Updated: May 28
Memorial Day Weekend 2022 is upon us and I thought it would be a great opportunity to honor many of those who often seem to be overlooked in the sports world. We often focus and look upon the top athletes today as role models and heroes. Guys like Lebron, Brady, Curry, etc. These guys have all done great things in their own right and should be honored for it, but we have another type of hero in the sports world that I want to bring attention to today, and that's the athletes who put their careers on hold to serve their country. Some of these will be current athletes still competing today, while others will be from the past and perhaps forgotten.
As a Steelers fan I was reminded on a weekly basis about Villanueva's service, but others may be unaware of it. Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Villanueva got off to a late start in the NFL because of his military service. He attended West Point and served three tours in Afghanistan before trying out for the Philadelphia Eagles as a defensive lineman in 2014. The Eagles cut Villanueva before the 2014 season began, and the Steelers picked him up and signed him to their practice squad.
Under the tutelage of offensive line coach Mike Munchak, the Steelers converted Villanueva into an offensive lineman, a position he played only sparingly while at West Point. He spent the entire 2014 season on the practice squad and then made the 53-man roster as a reserve in 2015.
In 2017 the Steelers signed Villanueva to a 4/$24 million deal to be their starting left tackle. He played well through the past 4 seasons and signed a 2 year deal with the Baltimore Ravens last offseason. Another chapter in a career that has been nothing short of remarkable. From playing football for Army in college, to becoming an Army Ranger, to receiving the Bronze Star for rescuing wounded soldiers while under fire during his first 12 month tour in Afghanistan, to completing 2 more tours in country, and lastly successfully having a fruitful NFL career.
The Golden Era
I'm going to provide a link for the WWI-Korea era because there is simply too many names to go through here from this time period. It was much more common, especially during WWII for athletes to voluntarily leave their sports and join the war effort than it is today. In many cases these athletes were drafted into the military. Ross Kelly over at stadiumtalk.com does an excellent job at breaking down each one of these athletes stories. From names like Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis to Dimaggio, Berra, and Staubach he covers the stories of all the great ones. Give it a read this Memorial Day.
A name many people probably haven't heard of or have forgotten, Anderson is one of the top running backs in Denver Broncos history. Anderson joined the Marine Corps after high school and served on peacekeeping missions in Kenya and Somalia as a communications specialist during his 4 year military career. Due to his military career and college football days he didn't make his NFL debut until he was 27.
A name that surprised me to find during my research for this blog. From Ross Kelly at stadiumtalk.com:
Despite being a Hall of Famer, Robinson didn’t play organized basketball until his senior year of high school. Because of that, he attracted little interest from major programs and decided to go to the Naval Academy after posting a 1,320 on his SAT.
But Robinson – who was 6 feet, 6 inches as a senior – had grown to 6 feet, 8 inches when he started college and was two inches above the Navy height limit. He received a waiver to gain acceptance and was a staff officer in the Civil Engineer Corps.
After being selected No. 1 in the 1987 NBA draft, Robinson fulfilled his two-year military commitment as a civil engineering officer before making his debut with the San Antonio Spurs in 1989.
One of the top 50 players in NBA history was almost a career Navy man rather than a professional basketball player. Crazy to think he didn't play basketball until his senior year in high school. Draws some similarities to Joel Embiid today.
Lastly for this blog I have Pat Tillman. Pat's story is one I'm sure just about everyone has heard at least once, if not multiple times by now. As being one of the only athletes to pay the ultimate price for freedom, it is one story that should never stop being shared. I am going to share Pat's story from the pattillmanfoundation.org website as they are the only ones who can tell it as it should be.
Patrick Tillman was born to parents Mary and Patrick on November 6, 1976, in San Jose, California. The eldest of three boys, Pat was a caring and protective brother and a natural leader with a tendency to push limits – in life, the classroom and on the field.
At Leland High School in San Jose, California (1990-1994), that challenger mentality would become his signature. His diligence and relentless curiosity amazed almost everyone he came into contact with. In high school he was a star who led his high school team to a Central Coast Division I Football Championship – after he was told he was too small to ever play football.
Arizona State University recognized Pat’s potential both in the classroom and on field with a scholarship to play for the Sun Devils. What Pat lacked in physical size he more than made up for in intensity as linebacker. He led ASU to the 1997 Rose Bowl after an undefeated season, earned three consecutive selections to the Pac-10 All-Academic Football Team, a 1st team Academic All-American honor, as well as the NCAA’s Post-Graduate Scholarship for academic and athletic excellence. Between games, Pat earned a B.S. in Marketing, graduating Summa Cum Laude from ASU’s prestigious W.P. Carey School of Business in three and a half years.
Pat gained admiration and high regards from his professors, coaches and fans alike.
The Arizona Cardinals agreed, and selected Pat in the 7th round of the 1998 NFL Draft. Many people doubted his ability to deliver as a starter on the Cardinal’s opening-day roster. He answered that skepticism by becoming the team’s starting safety and broke the franchise record for tackles in 2000 with 224.
Pat’s NFL success did not go to his head or break his principles. He still drove to games in the same beat up truck he had in college. He had no cell phone. He chose to read voraciously and develop, debate and discuss his ideas with eager listeners, family and friends. He made your passion his passion. In the off-season, he challenged himself physically with marathons and half-Ironman triathlons while pursuing a Master’s degree in History from his alma mater. He volunteered with Boys and Girls Clubs, the March of Dimes, and read and talked to students in schools across the Phoenix Valley.
The day after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Pat told a reporter, “At times like this you stop and think about just how good we have it, what kind of system we live in, and the freedoms we are allowed. A lot of my family has gone and fought in wars and I really haven’t done a damn thing.”
In the spring of 2002, Pat married his high school love, Marie, and upon his return from their honeymoon, announced to the Cardinals he had decided to place his NFL career on hold to enlist in the U.S. Army with his brother, Kevin. The decision shocked many and garnered national media attention despite his refusal to speak publicly about the choice.
Pat and Kevin joined the U.S. Army that July, committing to a three-year term. They were assigned to the second battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment in Fort Lewis, Washington. They served tours in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, and in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2004. On the evening of April 22, 2004, Pat’s unit was ambushed as it traveled through the rugged, canyon terrain of eastern Afghanistan. His heroic efforts to provide cover for fellow soldiers as they escaped from the canyon led to his untimely and tragic death via fratricide.
While the story of Pat’s death may have been the most publicized in the War on Terror, it is Pat’s life, principles and service that are his true legacy. Pat’s family and friends started the Pat Tillman Foundation to carry forward that legacy by giving military service members, veterans and spouses who embody those principles the educational tools and support to reach their fullest potential as leaders, no matter how they choose to serve.
An incredible story of service and sacrifice that we as Americans should be proud of and grateful for. That's what this day is about. It's about honoring those, who like Pat, gave up their lives for us and our country. While we go on and enjoy our long weekend, parties, barbecues, etc. as I'm sure many of the fallen would want us to, may we never forget the true meaning behind this day. Honor the fallen in your own way, and thank a veteran for their service too. While they may not have died during their service, many of them lost a part of themselves along the way. Have a safe Memorial Day everyone.