To their fans, many athletes are known as heroes for their efforts on the field. However, it’s what some of them have done away from their sport that truly makes them a hero. Some brave and patriotic athletes have voluntarily left their professional careers to serve and defend their country, sometimes while they were in the prime of their career.
While some athletes on our list were obligated to serve after attending military academies, others chose to leave their sport. Some even sacrificed their lives for their country. While they all have different stories and backgrounds, these courageous individuals deserve our respect
Ted Williams Served Then Returned A Champion
Ted Williams entered active duty with the Navy in 1943, a year after winning the AL Triple Crown. Williams would serve three years and was certified as a Naval Aviator in 1944. Upon returning to baseball in 1946, the two-time AL MVP won his first MVP title and played in his only World Series.
The iconic Red Sox was called back to active military duty in 1952 to serve as a Marine combat aviator in the Korean War. Williams retired from baseball in 1960, becoming a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush presented the outfielder with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award by the United States Government.
Jack Dempsey Was There For The Invasion At Okinawa
“The Manassa Mauler” became a famous boxer in the 1920s. After the United States entered World War II, Dempsey enlisted in New York State Guard. He was commissioned as a first lieutenant, before ultimately resigning and taking his talents to Coast Guard Reserve.
Additionally, Dempsey was part of the USS Arthur Middleton crew during the invasion of Okinawa and was honorably discharged in 1962. He was an inaugural 1954 inductee to The Ring magazine’s Boxing Hall of Fame.
Joe Louis Was Assigned To Entertain The Troops
The “Brown Bomber” voluntarily enlisted in the Army while in the middle of his 140-month reign as World Heavyweight Champion. Despite being assigned to a cavalry unity, eventually, the Army placed him in the Special Services Division. Louis would go on a celebrity tour along with fellow boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson.
They would stage boxing exhibitions around the world for his fellow soldiers. For his time of service, the iconic boxer was awarded the rare Legion of Merit in 1945, qualifying him for immediate release from the military. The Joe Louis Arena, the former home of the Detroit Red Wings, was named in his honor
Jackie Robinson Joined The ‘Black Panthers’ Tank Battalion
Five years before breaking the color barrier, Robinson was drafted into the Army in 1942. Eventually, he would join the 761st “Black Panthers” Tank Battalion. His time in the military was no different than his baseball career due to incidents of racial discrimination. In 1944, the second baseman was discharged and was never deployed overseas.
Afterward, he would embark on an exceptional 10-year career. Robinson played in six World Series, contributing to the Brooklyn Dodgers 1955 championship. In 1997, MLB retired his number 42 all across major league teams. Additionally, the league adopted a new annual tradition, Jackie Robinson Day on April 15.
Pat Tillman’s Number Was Retired After Tragedy Struck
Tillman remains one of the most iconic example of a 21st-century athlete giving up his playing career for the camouflage. In 2002, the former Arizona Cardinal safety enlisted in the Army Rangers with his brother Kevin. He was killed in a friendly fire incident.
For his time of service, he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart, among several other military honors. The Cardinals even built a plaza surrounding the University of Phoenix Stadium the Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza.
Bud Moore Went Beyond The Track To Serve His Country
Bud Moore was a machine gunner as a member of the United States Army during World War II. The South Carolina native participated in the Normandy landings and also went on to fight in the Battle of Bugle. He ended his military service as a sergeant.
When Moore returned from the war, he began a career in stock car racing as a crew chief. Eventually, the Hall of Famer would open Bud Moore Engineering, a team that went on to win three NASCAR Grand National Series championships.
David Robinson Was A Navy Man
Robinson played college ball at the Naval Academy, winning the Wooden and Naismith awards his senior year. After the San Antonio Spurs selected him first overall in 1987, Robinson had to perform his two years of active-duty service before joining the team.
During that time, Robinson served as a civil engineering officer in Georgia. Following his service time, Robinson went on to have an incredible NBA career. The college basketball star won two NBA championships with 10 All-Star appearances.
Yogi Berra Served On An Attack Transport
During World War II, Berra served in the United States Navy as a gunner’s mate on the attack transport USS Bayfield during the Normandy landings. After his military service, Berra returned to baseball, playing for the Newark Bears in the minor leagues. He would soon be called up to play for the Yankees in 1946 and didn’t skip a beat.
Berra appeared in fourteen World Series, including 10 championships, both of which are records. After 18 seasons, Berra retired in 1965. He spent the next as their manager, then joined the New York Mets as a coach, remaining with them for the next decade.
Ahmard Hall Served Then Walked On To His College Team
Hall took a different path to professional football. After not being recruited by colleges out of high school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps from 1998-2002.
Following his service time, he enrolled at the University of Texas on the G.I. Bill and walked on to the school’s football team and participated in their 2005 National Championship team. After graduating, the fullback went undrafted but the Tennessee Titans signed him as a free agent. During his six-year career in the NFL, Hall racked up 73 receptions for 561 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Tim James Served In Iraq After 8 Years In The NBA
The former University of Miami basketball star and former first-round pick enlisted in the Army. James joined after playing eight seasons in the NBA and he found himself serving in the Iraq War. Despite being a professional athlete, the former Miami Heat chose not to disclose his former career to avoid any special treatment.
On March 19, 2011, James was honored with a pre-game ceremony in Miami. Shortly after, Vance-Greenville Community college in North Carolina named him their new head coach. The two-time First Team All-Big East selection became the second head coach in the history of the program.
Roger Staubach Had To Serve Four Years Before Joining The NFL
A winner of the Heisman Trophy in 1963, Staubach was the quarterback at the Naval Academy. Despite being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, he still had to perform his required post-graduation service time.
The Midshipmen alum served in the Navy Supply Corps from 1964 to 1968, which included a tour of duty in Vietnam. In 1969, Staubach finally joined the Cowboys leading the team to five Super Bowl, and taking home the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl VI and Super Bowl XII.
Bill Bradley Has Served His Country In Multiple Ways
Bradley served in the Air Force Reserves as an officer. After six months, he joined the New York Knicks in 1967. Due to his service, he joined the team late, having missed the entire preseason as a rookie. However, he would spend his ten-year basketball career with the Knicks, helping the team win two championship titles in 1970 and 1973.
After retiring in 1966, he ran for a seat in the United States Senate the following year. The NBA All-Star was re-elected in 1984 and 1990 but left the Senate in 1997. After which he was an unsuccessful candidate for the 2000 Democratic presidential election.
Joe DiMaggio Was Discharged For Medical Reasons And Then…
In 1943, Joe DiMaggio joined the United States Army Air Force and rose to the rank of sergeant. He was stationed in California, Hawaii, and in New Jersey as a physical education instructor. In 1945, the Yankee great was released on a medical discharge due to chronic stomach ulcers.
Following his discharge, the outfielder returned to the baseball diamond, becoming one of the greatest players of all time. His 56-game hitting streak is a record that still stands today. Additionally, he was a three-time MVP winner and 13-time All-Star.
Arnold Palmer Built A Golf Court On His Coast Guard Base
“The King” spent time in the U.S. Coast Guard during the early days of his career, serving from 1951 to 1954. At the Coast Guard Training Center, he built a nine-hole course and had some time to continue to hone his golf skills. After his enlistment term completed, Palmer returned to college as well as competitive golf.
Palmer won 62 PGA Tour titles from 1955 to 1973. He won seven major titles in six-plus year domination from 1958 to the 1964 Masters. He was one of the 13 original inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Alejandro Villanueva Was An Army Ranger
The offensive lineman served three tours of duty in Afghanistan after attending the United States Military Academy. On top of playing football, he served as an Army Ranger as he was awarded a Bronze Star for his service.
After three tours of duty, he signed a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014. After the team waived him, he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers and became the team’s starting left tackle. Villanueva has become the third Spaniard to play in the NFL after Jess and Kelly Rodriguez did so in the late twenties-early thirties.
Bob Kalsu Sacrificed Everything For His Country
Bob Kalsu was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1968 and served in the army after his rookie season. Serving in the 101st Airborne Division, he was sent to South Vietnam in 1969.
Kalsu was killed in action on July 23, 1970, just two days before the birth of his son. The underrated offensive lineman, along with former Cleveland Brown Don Steinbrunner, are the only professional football players to be killed in action during the Vietnam War.
Mike Anderson Was Encouraged To Play Football When Serving As A Marine
Mike Anderson served in the Marine Corps so he couild earn educational benefits. While there, he played on the 11th Marines contact football team, catching the eyes of several coaches.
One coach would help the running back attend Mt. San Jacinto Junior College for two years, winning the California State JUCO Player of the Year Award. In his first year in the in the NFL (2002), he won the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award with the Denver Broncos.
Giannis Antetokounmpo Served In Greece
Giannis Antetokounmpo has two older brothers, Francis and Thanasis. Living in Greece, the trio had to serve a mandatory term in the army. Giannis and Thanasis both served reduced-three month military services, because they are permanent overseas residents.
Following his service time, he led the Bucks in all five major statistical categories, finishing the season in the top 20 in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. His hard work earned him the Most Improved Player Award in 2017, and today he is considered an elite NBA talent.
After high school, Joe Cardona enrolled in the Naval Academy. At Navy, he became the team’s long snapper and wasn’t charged with a bad snap during his four year run there.
Cardona became a fifth-round draft pick for the New England Patriots in 2015, becoming the fourth player destined as a long snapper to be drafted. He was the snapper for the Patriots victory in Super Bowl LI and once again in 2019 as the Patriots won Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams.
Nolan Ryan Served And Then Became An MLB Great
Nolan Ryan served with the Army Reserve for one year and made it back to baseball in 1968. Over a 27-year career, the eight-time All-Star stills hold the record for career strikeouts, sitting 839 strikeouts ahead of the runner-up, Randy Johnson.
Ryan ended his career wit three more no-hitters than anyone else in history. He remains one of the only 29 players in baseball history to have appeared in Major League Baseball games in four decades. In 1999, Cooperstown came calling, enshrining him as one of the best to ever step on the mound.