Special Report

30 Great American Athletes Who Joined the Military

Professional athletes battle on the playing field, hoping at the end of the contest that they’ll end up victorious. But many great athletes have also fought on a real battlefield during wartime, with the same goal of bringing victory to our side, or otherwise served in the armed forces. (Some sports figures also served their country in another way: Here are some athletes who went into politics.) 

To compile a list of some of the most famous athletes who joined the military, either before, during, or after their career in sport, 24/7 Tempo reviewed historical accounts of numerous individuals’ personal and professional lives as well as archived news articles from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. We included only professional athletes, not those with only a college career, and did not include practitioners of wrestling or other martial arts.

Most of the athletes highlighted here served during World War II, a time when many men left their occupations to fight the Germans and the Japanese. But baseball great Ted Williams served in two wars. During World War II, he was a Navy aviator. Several years after that conflict, he flew combat missions in Korea.  

Even in the military, several of the people on this list were able to continue exercising their athletic skills. For instance, Joe DiMaggio played baseball in Southern California and Hawaii while serving in the Army. Other athletes credited their military time with giving them the skills and discipline that allowed them to later succeed in their sport. Rocky Marciano, for one, honed his boxing skills in the Army.

Click here to read about 30 great American athletes who joined the military

Some fought on the frontlines during their years in the military, like Pittsburgh Steeler great Rocky Bleier. Fortunately, he returned to the gridiron even after being seriously wounded in Vietnam. Tragically, NFL player Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

Some split their military duties with professional athletics. Basketball greats Elgin Baylor and Bill Bradley played while simultaneously serving in the Army and Air Force, respectively. (Here are the most popular NBA MVPs of all time.)

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