A Few Good Men: The 10 Most Prolific Veteran Athletes

Joe CipollaContributor INovember 12, 2010

A Few Good Men: The 10 Most Prolific Veteran Athletes

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    Professional sports has given many of us our childhood heroes.  Men and women who have inspired us by their stellar athletic ability and contributions to their respective sports.

    But there are a handful of athletes who are not only heroes in the world of sports, but also true American heroes.  People who chose to risk their lives, and in some cases, make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our great nation.

    On this Veterans Day weekend, as we honor all those brave men and women who served our country during both wartime and peace, here's a look at some of the most prolific athletes who gave their all not only on the field of play, but also on the field of battle.    

10. Bob Kalsu

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    Bob Kalsu was an All-American offensive tackle at the University of Oklahoma and was drafted in 1968 by the Buffalo Bills.  He quickly proved himself to be a valuable asset to the Bills and was honored as the team's rookie of the year.

    Kalsu would play his final season of football in 1968.

    In college, Kalsu had made an ROTC commitment with the 101st Airborne Division; he was called to duty in 1969 to serve in Vietnam. 

    As a pro football player, he was given a special treatment option to avoid service, but he refused.  He said, "I gave my word to my country. Just because I play pro football doesn't make me any better of a man or any different of a man than the men already serving our country. I'm going to live up to that commitment and the word I gave."

    On July 21, 1970, Kalsu's base on an isolated jungle mountaintop came under heavy enemy fire resulting in his death.

    Kalsu died two days before his wife gave birth to his son, Bob Jr.

9. Al Blozis

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    An offensive tackle from Georgetown University, Al Blozis was drafted in 1942 by the New York Giants.  With his 6'6", 240-pound frame, he quickly became the anchor of the Giants' offensive line and earned the nickname, "The Human Howitzer."

    In addition to being a great football player, Blozis also excelled in track and field.  He was a collegiate champion in both shotput and discus from 1940-42.  The United Press International selected him as one of three outstanding athletes of 1941 (the other two were Joe Louis and Ben Hogan).

    Blozis entered the Army in 1943 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 28th Infantry Division.  On his first patrol, while scouting enemy line in the Vosges Mountains in France, he was killed when he went to search for two men who hadn't returned from a patrol.

    Blozis' number, 32, has been retired by the Giants.

8. Chuck Bednarik

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    Chuck Bednarik is best remembered as the fearsome Philadelphia Eagle linebacker who is responsible for one of the most famous and brutal tackles in NFL history. 

    Bednarik's crushing blow to New York Giant pretty-boy Frank Gifford has become the stuff of legends in NFL lore.  That hit knocked Gifford out of football for a season and a half, and he was never the same player since the hit.   

    Bednarik is also recognized as the last true iron-man, playing both center and linebacker.  He was inducted in to the pro football Hall of Fame in 1967.

    But before his accomplishments on the football field, Bednarik was a World War II combat veteran.

    Bednarik entered the U.S. Air Force after graduating high school and served as a B-24 gunner. He flew in 30 successful combat missions over Germany.

7. Yogi Berra

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    Yogi Berra is an iconic figure who needs no introduction.  With his 10 World Series rings, he is the most decorated Major Leaguer in history.

    But before he achieved his accomplishments on the diamond, Berra served as a gunner's mate in the Navy during the D-Day invasion.

6. Hoyt Wilhelm

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    Hoyt Wilhelm was a knuckle-baller who was the first relief pitcher inducted into Cooperstown.  He's the first pitcher to achieve 200 saves, appear in 1,000 games and has the most wins as a reliever with 124. 

    His Major League career spanned 21 seasons from 1952 to 1972.  His final game came just 16 days short of his 50th birthday.

    Prior to his accomplished Major League career, Wilhelm served in the Army during World War II.

    Wilhelm fought in the Battle of the Bulge where he was wounded and earned a Purple Heart.

5. Warren Spahn

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    Warren Spahn is the greatest left-handed pitcher in Major League history.  His 363 wins are the most by a lefty and the Warren Spahn Award is given out every year to the league's best left-hander.

    Spahn was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973.

    After the 1942 season, Spahn chose to enlist in the Army.  He saw combat action in both the Battle of the Bulge and at the Ludendorff Bridge.  His actions earned him a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for bravery.

4. Bob Feller

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    Bob Feller is currently the oldest living Hall of Famer.  His legendary fastball rivals that of the great Nolan Ryan.  In 1946, he hurled a fastball at 107mph, the second fastest pitch ever recorded.

    Feller was the first Major Leaguer to volunteer for active duty, enlisting in the Navy just two days after the attack on  Pearl Harbor.  Feller served as a gun captain aboard the USS Alabama.  He was involved in some of the most vicious and important battles in the Pacific, earning five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.

    Prior to his enlistment, Feller was arguably the best pitcher in the Major League.  He already had amassed 107 wins and lead the AL in both wins and strikeouts for the previous three seasons before the war.

    After missing four seasons serving his country, he returned to pitching in 1946.  He finished that season with 348 strikeouts, a 2.18 ERA and 36 complete games.

3. Rocky Bleier

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    Rocky Bleier is a four-time Super Bowl Champion with the legendary Pittsburgh Steeler team of the 70s.  In 1976, both him and teammate Franco Harris rushed for 1,000 yards; only the second time this was ever accomplished (Mercury Morris and Larry Czonka were the first to achieve this feat in 1972).  Bleier also caught the go-ahead TD in Super Bowl XIII.

    After finishing his rookie season with the Steelers in 1968, Bleier was drafted into the Army and volunteered for active duty in Vietnam.

    In 1969, while on patrol, his platoon was ambushed.  He was hit in the leg with a rifle bullet and while on the ground, an enemy grade exploded nearby sending shrapnel into his leg.  He later earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for bravery.

    While recovering in an army hospital, doctors told him he would never play football again.

    Bleier reported to Steelers' training camp only a year after being wounded in Vietnam.  At the time, he couldn't walk without being in constant pain and spent the next two years trying to earn an active spot on the roster.  The Steelers even waived him twice. 

    Bleier's tenacity and offseason workouts helped him overcome his war wounds and he earned an active spot on the roster in 1974.  He would remain in the Steelers' starting lineup until his retirement in 1980.

2. Ted Williams

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    "Teddy Ballgame" is another player who needs no introduction.  Arguably the greatest hitter in Major League history, his .406 batting average in 1941 is the last time any player ever batted over .400.

    Williams is a veteran of two branches of the military (Navy and Marine Corp.) and a veteran of two wars (WWII and the Korean War)

    During WWII, he served as a naval flight instructor and never saw active duty.

    During the Korean War, Williams flew 39 successful combat missions for the Marine Corp.  On one such mission, his plane suffered anti-aircraft fire that crippled his electrical systems and hydraulics.  He managed to fly the damaged plane back to an Air Force base close to the front lines.  For this, he was awarded the Air Medal.

    William's lost a total of five seasons to military service to his country.  Many speculate about the career numbers he would've had if he were able to play those five season. 

1. Pat Tillman

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    Pat Tillman is an enigma.  In this day and age of spoiled professional athletes who think they are entitled to whatever they want, Tillman did the unimaginable.

    After the September 11th terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, Tillman turned down a multimillion dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army. 

    Tillman joined the Army Rangers and served multiple tours of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Tragically, Tillman was killed in action as a result of friendly-fire.  Tillman's death was surrounded in controversy as it was discovered that the circumstances regarding his killing were covered up to look like enemy fire.

    Tillman was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Silver Star.