Between Memorial Day and Veterans Day across America, it feels like we don’t truly honor military veterans as often as we should. Sacrificing their lives, time and freedom in order to preserve those same values for everyone back home is greater than any gift we could give.
For most military veterans, serving isn’t the end of the road. Some are such talented individuals that they return home to become all-time great professional athletes. Their on-field achievements can overshadow their selfless sacrifices as veterans, so here is a list of 25 athletes you may not have known protected their country.
25 Athletes Who Served in the Military
Jackie Robinson, Army
Drafted in 1942, Robinson was famously court-martialed in 1944 for refusing to sit in the back of an Army bus, but was later acquitted. After an honorable discharge a few years later, Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, became a National League MVP and his No. 42 is now retired across all of Major League Baseball.
Pat Tillman, Army
One of the most iconic veterans in pro sports, Tillman famously turned down a multi-million contract from the Arizona Cardinals to enlist as a U.S. Army Ranger following the attacks on September 11, 2001. Initially deployed to Iraq, Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, but posthumously earned a Silver star and Purple Heart.
David Robinson, Navy
Nicknamed “The Admiral,” Robinson was a two-time Consensus All-American basketball player with the Navy Midshipmen and served two tours after graduation. As the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft by the San Antonio Spurs, Robinson had a Hall-of-Fame career and won two gold medals with the U.S. Olympic team.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Greece
“The Greek Freak” served a mandatory military service alongside his brother, Thanasis, back in 2016. With the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis captured his first league MVP award in 2019 and followed that up with another MVP in 2020 before winning the NBA Finals in 2021. He is one of the best two-way players in the game.
Yogi Berra, Navy
Yes, Berra was a 15-time All-Star with the New York Yankees, but he was also one of thousands who stormed the beaches Normandy during the D-Day invasion. The Hall-of-Famer is considered one of the greatest catchers in MLB history.
Arnold Palmer, Coast Guard
“The King” brought golf to the massive sport it is today, but before winning seven majors and 62 PGA Tour events, he left Wake Forest College and served three years with the U.S. Coast Guard after the death of his friend.
Johnny Lujack, Navy
In 1943, Lujack won a national championship playing with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Then, he went overseas to fight in World War II as an officer in the United States Navy. He returned home to win a Heisman Trophy and two more national titles. Bad. Ass.
Roberto Clemente, Marine Corps Reserves
Clemente served six months with the reserves where he was a private first class until 1964. The 15-time All-Star won 12 Gold Glove Awards and two World Series titles before dying in a plane crash in 1972. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame the following year.
Nolan Ryan, Army Reserves
Aside from being professional baseball’s ultimate iron man (he played 27 seasons for crying out loud), Ryan served one year with the reserves in 1967 before returning to dominate pro baseball. He definitely learned how to fight in the Army, too.
Ted Williams, Marines
In 1942, Ted Williams won baseball’s Triple Crown one year after slugging an incredible .406 batting average in one season with the Boston Red Sox. Williams was a flight instructor during World War II, flew 39 combat missions in the Korean War and still made 19 All-Star game appearances. What a legend.
Willie Mays, Army
Mays was named Rookie of the Year in 1951, then was drafted during the Korean War. He missed almost two full seasons while stationed at Fort Eustis, Virginia, but returned in 1954 to put together a Hall-of-Fame career. Willie Mays is considered one of the greatest five-tool baseball players to ever do it.
Roger Staubach, Navy
Staubach served in Vietnam before leading “America’s Team” as quarterback of professional football’s Dallas Cowboys and winning two Super Bowl titles. His college football No. 12 jersey was retired at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Jesse Ventura, Navy SEAL
“The Body” was a star in the American Wrestling Association and World Wrestling Federation, but before that, he earned the National Defense Service Medal during the Vietnam War. He became the governor of Minnesota and has floated the idea of running for president.
Joe DiMaggio, Army Air Force
You know him for his MLB record 56-game hitting streak that may never be touched and his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, but “The Yankee Clipper” was also a sergeant during World War II.
Jack Dempsey, Coast Guard
Amidst criticism that the world heavyweight champion boxer was a “draft dodger” during World War I, Dempsey joined the New York State Guard during WWII and served on multiple ships, including the USS Arthur Middleton during the invasion of Okinawa.
Bob Kalsu, Army
While not a household name on the field, Kalsu was the only NFL football player to lose his life during the Vietnam War. The offensive lineman was killed in July 1970, just hours after his wife gave birth to the couple’s second child. His name was added to the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame in 2000.
Joe Louis, Army
The world heavyweight champion in boxing enlisted as a private during World War II and earned the Legion of Merit Medal upon his release. Louis fought in charity events aimed at raising awareness and recruitment for African Americans during that time.
Rocky Marciano, Army
Marciano is considered one of the greatest boxers to ever walk. His professional career resulted in a 49-0 record with 43 knockouts, and he retired as the undefeated heavyweight champion in 1956. Where’d he learn to box? He won an armed forced boxing tournament in 1946 while serving.
Tom Seaver, Marine Corps Reserves
Seaver served one year in 1962, then put on a clinic in Major League Baseball for the next two decades. The 12-time All-Star won three Cy Young Awards and a World Series in 1969.
Rocky Bleier, Army
After being drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1968, Bleier was drafted during the Vietnam War. While on patrol, the Notre Dame graduate’s platoon was ambushed, and Bleier took shrapnel to his thigh. Following surgery, the running back returned to the Steelers at the request of owner Art Rooney and won four Super Bowls.
Alejandro Villanueva, Army
Villanueva earned a Bronze Star for valor as a United States Army Ranger and definitely earned his spot in pro football. After years of honing his craft, the undrafted tight end-turned-tackle went to back-to-back Pro Bowls in 2017 and 2018 with the Pittsburgh Steelers and is now regarded as one of the best left tackles in the NFL.
Leon Spinks, Marines
The only man to take a championship belt from Muhammad Ali, Spinks won 26 professional fights and an Olympic gold medal at the 1976 Montreal games as a boxer. Prior to his fight career, Spinks served in the U.S. Marines.
Bob Feller, Navy
The first MLB pitcher to volunteer for active duty with the U.S. Navy after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Feller served for four years and was later commended as a lifetime member of the Green Berets. On the baseball diamond, the first-ballot Hall of Famer went to eight All-Star games, threw three no-hitters and won 266 games.
Whitey Ford, Army
After winning American League Rookie of the Year in 1950, Ford served two years during the Korean War before returning to the New York Yankees. Including that rookie season, he played 18 seasons, won six World Series titles, and is the Yankees all-time leader in wins (236), shutouts (45) and innings (3,170).
Bill Bradley, Air Force Reserve
Bradley won an Olympic gold medal in 1964, won two championships with the New York Knicks and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982. Before all that, he dropped out of Oxford before graduating to enlist in military duty.
This post was originally published on November 8, 2019. We brought it back Veterans Day in 2021.