Greatest Athletes Who Served in the US Military

October 23, 2019 by Grant Suneson

Being a professional athlete seems like a dream job to many. The fame, praise, and huge paycheck would be enticing to anyone. But throughout the history of American pro sports, some players have left that life behind in favor of another calling — the military.

Over the last century, many star players felt compelled to serve their country, even if it meant putting themselves in harm’s way and leaving their families behind for a job that pays nowhere near the amount they made as pro athletes. These are the highest paying military jobs.

Many athletes, like Ty Cobb and Yogi Berra, served during the large-scale, global conflicts of World Wars I & II. Several others have made the same sacrifice more recently. David Robinson was the first overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft, but he did not play pro ball until 1989 because of his commitment to the Navy. Former Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman famously turned down a contract extension to enlist in the wake of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks.

In honor of Veterans Day, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed historical articles from media and military sources, including the Department of Defense, to compile a list of the greatest athletes who served in the U.S. military.

Like the military, sports requires determination, team work, focus, and preparation. Many great coaches, like John Wooden and Gregg Popovich, served in the military, which likely prepared them for the high-pressure leadership roles they would take on in athletics. These are the greatest coaches of all time.

It should be noted that this is not a comprehensive list. Many other players left behind their athletic careers to serve but did not receive the same publicity as these superstar players. Athletes are listed in alphabetical order by first name. Each of the military service’s five branches — Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard — are represented.

Click here to see the greatest athletes who served in the US military.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Arnold Palmer
> Branch of service: Coast Guard
> Served: 1951-1953
> Sport Golf
> Position, team(s): N/A
> Accolades: 7x Major winner, 62 total PGA Tour victories

One of the greatest golfers of all time, Arnold Palmer paused his golf career in favor of a career in the Coast Guard. Following the death of his college roommate in a car accident, Palmer was upset and sought direction and purpose, which he found serving his country. After three years in the Coast Guard, Palmer began his legendary golfing career.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Bob Feller
> Branch of service: Navy
> Served: 1941-1945
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Pitcher: Cleveland Indians
> Accolades: 8x All-Star, Triple Crown, Hall of Fame

Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller recalled being “angry as hell” when he heard Pearl Harbor had been attacked by Japan. Feller decided to forego his seventh MLB season, enlisting in the Navy and serving as a gun captain and missing the 1942, 1943, and 1944 MLB seasons before returning.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Chad Hennings
> Branch of service: Air Force
> Served: 1988-1992
> Sport NFL
> Position, team(s): Defensive tackle: Dallas Cowboys
> Accolades: 2x Super Bowl champion

While playing football for the U.S. Air Force Academy, Chad Hennings won the Outland Trophy as the best lineman in college football. Usually, that award is a one-way ticket to the NFL, but Hennings served his four-year commitment as a pilot before he played for the team that drafted him, the Dallas Cowboys. Hennings got there just in time, winning three Super Bowls in his first four years.

Source: library_of_congress / Flickr

Christy Mathewson
> Branch of service: Army
> Served: 1918-1919
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Pitcher: New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds
> Accolades: 2x Triple Crown, 5x ERA Title, Hall of Fame

A member of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s first induction class, Christy Mathewson dominated baseball in the early 1900s. After his career ended, Mathewson enlisted in the Army at age 38 to serve in World War I, even though he was exempt. He served with fellow baseball great Ty Cobb in the Chemical Service department, training soldiers how to deal with gas attacks.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Chuck Bednarik
> Branch of service: Army
> Served: 1943-1945
> Sport NFL
> Position, team(s): Linebacker: Philadelphia Eagles
> Accolades: 8x Pro Bowl, 6x All-Pro, Hall of Fame

Chuck Bednarik was nicknamed “Concrete Charlie,” and for good reason. He was one of the last to play offense and defense in the NFL. Bednarik is remembered for his hard hits on the field. He was a tough guy in the service, too, flying 30 combat missions over Germany as a gunner during World War II.

Source: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images

David Robinson
> Branch of service: Navy
> Served: 1987-1989
> Sport NBA
> Position, team(s): Center: San Antonio Spurs
> Accolades: MVP, 10x All-Star, Hall of Fame

David Robinson was not a highly touted high school basketball player, so he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Academy, where his dad went. While there, he hit a major growth spurt, going from 6’7″ to 7’0″, and he worked to become a dominant force on the court. Robinson was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs first overall in 1987, but he didn’t make his debut until 1989, after he had fulfilled his two-year commitment to the Navy.

Source: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library / Wikimedia Commons

Frank Brimsek
> Branch of service: Coast Guard
> Served: 1943-1945
> Sport NHL
> Position, team(s): Goaltender: Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks
> Accolades: 2x Vezina Trophy, 8x All-Star, Hall of Fame

Frank Brimsek was only the second American goaltender to man the net for a Stanley Cup champion, hoisting the Cup twice for the Boston Bruins in 1938-39 and 1940-41. He was nicknamed “Mr. Zero” for his many shutouts. Brimsek won the Vezina Trophy twice and led the Bruins to the playoffs in all nine years he played for them. After the United States entered World War II, he joined the Coast Guard and played one season with the Coast Guard Cutters.

Source: library_of_congress / Flickr

Grover Cleveland Alexander
> Branch of service: Army
> Served: 1918-1919
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Pitcher: Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies
> Accolades: 3x Triple Crown, 5x ERA Title, Hall of Fame

Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander was one of the greatest pitchers of the early 20th century. A control specialist, Alexander averaged 30 wins a season from 1914 to 1917 for the Philadelphia Phillies. The Nebraska farm boy left for France in 1918 to fight Germany in World War I and came back scarred physically and psychologically. He had epileptic seizures, suffered from what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder, and battled alcoholism. He managed to return to the major leagues and helped the St. Louis Cardinals defeat the New York Yankees in the 1926 World Series.

Source: FPG / Getty Images

Hank Greenberg
> Branch of service: Army
> Served: 1941-1945
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): First base: Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates
> Accolades: 2x MVP, 5x All-Star, Hall of Fame

Hank Greenberg was one of the greatest right-handed hitters ever. The Detroit TigerS slugger led the Bengals to the world championship in 1935. Greenberg was the first player in MLB history to win the most valuable player at two positions — first base and outfield. Greenberg, who battled anti-Semitism during his playing career, entered military service in May 1941 and was discharged Dec. 5, two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He immediately re-enlisted and served until 1945, just in time to help the Tigers win another pennant.

Source: Princeton Frist Campus Center / Wikimedia Commons

Hobey Baker
> Branch of service: Army
> Served: 1917-1918
> Sport Hockey
> Position, team(s): Winger: Princeton University
> Accolades: Hall of Fame

Hobey Baker was a highly skilled hockey player for Princeton University in the early part of the 20th century. Baker was one of the first American players elected to the hockey hall of fame. Baker’s gallantry and grace extended to his military service as well. Before the United States entered World War I, Baker learned to fly and joined the storied Lafayette Escadrille, American pilots who flew for France. He was credited with shooting down three enemy planes before he was killed in a plane crash after the armistice.

College hockey’s most prestigious award is named after Baker, recognizing the top player for his skills as well as his sportsmanship and character.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Jack Dempsey
> Branch of service: Coast Guard
> Served: 1942-1952
> Sport Boxing
> Position, team(s): N/A
> Accolades: World champion 1919-1926

By the time World War II took place, Jack Dempsey was already a boxing legend, having held the heavyweight title from 1919 to 1926. He served in the Coast Guard for a decade, in active duty from 1942 to 1945, then was honorably discharged in 1952 after serving in the reserves.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Jackie Robinson
> Branch of service: Army
> Served: 1942-1944
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Second base: Brooklyn Dodgers
> Accolades: 6x All-Star, MVP, Hall of Fame

Before he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, Jackie Robinson confronted racial bias in the military. He was drafted in 1942 and assigned to a segregated Army cavalry unit in Kansas. Robinson fought for African American soldiers to get officers’ commissions when they were denied them. Robinson would eventually become a second lieutenant.

Source: Keystone / Getty Images

Joe DiMaggio
> Branch of service: Army
> Served: 1943-9145
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Center field: New York Yankees
> Accolades: 3x MVP, 13x All-Star, Hall of Fame

Joe DiMaggio enlisted in the Army in 1943. During his time in the service, he played many exhibition baseball games to boost the morale of his fellow soldiers. He was stationed in California and Hawaii before he was hospitalized for stomach ulcers and eventually discharged in 1945.

Source: Getty Images / Getty Images

Joe Louis
> Branch of service: Army
> Served: 1942-1945
> Sport Boxing
> Position, team(s): N/A
> Accolades: World heavyweight champion

Joe Louis held the world heavyweight title belt throughout the duration of World War II. He used his fame after joining the Army, boxing in exhibition matches to entertain troops. Louis also advocated for African American soldiers to receive equal treatment as white soldiers.

Source: The Monticola / WIkimedia Commons

Joe Stydahar
> Branch of service: Navy
> Served: 1942-1945
> Sport NFL
> Position, team(s): Tackle: Chicago Bears
> Accolades: 4x Pro Bowl, 4x All-Pro, Hall of Fame

Chicago Bears tackle Joe Stydahar made four Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams throughout his career despite missing two full seasons in his prime when he was serving in the Navy during World War II. He would later go on to to coach the Los Angeles Rams and Chicago Cardinals.

Source: Larry Doby / Wikimedia Commons

Larry Doby
> Branch of service: Navy
> Served: 1944-1946
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Center field: Cleveland Indians
> Accolades: 7x All-Star, Hall of Fame

Hall of Fame center fielder Larry Doby possessed incredible courage. He fought in World War II’s Pacific Theater, serving in the Navy from 1944 to 1946. Just after returning, Doby was the first player to break the color barrier in the American League in 1947. The next year, he helped the Cleveland Indians win the World Series.

Source: Todd Warshaw / Getty Images

Pat Tillman
> Branch of service: Army
> Served: 2002-2004
> Sport NFL
> Position, team(s): Safety: Arizona Cardinals
> Accolades: N/A

In 2001, Pat Tillman was about to sign a new multi-million dollar contract extension with the Arizona Cardinals. But when the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, Tillman signed up to join the Army to fight the War on Terror. Tillman was killed by friendly fire in 2004. His friends and family created the Pat Tillman Foundation to provide scholarships and job opportunities to veterans and their families.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Pee Wee Reese
> Branch of service: Navy
> Served: 1943-1945
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Shortstop: Brooklyn Dodgers
> Accolades: 10x All-Star, Hall of Fame

Pee Wee Reese was one of many future Hall of Fame players who paused their careers to enlist during the World War II era. Though he joined the Navy, Reese still played baseball. He played alongside other service members while stationed in Virginia, Hawaii, and Guam, even helping to coach.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Phil Rizzuto
> Branch of service: Navy
> Served: 1943-1945
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Shortstop: New York Yankees
> Accolades: MVP, 5x All-Star, Hall of Fame

As the man in charge of a gun crew during World War II, Phil Rizzuto faced much danger during his time in the Navy. But his most serious challenge came when he contracted malaria when he was stationed in New Guinea. While recovering in Australia, the Yankees shortstop coached a Navy baseball team.

Source: Jay Publishing / Wikimedia Commons

Roberto Clemente
> Branch of service: Marine Corps
> Served: 1958-1964
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Right field: Pittsburgh Pirates
> Accolades: MVP, 15x All-Star, Hall of Fame

Roberto Clemente is famed for his commitment to serving others. His charitable efforts are well known, but baseball fans may not know that he served in the Marine Corps reserves for many years while also playing pro baseball. Clemente served from 1958 to 1964, including a six-month active duty stint.

Rocky Bleier
> Branch of service: Army
> Served: 1969-1971
> Sport NFL
> Position, team(s): Running back: Pittsburgh Steelers
> Accolades: 4x Super Bowl champion

Rocky Bleier is best known as a four-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s. But the fact that he was able to play pro football at all is astounding. Bleier was injured by a grenade while serving in the Vietnam War. Doctors told Bleier his career was over, but he battled through the injury to become a key piece of the Steelers’ 1970s dynasty.

Source: Keystone / Getty Images

Rocky Marciano
> Branch of service: Army
> Served: 1943-1946
> Sport Boxing
> Position, team(s): N/A
> Accolades: World heavyweight champion

Rocky Marciano may have never become a heavyweight champion had he not been drafted into the Army. After dropping out of high school, Marciano worked a series of odd jobs before being drafted in 1943. He helped ship supplies to allied forces across the English Channel. Just before being discharged, he won the 1946 Amateur Armed Forces boxing tournament. He had his first professional fight the next year, and by 1952, he was heavyweight champion and won 49 straight bouts.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Roger Staubach
> Branch of service: Navy
> Served: 1965-1969
> Sport NFL
> Position, team(s): Quarterback: Dallas Cowboys
> Accolades: 6x Pro Bowl, 2x Super Bowl champion, Hall of Fame

Though he won the Heisman Trophy at the Naval Academy, Roger Staubach nearly skipped pro football entirely. Staubach honored his four-year commitment to the Navy, including a year of service in Vietnam, and nearly stayed in the military full time, but he realized he missed playing football. He joined the Dallas Cowboys, leading the team to two Super Bowl titles.

Source: Harry How / Getty Images

Shauna Rohbock
> Branch of service: Army National Guard
> Served: 2000-present
> Sport Bobsled
> Position, team(s): Driver: Team USA
> Accolades: 2006 Olympic silver medal

Shauna Rohbock has dedicated her life to her country. In addition to a brief stint as a pro soccer player, she was part of the USA’s women’s bobsled team. She won a silver medal in the 2006 Olympic Games and competed in the 2010 games as well. These achievements all came while Rohbock also served in the Utah Army National Guard. She now coaches aspiring American Olympians while also serving on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition.

Source: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images

Stan Musial
> Branch of service: Navy
> Served: 1945-1946
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Outfield: St. Louis Cardinals
> Accolades: 3x MVP, 7x Batting title, Hall of Fame

Just after winning the NL MVP in 1943 and 1944 World Series, Stan Musial left behind his MLB career to enlist in the Navy. While stationed at Pearl Harbor, Musial helped bring damaged ships back into port and provide a diversion for battle-weary sailors by playing baseball in the 14th Naval District League. In 1946, his first season back from service, Musial picked up where he left off, hitting .365 and winning MVP.

Source: Getty Images

Ted Williams
> Branch of service: Navy
> Served: 1942-1946, 1952-1953
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Left field: Boston Red Sox
> Accolades: 2x MVP, 6x Batting title, Hall of Fame

After joining the Navy, Ted Williams wanted to get into the action. He told reporters, “I’m hoping I’ll get into the air quick to start some slugging against the Axis.” After extensive training, Williams got his wings, but the war ended soon after. Williams was recalled to active duty to fight in the Korean War in 1952. This time, he flew dozens of combat missions. Future astronaut John Glenn, who happened to serve in the same squadron, said Williams was an “excellent pilot.”

Source: Simon Russell / Getty Images

Tom Seaver
> Branch of service: Marine Corps
> Served: 1962-1963
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Pitcher: New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox
> Accolades: 3x Cy Young, 12x All-Star, Hall of Fame

Tom Seaver loved to pitch in his early days but did not have the physical prowess to dominate his opponents. He joined the Marines after high school, and the fitness training he underwent after enlisting helped him in his baseball career. After a year of service, he was discovered by the coaches at USC and set off on his Hall of Fame baseball career.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Ty Cobb
> Branch of service: Army
> Served: 1918-1919
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Center field: Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Athletics
> Accolades: MVP, 12x Batting title, Hall of Fame

Ty Cobb narrowly avoided disaster in his stint in the Army. After being promoted to captain and shipped off to France to fight in World War I, Cobb was tasked with preparing soldiers for chemical warfare. During one training exercise where troops would practice putting on protective masks, things went awry and Cobb and his soldiers were exposed to poison gas. Several died and Cobb fell ill for weeks, though he would recover and return to baseball after the war ended in 1919.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Warren Spahn
> Branch of service: Army
> Served: 1942-1946
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Pitcher: Milwaukee Braves, New York Mets, San Francisco Giants
> Accolades: Cy Young, 3x ERA Title, Hall of Fame

Warren Spahn won 363 games over a 21-year career, the most of any left-handed pitcher in baseball history. Spahn began his career in 1942 and was called up to serve in the Army that year. He was involved in the Battle of the Bulge and the fight to take the bridge at Remagen. Spahn won a Purple Heart after he was wounded by shrapnel. He returned to pitch for the Braves and helped them reach the World Series in 1948, 1957, and 1958.

Source: Jim McIsaac / Getty Images

Whitey Ford
> Branch of service: Army
> Served: 1950-1952
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Pitcher: New York Yankees
> Accolades: Cy Young, 10x All-Star, Hall of Fame

Whitey Ford began his baseball career with the highest of highs, winning the clinching game of the 1950 World Series. After the season, Ford found out he had been drafted and joined the Army, working as a radar operator. He would later return and win five more World Series titles.

Source: Wesley / Getty Images

Willie Davenport
> Branch of service: Army
> Served: 1962-1965, 1981-2002
> Sport Track and field
> Position, team(s): Hurdler: Team USA
> Accolades: Gold medal, bronze medal, U.S. Olympics Hall of Fame

Willie Davenport honed his raw talent as a hurdler while on the Army’s track team in the 1960s. He eventually became the world’s top hurdler, winning the 110-meter event in the 1968 Olympic Games, following it up eight years later with a bronze. Davis later became one of very few athletes to compete at both the Summer and Winter Olympics, when he joined the U.S. bobsled team. He was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1991. Davis coached Army track teams and became chief of the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Sports Management.

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Willie Mays
> Branch of service: Army
> Served: 1952-1953
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Center field: New York/San Francisco Giants, New York Mets
> Accolades: 2x MVP, 12x Gold Glove, Hall of Fame

Willie Mays could have been able to break the all-time home run record, which once stood at 714, had he not been drafted into the Army during the Korean War. Legend has it that Mays learned his famous basket catch while playing baseball for a military team.

Source: Getty Images / Getty Images

Yogi Berra
> Branch of service: Navy
> Served: 1943-1946
> Sport MLB
> Position, team(s): Catcher: New York Yankees
> Accolades: 3x MVP, 10x World Series, Hall of Fame

Yogi Berra saw fierce combat while enlisted in the Navy. He fought in the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach, launching rockets into enemy positions. Berra also served in North Africa and Italy before being sent home due to a hand injury. That injury clearly did not slow down his baseball career — Berra won three MVPs, a record 10 World Series titles, and became one of the most beloved baseball players of all time.