Unfilled Potential: Remembering Athletes Killed in Military Action

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Unfilled Potential: Remembering Athletes Killed in Military Action
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To serve one's country takes guts. To risk one's life for one's country takes honor. To die for one's country takes sacrifice.

Veterans Day is Nov. 11. It's a day to celebrate not only those who served, but those who gave their lives in service of their country.

It's also a day that is special to me considering my eight years of military service, including two years overseas.

From World War I to present day, professional athletes weren't immune to military service. In fact, some volunteered because they felt it was the right thing to do.

Some, however, never returned home.

As the old saying goes, "Freedom is never free."

Here's a look at six athletes who answered the nation's call and ultimately gave their lives. These athletes had all the potential in the world, but the world never found out how good they could be.

 

Jack Lummus

Lummus goes down as a true American hero as he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on Iwo Jima in 1942.

Prior to his service with the Marine Corps, Lummus was a two-way end with the New York Giants during the 1941 season. However, just like many others, the attacks on Pearl Harbor changed his future.

According to accounts, Lummus advanced his platoon while encountering hostile fire from the Japanese. After an enemy grenade exploded near him, Lummus recovered and destroyed an enemy pillbox.

His gallantry displayed continuously during this portion of the battle. Part of his Medal of Honor citation reads:

Determined to crush all resistance, he led his men indomitably, personally attacking foxholes and spider traps with his carbine and systematically reducing the fanatic opposition, until, stepping on a land mine, he sustained fatal wounds.

Lummus showed leadership on two different types of fields. While the battlefield ultimately took his life, his actions will long be remembered as helping saving many lives.


Tom Hauck/Getty Images

Pat Tillman

Tillman may be the most famous of any athlete on this list mainly because his football career and death were relatively recent.

Drafted in the seventh round of the 1998 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals, Tillman wasn't the biggest of NFL players, standing at 5'11", 202 lbs.

Over the course of four seasons, Tillman recorded 238 tackles and three interceptions as a safety. He was also named an All-Pro in 2000.

Then Sept. 11 happened and Tillman's world changed, just as it did for many Americans.

Instead of accepting a three-year, $3.6 million contract from the Cardinals after the 2001 season, Tillman instead opted to join the Army Rangers.

After a small stint in Iraq during the initial invasion of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Tillman returned to the U.S. to attend Ranger School, where he graduated in late 2003.

As soon as he graduated, he was redeployed to Afghanistan. It was there Tillman lost his life due to a friendly-fire incident.

But the story didn't end there. Tillman's death was originally reported coming as a result of an ambush, but later investigations determined that wasn't so.

Controversy aside, Tillman decided to forgo millions of dollars to play in the NFL and serve his country.

That is sacrifice in a nutshell.

 

Harry O'Neill

O'Neill's big-league career was brief (one game), but he goes down as one of two MLB players to have been killed in World War II.

Signed by the Philadelphia Athletics in 1939, O'Neill made his one appearance in a big-league game on July 23 as a late-inning defensive replacement at catcher.

After short stints of playing minor-league baseball, semi-pro football and semi-pro basketball, O'Neill joined the Marines in 1942 after the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

Having completed officer training in Virginia, O'Neill was assigned to the newly-formed Fourth Marine Division. He participated in amphibious assaults on Kwajalein and Saipan, where he was hit with shrapnel in his right arm.

After returning to active duty one month later, he participated in an assault on Tinian prior to taking part in one of the most famous battles of the Pacific campaign—Iwo Jima.

It was there that O'Neill fell as he was killed by a Japanese sniper on March 6, 1945.

 

Elmer Gedeon

While at Michigan, Gedeon was a three-sport star, earning All-American honors in track and field, as well as lettering in baseball and football.

After graduating in 1939, Gedeon opted to sign with the Washington Senators. After 67 games in the minor leagues, Gedeon made his MLB debut for the Senators. After 15 at-bats in 1939, Gedeon spent most of 1940 in the minor leagues, making no plate appearances at the MLB level in 1940.

With the expectation of getting his shot in 1941, Gedeon was instead drafted into Army, eventually becoming a pilot.

Gedeon survived a crash during training in North Carolina, suffering multiple injuries. After crawling from the wreckage, Gedeon went back to save one of the men trapped, eventually receiving the Soldier's Medal for his actions.

The pilot eventually shipped out to fly over France in 1944, where he would ultimately lose his life:

Gedeon's bomber had dropped its bombs and just passed over the target when it received a direct hit below the cockpit, instantly filling the plane with flames. Gedeon fell forward against the controls as co-pilot James Taaffe, with his clothing on fire, desperately struggled to open the pilot's and co-pilot's top hatches. Taaffe looked back and saw no movement from Gedeon as he scrambled to safety through the hatch. As he descended through the night sky he watched the flame-engulfed airplane spiral out of control and explode on impact, carrying Gedeon and five others to their death.

Though he was at first identified as missing in action, Gedeon's family was informed in 1945 that his grave had been found in a small cemetery in Saint-Pol, France. Gedeon's body was eventually returned to the U.S., where it was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

 

Al Blozis

Drafted by the New York Giants in 1942, Blozis spent two seasons as an offensive tackle with the Giants before being drafted into the Army. 

Stationed in France in 1945, Blozis was killed in his first patrol in the Vosges Mountains. When two of his men failed to return from a patrol, Blozis went out to search for them; he never returned with his death being confirmed three months later.

Although there is not much information surrounding his death, Blozis showed the pride in serving his country, embodying the spirit "Leave Nobody Behind."

Blozis may have lost his life, but just as he protected his quarterback while playing for the Giants, he was protecting his men on the battlefield.

 

Bob Kalsu

Kalsu had the makings for a Hall-of-Fame career. He was coming off an All-American season at Oklahoma before being drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1968.

Following his rookie season in which he started nine games, Kalsu entered the Army as a second lieutenant to satisfy his ROTC obligation.

Kalsu had the opportunity to avoid Vietnam by joining the reserves but instead refused:

When many NFL players were joining the reserves, Kalsu's family urged him to follow suit. The steadfast Kalsu would have none of it. "I gave 'em my word," Kalsu said, referring to his promise, on joining ROTC, to serve on active duty. "I'm gonna do it."

In November 1969, Kalsu found himself in Vietnam. After eight months in the country, Kalsu and his unit came under heavy enemy mortar attacks.

Due to the attack, Kalsu received a gushing wound to the back of his head, ultimately succumbing to his wounds.

More than a day later, his wife gave birth to their second child, a son. It was only hours after the birth that she was informed of his death.

Kalsu understood what service to his country meant. He took pride in his duty and gave his life for it.

One can only wonder what his career would have been like had he returned from Vietnam.

Service and sacrifice have a different meaning for those who have done both in defense of our country. While many in this country will never understand what it takes to be in the military, seven percent of the population does.

These men are just six from a long line of people who gave their lives. But what they could have accomplished on the field is what sets them apart for this article.

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