Whether we agree with it or not, younger sports fans idolize professional athletes, almost idolizing them as their heroes. But as we become adults, we realize that the real heroes are the ones who serve in the military, potentially risking their livelihoods – if not their lives – to protect our freedoms.
But then, there are those select few athletes who were “heroes” in both areas: both serving in the armed forces, and then going on to have distinguished careers as a professional athlete.
Here are 30 famous sports figures who also served in the United States Military.
Roger Staubach, U.S. Navy
Prior to becoming one of the most iconic players both in the storied history of the Dallas Cowboys franchise and perhaps the NFL as a whole, Roger Staubach attended the U.S. Naval Academy where he won the 1963 Heisman Trophy, and after graduation he served in the U.S. Navy.
That service included a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam. He served as a Supply Corps officer for the Navy at the Chu Lai base/port, which was a secondary air base providing relief for Da Nang Air Base.
Jackie Robinson, U.S. Army
From 1942 to 1944, Jackie Robinson served as a second lieutenant in the United States Army. Unfortunately, his stint in the military was mostly known because of the issues he faced as a result of segregation. During boot camp at Fort Hood, Texas, Robinson was arrested and court-martialed in 1944 for refusing to give up his seat and move to the back of a segregated bus.
Robinson’s excellent reputation, combined with the efforts of friends, the NAACP and various black newspapers, shed public light on the injustice. This incident would also be the precursor to his efforts to “break the color barrier” in professional baseball.
Yogi Berra, U.S. Navy
Like so many Americans in the late 1940’s, Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra was inspired to enlist in the United States military after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He had actually signed with the New York Yankees in 1943 before serving in the United States Navy as a gunner’s mate in the Normandy landings during World War II, where he earned a Purple Heart.
Berra actually manned a machine gun mounted on a ball turret in a landing craft support boat, enabling other soldiers to storm the beach in the hallowed invasion.
David Robinson, U.S. Navy
“The Admiral” wasn’t a nickname bestowed upon David Robinson just because it sounded cool. Rather, Robinson chose to go to the United States Naval Academy, where he would go down as the greatest player in the school’s history.
But, as part of enrolling at the school, he was potentially on the block for serving active duty. Instead, Robinson was commissioned in the Naval Reserve and was only required to serve an initial active-duty obligation of two years.
Ted Williams, U.S. Marine Corps
Ted Williams’ exploits on the baseball diamond are legendary. But his work as a member of the Marine Corps made him an American icon. In addition to serving in World War II (after being drafted), Williams’ name was called from a list of inactive reserves to serve on active duty in the Korean War in 1952.
It was there that he crash-landed his Navy F9F Panther jet, which was damaged by anti-aircraft fire, and still managed to walk away from the wreckage without significant injury.
Pat Tillman, U.S. Army
Perhaps the most well-known NFL player to serve in the U.S. Military, Patrick Tillman gave up his successful NFL playing career for military service. The former Cardinals safety enlisted in the Army Rangers with his brother Kevin in 2002.
On Tillman’s second tour of duty, in Afghanistan, he was killed in a friendly fire incident. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart, among several other military honors.
Nolan Ryan, U.S. Army
Even Nolan Ryan, easily one of the greatest pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball, served his time in the military. Ryan actually missed the 1967 season with the New York Mets due to service with the Army Reserve.
He was back in 1968 and made it through his first full major league season. He went on to have a Hall of Fame career, in which he made eight All-Star teams, won one World Series and retired as MLB’s all-time strikeouts leader.
Roberto Clemente, Marine Corps
Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in the winter prior to the 1959 season, and served his six-month active duty commitment at bases in South Carolina, North Carolina and Washington, D.C.
The rigorous Marine Corps training programs helped Clemente physically; he added strength by gaining ten pounds and said his back troubles (caused by being in a 1954 auto accident, see below) had disappeared.
Joe Louis, U.S. Army
The fact that boxing great Joe Louis’s served as a soldier during World War II is a telling tribute to his personal character. He donated the purses from two fights — nearly $100,000 — to the Army and Navy relief societies in 1942.
However, realizing Louis’s potential for raising the spirit among the troops, the Army placed him in its Special Services Division rather than sending him into combat. Louis would go on a celebrity tour with other notables, including fellow boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
Joe DiMaggio, U.S. Army
Legendary hitter Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces on February 17, 1943, and would rise to the rank of sergeant. Stationed at Santa Ana, California, Hawaii, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, DiMaggio served as a physical education instructor. He was released on a medical discharge in September 1945, due to chronic stomach ulcers.
Many people characterized his stint in the military as being somewhat “cushy,” as he spent most of his military career playing for baseball teams and in exhibition games against fellow Major Leaguers and minor league players.
Jesse Ventura, Navy SEAL
Officially born as James George Janos, the man we all know as Jesse Venutra enlisted into the United States Navy and joined the Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) after graduating from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) school. Although Ventura never completed the extra 26 weeks of training to become a SEAL, the UDTs were broken apart and combined with the SEAL teams after Vietnam.
Ventura claims that UDTs simply refer to themselves as SEALs due to the restructuring. Despite his membership with Underwater Demolition Team 12, Ventura never saw combat during Vietnam although he did receive the Vietnam Service Medal.
Mike Anderson, Marine Corps
The man who brought the “Mile High Salute” to the NFL, former Denver Broncos’ running back Mike Anderson spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating high school.
It was there that he was spotted as a potential football prospect. Anderson was playing for the 11th Marines contact football team when he was offered the chance to play at Mt. San Jacinto Junior College, which led to an opportunity at the University of Utah, which gave him the credibility to eventually become a starting running back in the NFL.
Rocky Bleier, Army
Best known for being the running mate (literally) for Pittsburgh Steelers’ running back Franco Harris, fellow running back Rocky Bleier has been drafted to the Army in December of 1968 (which was his rookie season), and sent to Vietnam in May 1969.
Bleier recovered from gunshot and grenade injuries for which he received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, and returned to the Steelers after his service. After becoming a starter in 1974, he went on to win four Super Bowl rings with Pittsburgh.
Whitey Ford, Army
Edward Charles “Whitey” Ford missed the 1951 and 1952 seasons while serving in the Army during the Korean War. Once he returned to baseball, Ford would go on to become a ten-time MLB All-Star and six-time World Series champion.
In 1961, Ford won both the Cy Young Award and World Series Most Valuable Player Award. He led the American League in wins three times and in earned run average twice. The Yankees retired Ford’s uniform number 16 in his honor.
Ty Cobb, U.S. Army
After setting single-season record for stolen bases with 96 way back in 1915, Tyrus Raymond Cobb enlisted in the Chemical Corps branch of the United States Army in October of 1918 and was sent to the Allied Expeditionary Forces headquarters in Chaumont, France.
After being given the rank of captain during his service, he served approximately 67 days overseas before receiving an honorable discharge and returning to the United States
Willie Mays, U.S. Army
Future Hall of Fame outfielder Willie Mays was drafted in 1952 to help the United States during the Korean War (1950–53). He would subsequently miss most of the 1952 season and all of the 1953 season.
Mays spent much of his time in the Army playing baseball at Fort Eustis, Virginia. It was at Fort Eustis that Mays learned the basket catch from a fellow Fort Eustis outfielder, Al Fortunato. Mays missed about 266 games due to military service.
Bill Bradley, Air Force
Before he would become a two-time NBA Champion with the New York Knicks, Bill Bradley served six months in the Air Force Reserve. After that short military stint, he would go on to play 10 seasons with the Knicks, building on his highly decorated collegiate basketball career while at Princeton University.
In his post-playing days, Bradley has made his way into politics. He served three terms as a Democratic U.S. Senator from New Jersey. He ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in the 2000 election.
Jack Dempsey, U.S. Coast Guard
Jack Dempsey first started boxing professionally in 1914. Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s he was extremely popular and is probably one of the most popular boxing champions of all times. During World War II Dempsey joined New York State National Guard and was given a commission as a first lieutenant.
He resigned that commission to accept a commission as a lieutenant in the Coast Guard Reserve. In 1945, he was on the attack transport USS Arthur Middleton for the invasion of Okinawa, during World War II.
Rocky Marciano, Army
Rocco Francis “Rocky” Marchegiano was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, and assigned to the 150th Combat Engineers. He was stationed in Wales where he was involved in operations on the English Channel. The 150th was awarded service stars for Normandy, North France, Rheinland, Ardennes-Asace and Central Europe.
It was in the Army that Marciano first boxed, starting with unofficial bouts, and working up to junior amateur by the time of his discharge in 1947. After failing a tryout for catcher with the Chicago Cubs, baseball team, Marciano returned to boxing.
Phil Rizzuto, Navy
Like so many other Major League Baseball players of that era, New York Yankees’ great Phil Rizzuto spent three years in the service when the United States entered World War II.
It was there that he began playing baseball, at the Naval Training Station in Norfolk, Virginia between 1943 and 1945. He returned to the Yankees for the 1946 season.
Bill Sharman, U.S. Navy
William Walton Sharman is mostly known for his time with the Boston Celtics in the 1950s, partnering with Bob Cousy in what some consider the greatest backcourt duo of all time.
But after graduating from the University of Southern California, Sharman served during World War II from 1944 to 1946 in the US Navy. After his service, Sharman would become the first North American sports figure to win a championship as a player, coach, and executive.
Tom Seaver, Marine Corps
One of the biggest reasons Tom Seaver became known as “Tom Terrific” with the New York Mets, in his own eyes, was because he served in the Marine reserves before embarking on a career that would enshrine him in Cooperstown.
During the Vietnam War, Seaver served an eight-year commitment, including three months of boot camp, three months of active duty at Camp Pendleton outside of San Diego and 5½ years of reserve obligation. Seaver would say that finishing boot camp was one of his most gratifying accomplishments, and gave him a great sense of pride to wear his military uniform.
Ken Norton Sr., Marine Corps
Ken Norton Sr., the venerated boxer who once broke the jaw of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, was always a great athlete. He earned a football, basketball, and track scholarship to Northeast Missouri State College, and it wasn’t until he enlisted in the Marine Corps that Ken was introduced to boxing.
In time, Norton became the best boxer to ever fight for the Marine Corps, where he became a corporal. Eventually, Norton was inducted into the into the Marine Corps Sport Hall of Fame.
Alejandro Villanueva, U.S. Army
While Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva may be a member of the black and gold, he is also the member of another elite team: the U.S. Army Rangers. After earning his Ranger tab at Fort Benning in 2010 following graduation from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he served with the 75th Ranger Regiment, 1st Battalion and did three combat tours to Afghanistan.
A second-generation military man, Villanueva was born on Naval Air Station Meridian in Meridian, Mississippi, to Ignacio Villanueva, a Spanish Naval officer who worked for NATO.
Lee Trevino, Marine Corps
In 1955, Lee Trevino was two years removed from dropping out of high school, and still a decade away from playing in the PGA. At the time, he was slinging hotdogs and Cokes at Knollwood Golf Club in Irving, Texas.
And after being caught by a policeman for a petty theft, the officer referred Trevino to a recruiter for the Marine Corps. In a 2009 interview with Golf Digest, Trevino said the four years he spent in the Corps “was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”
Chad Hennings, Air Force
Chad Hennings found success both in the military and on the gridiron, given that he was in forty¬ five successful combat missions flying A¬10 jets with the Air Force, and left the Air Force one of the most decorated college football players in NCAA history.
He won the Outland Trophy in his senior year of college in 1987, given to the best lineman in college football, and after being selected in the eleventh round of the 1988 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys, he played in the National Football League from 1992 to 2000, winning three Super Bowls.
Leon Spinks, Marine Corps
Olympic Gold Medalist Leon Spinks had dropped out of high school after making it to the 10th grade, before joining the Marine Corps, in 1973. While he had originally clashed greatly with his instructors in the Marines, he eventually acquiesced to the discipline and lifestyle needed, and would graduate from boot camp and make the All-Marine boxing team.
Then, in the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada, Spinks won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division.
Arnold Palmer, US Coast Guard
Long before Arnold Palmer became a household name because of his exploits in golf (and eventually became the first millionaire in the history of the sport), he was a member of the U.S. Coast Guard.
While attending Wake Forest University, he was distraught over his roommate dying in a car accident, and used the U.S. Coast Guard as a means to get away from the situation. Palmer credits the Coast Guard for making him more mature and better able to make an impact on the world, in his own way.
Hank Greenberg, U.S. Army Air Corps
Henry Benjamin Greenberg, known as “Hammerin” Hank Greenberg, was a star slugger for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930’s and 1940’s, who eventually earned election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But on October 16, 1940, just eight days after he and the Tigers lost Game Seven of the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, Hank registered for the draft, the first professional baseball player to do so. In all, Greenberg served 47 months in the service during World War II, the longest tenure of any ballplayer.
Tom Landry, U.S. Army Air Corps
Before his almost three-decade career coaching the Dallas Cowboys, legendary head coach Tom Landry served as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II.
Piloting a B-17 Flying Fortress, Landry often flew missions deep into enemy territory and frequently returned his aircraft with minimum fuel. Between 1944 and 1945, he distinguished himself by flying 30 combat missions over heavily defended targets. After his coaching career, he returned to flying general aviation aircraft.