Gridiron Heroes
America's immortals.


His [Pat Tillman's] conscience would not allow him to tackle opposition fullbacks when there is still a bigger enemy that needs to be stopped in its tracks. — ESPN columnist Len Pasquarelli

Former NFL star Pat Tillman’s decision to exchange his Arizona Cardinals jersey for a U.S. Army Ranger shoulder-tab and a pair of silver parachute wings was utterly selfless. It was not something he felt a need to do in the sense of personal achievement. Tillman’s life was rich and full, not aimless. He wasn’t seeking adventure. He had nothing to prove. He didn’t need a job. In fact, he willingly accepted a multimillion dollar pay cut, an indefinite period of separation from his family, physical and mental hardship unlike anything he had experienced in the National Football League, extreme danger, and ultimately death.

Tillman, 27, became an Airborne Ranger, because his country had been attacked, and he felt an overwhelming responsibility to defend the same. He was quite literally defending hearth and home, and he chose to do so as a member of the 75th Rangers–one of the finest light-infantry regiments in the world.

Last week, Sgt. Tillman and his fellow Rangers were patrolling an area in eastern Afghanistan as part of an overall sweep for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters when they were ambushed on a remote stretch of road. Pursuing their ambushers, Tillman and four others were struck down by enemy rifle and mortar fire: Tillman was killed, as were two allied Afghan militiamen. Two other U.S. soldiers were wounded.

Tillman was not the first NFL athlete to serve in time of war. Nor was he the only professional football player to be killed in action. Bob Kalsu–a 25-year-old Buffalo Bills offensive tackle turned artillery officer–was killed by mortar fire during the Vietnam War. And of the 638 professional football players who served during World War II, 19 were killed.

One of the “19″ was Lt. Albert “the human howitzer” Blozis, a former tackle for the New York Giants and a world-class shot-putter, who broke the U.S. Army’s record for distance in throwing hand grenades.

Six weeks after playing in the 1944 NFL Championship game (and less than four weeks after his 26th birthday), Blozis was killed by enemy machinegun fire while searching for members of his patrol in France’s Vosges Mountains. It was “the human howitzer’s” first and last combat action.

Another loss–one that closely parallels that of Pat Tillman–occurred during the epic battle for the volcanic island of Iwo Jima. There, Japanese General Tadamichi Kuribayashi–a Samurai warrior and former Japanese Imperial Cavalry chief–had ordered his men to fight to the death against the attacking Americans.

One of those Americans was 1st Lt. Jack Lummus, a 29-year-old defensive lineman with the New York Giants and former All-American at Baylor University. Lummus left the Giants to join the Marine Corps in January 1942, one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Like Tillman, who joined the Army Rangers after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Lummus didn’t simply enlist in the service. He joined one of the world’s toughest military organizations–the U.S. Marines–because he knew by doing so he stood an excellent chance of being directly involved in the hottest action. He wanted to fight those who had attacked his country, and he got his wish.

On the morning of March 8, 1945, Lummus was leading a rifle platoon with 2nd Battalion, 27th Marines when he was knocked down by a grenade blast. Stunned, but uninjured, he leapt to his feet, charged an enemy bunker, and “killed its occupants with a single sweep of his submachine gun,” according to historian Bill D. Ross. A second grenade shattered Lummus’s shoulder. Still he attacked, destroying another enemy position.

Then leading his men in a wild charge against a third emplacement, the New York Giant stepped on a mine that detonated with a terrific blast heard across the island. When the roar subsided, Lummus’s Marines could hear their lieutenant shouting, “Forward! Keep moving!”

The Marines could hear Lummus’s voice, but they were not able to see him until the dust and smoke of the blast cleared.

At first, the Marines thought their lieutenant was standing in a hole. They then realized he was upright on two bloody stumps. His legs were gone, and much of his lower trunk had been shredded.

Several of the younger Marines, weeping like children, ran to him. For a moment they considered shooting him to put him out of his misery. But Lummus kept urging them forward. “Dammit, keep moving! You can’t stop now!”

According to the official Marine Corps report. “Their tears turned to rage. They swept an incredible 300 yards over impossible ground… There was no question that the dirty, tired men, cursing and crying and fighting, had done it for Jack Lummus.”

Lummus lingered for several hours, always conscious, managing a few smiles, at one point quipping, “Well, I guess the New York Giants have lost the services of a damned good end.”

That afternoon, Lummus died. He was subsequently awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Some say football is analogous to war. But for men like Pat Tillman, Bob Kalsu, Al Blozis, Jack Lummus, and others, the similarities would be almost nonexistent.

If they were alive today, they would all tell us that fighting an armed enemy is far tougher than playing professional football.

Granted, not all soldiers in the Army have the talent to play in the NFL. On the reverse, not all athletes in the league have the same raw courage, commitment, and sense of honor found in a Pat Tillman or Jack Lummus. But the souls of those gridiron heroes who chose to serve can be found in every soldier fighting in the war against terror.

A century from now, few fans will remember the stats and records of Pat Tillman or Jack Lummus. Their performance on the football field will be recalled only by looking at old film and books. What will be remembered is that they were men who chose their nation’s sword over charmed careers.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in a variety of national and international publications. His third book, Alpha Bravo Delta Guide to American Airborne Forces, has just been published.


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