The Ultimate Sacrifice: Pro Athletes Killed During Military Service

Pat Tillman

With today being Memorial Day, we as Americans will celebrate strangers and loved ones alike who served in the Armed Forces and gave the ultimate sacrifice defending our freedom. There have also been many professional athletes serve their country. It takes exceptional skill to play pro sports, but it takes courage to fight for your country. Athletes aren’t immune to the draft and many of the guys featured in this article actually volunteered to fight; putting their professional and personal lives on hold to give all they could give. As we remember all of our fallen soldiers on this day, here are some professional athletes who gave their life for our country.

HOBEY BAKER 

Baker is recognized as the first American ice hockey star by the Hockey Hall of Fame. The Philadelphia native attended Princeton University from 1910-1914 where he was a standout in hockey, football, and baseball. Baker turned down a contract offer with the Montreal Canadians in 1916 and joined the Civilian Aviation Corps. Baker was sent to the front lines of WWI when he was assigned to the 103rd Aero Squadron. The French government awarded Baker the Croix de guerre after his first confirmed kill in the war. Hobey Baker was killed in 1918 after a plane crash during a test flight in France.

AL BLOZIS

Blozis was drafted by the New York Giants in the fifth round of the 1942 NFL Draft. The offensive tackle from Georgetown university was able to play in three games for the Giants in 1943 before reporting for duty in the U.S. Army. Blozis was also a track and field star in college in shot put and he used those skills to set an Army hand grenade record, throwing the explosive 94 yards, 2 feet, 6.5 inches. Al Blozis was assigned to the 28th Infantry Division and in January of 1945, he went on a search alone to find two of his men. He never returned.

ELMER GEDEON

Gedeon played with the Washington Senators in 1939 and played in the minors for the team in 1940. He was also a three sport star at Michigan in baseball, football, and track and field. Gedeon was expected to start the 1941 baseball season with Washington, but was drafted by the U.S. Army where he trained as a bomber pilot. On April 20, 1944, Gedeon’s B-26 bomber was shot down. He and five other crew members were killed. Elmer Gedeon is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

MARV GOODWIN

Goodwin played in MLB for seven seasons making his debut in 1916 with the Washington Senators. Goodwin was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1917 and posted a 6-4 record and a 2.21 era with the team. He joined the U.S. Army later that year, figuring he was going to be drafted anyway, but never was deployed due to the war ending shortly after. After WWI, Goodwin played five more MLB seasons with the Cardinals (1919-1922) and the Cincinnati Reds in 1925. Marv Goodwin was involved in a plane crash in October of that year in a training exercise with the U.S. Army Air Service Reserve forces. He would die from his injuries three days after the crash.

EDDIE GRANT

Grant played third base in the majors and made his professional debut late in the 1905 season, replacing an injured Nap Lajoie. The Harvard graduate also played for the Philadelphia Phillies (1907-1910), Cincinnati Reds (1911-1913), and the New York Giants (1913-15) before retiring at the end of the 1915 baseball season. Grant enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 and served as a Captain in the 77th Infantry Division. He was killed in action on October 5, 1918 in France. Eddie Grant was the first MLB player casualty in WWI.

BOB KALSU

Kalsu was an All-American tackle for the Oklahoma Sooners and was praised highly in his rookie season in 1968 starting at guard for the Buffalo Bills. He was also named the team’s rookie of the year that season. Kalsu entered the U.S. Army after the season to fulfill his ROTC commitment. While he had the option to avoid Vietnam and serve in the reserves, Kalsu was determined to serve on active duty. Kalsu arrived in Vietnam in November 1969 and was killed in action on June 21, 1970. He has a Forward Observing Base in Iraq (FOB Kalsu) named in his honor along with the post office in Del City, OK.  Bob Kalsu was on his way to a successful NFL career, but gave the ultimate sacrifice to the country he loved so dearly.

NILE KINNICK

Kinnick won the Heisman Trophy in 1939 as a half back. The Iowa Hawkeye set 14 school records that year and six of them remain today. Kinnick enlisted in the Naval Reserve as a fighter pilot and reported for duty three days before the Pearl Harbor attacks. He was deployed with the USS Lexington in May of 1943. On June 2, 1943, Kinnick was on a training flight in his Grumman F4F Wildcat off the coast of Venezuela when the aircraft encountered a major oil leak. He executed an emergency landing on water, but didn’t survive. While rescue boats were on scene just minutes later, Nile Kinnick‘s body was never recovered.

JACK LUMMUS

Lummus played one season with the New York Giants before enlisting in the Marines Corps after the championship game with the Chicago Bears. Lummus was a two sport star at Baylor and was elected to the AP All-American football team in 1937. Lummus entered WWII in February 1945 when his platoon was the first wave of troops to land on a beach in Iwo Jima. There, his platoon spent two weeks fighting Japaneses soldiers. During that action, Lummus stepped on a land mine losing both of his legs. He died in surgery due to his wounds. Just before the surgery, Lummus told the doctor “Well, doc, the New York Giants lost a mighty good end today.” On October 11, 2015, the Giants inducted Jack Lummus into the New York Giants Ring of Honor.

BOB NEIGHBORS

Neighbors had a brief stint in the majors in 1939 when he played with the St. Louis Browns. Even though his MLB career only lasted for seven games, he did hit a home run at Fenway Park off of Denny Galehouse. Neighbors quit organized ball in 1941 to join the U. S. Army Air Corps. Neighbors stayed in the Army after WWII and saw combat duty in the Korean War as he piloted a Douglas Invader with the 13th Bomb Squadron. On August 8, 1952, Bob Neighbors‘ aircraft was hit during a night mission. All three crew members reportedly bailed out, but were never heard from again.

HARRY O’NEILL 

O’Neill played for the Philadelphia Athletics as a catcher for one game during the 1939 baseball season. O’Neill played a few more games in the minors and also played semi-pro football and basketball before enlisting in the Marines in 1942. He took part in WWII with the 25th Marine Regiment where he suffered a shoulder wound due to shrapnel. He returned to active duty after being treated for his injuries in July 1944. On March 6, 1945, Harry O’Neill was killed in action at Iwo Jima due to sniper fire.

CHARLEY PADDOCK

Paddock is a two-time Olympic gold medal winner receiving both medals at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics in the 100 meter final and in the 4 x 100 meter relay. Paddock also took home a silver medal in the 200 meter in Antwerp and again at the 1924 Paris Olympics. While there isn’t much information publicly on Paddock’s military career, military records report the he was killed in a plane crash during WWII in Sitka, AK.

DAVE SCHREINER

Schreiner was an All-American defensive end at Wisconsin and went on the be drafted by the Detroit Lions in the second round of the 1943 NFL Draft. Schreiner was also named Big Ten Most Valuable Player in 1942. As a Marine, Dave Schreiner died from injuries sustained during the Battle of Okinawa on June 20, 1945. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1955.

DON STEINBRUNNER

Steinbrunner played at Washington State in college at the tackle position and was selected in the sixth round of the 1953 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. The Bellingham, WA native left his pro football career behind in 1954 to fulfill is ROTC commitment with the U.S. Air Force. Steinbrunner was sent to Vietnam in 1966 and turned down a light duty assignment due to being injured. His plane was shot down during a defoliation mission on July 20, 1967, killing all five crewmen on board. Before going to Vietnam, Don Steinbrunner served as an assistant football coach for four years at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

PAT TILLMAN

Tillman played four seasons in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals as a safety. Tillman was also a standout at linebacker at Arizona State helping the Sun Devils make it to the Rose Bowl game. In 2000, he was named to the NFL All-Pro Team after he recorded 155 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, and an interception for the season. In May 2002, Tillman turned down a three year, $3.65 million dollar contract to enlist in the U.S. Army. He graduated from Ranger School along with his brother Kevin in November 2003. Tillman served in Operation Iraqi Freedom before being deployed to Afghanistan in 2004. Tillman was killed by friendly fire during combat on April 22, 2004. Pat Tillman showed immense selfless service as he turned down a lucrative NFL contract to serve his country.

There have been many other athletes across this great nation who have fallen while serving their country among hundreds of thousands of other great men and women. We should honor all of these heroes on Memorial Day for making the ultimate sacrifice.

 

 

 

 

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