrapnel. He could barely walk let alone run. Yet with grit and determination, he beat the odds after two agonizing years recovering from his wounds. Rocky Bleier went on to a stellar 12-year career in the NFL. He became the “go-to” guy for the Steelers, a thousand-yard rusher, and a key contributor to four Super Bowl championships.

Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach, whose Dallas Cowboys were prime competition for Bleier’s Steelers, served in the Vietnam theater of operations. Willie Miller, a wide receiver who played in the Super Bowl with the then Los Angeles Rams, served. So did Charlie Johnson, a defensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Sad Distinction

One NFL player was killed in action in Southeast Asia. Bob Kalsu had been an All-America tackle at the University of Oklahoma and an eighth-round draft pick by Buffalo in 1968. He started eight games at guard in 1968 and was the Bills' top rookie. His potential had few limits. Following the season he entered the Army to satisfy his ROTC obligation.

Kalsu arrived in Vietnam in November 1969. He was killed in action on 21 July 1970 at Fire Base Ripcord near the A Shau Valley. First Lieutenant Bob Kalsu had one child, a daughter. At home in Oklahoma City, his wife gave birth to his son, James Robert Kalsu Jr., on 23 July 1968. Mrs. Kalsu was informed of her husband's death hours later.

Bob Kalsu
July 23, 2001 Issue
Bob Kalsu had just finished a stellar NFL rookie year when he chose to serve in Vietnam-and became the only U.S. pro athlete to die there. Photo courtesy Jan Kalsu-McLauchlin

An equally modest contingent from America’s Pastime served in Vietnam. Baltimore Orioles outfielder Al Bumbry led an infantry platoon; he was able to boast that all of his men made it home. Ed Figueroa, a steady pitcher for the California Angels and later for the New York Yankees, also served in-country.

Today, with the threat of the military draft no longer a motivating factor, few with the potential to make it in the pros give a second thought to military service. Pat Tillman stands out among this elite fraternity as an athlete whose values, like so many of the stars who came before him, extend beyond the game they play. The real heroes, he knows, are not the guys who hit .350, or belt 60 home runs, or throw for 3,000 yards, or rush for 1,500 yards, or score 30 points a game, or race cars very fast.

The real heroes are the Pat Tillmans.

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