Pro Football Has Long, Distinguished Military History

7 Aug 2004 | #NAME?

Over the years, many associated with professional football have traded their team's colors for those of their country.

"Football in America: The NFL Responds During National Crisis" is the Pro Football Hall of Fame's tribute to those who fought both on the gridiron and the battlefield. The exhibit opened this month.

The display incorporates military and football uniforms with facts on the NFL's involvement in national crises and conflicts. There are also vignettes about those who fought in those conflicts.

Steve Sabol, president of NFL films, appears in one of two moving and inspirational films included in the exhibit. In that film, he describes football players and servicemembers as sharing many qualities, including the characteristics of teamwork and the ability to rebound from defeat. This, he says, shows that a "band of brothers can wear the uniform of their teams as well as their country."

While World War II saw the most involvement of NFL personnel, every conflict since the NFL's 1920 creation has seen at least one player contribute to the effort. According to the exhibit, 28 players fought in Korea, and one player, Chad Henning, traded shoulder pads for a flight suit in the Gulf War.

To date, one NFL player left the field to join the efforts in the global war on terror. Pat Tillman of the Arizona Cardinals was killed in action in Afghanistan.

The exhibit includes a tribute to Tillman, including an interview taped just before the NFL resumed games after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that centers on Tillman's views of the events. Tillman joined the Army and became a Ranger at the end of the 2001 season.

Three servicemembers with pro football connections earned the Medal of Honor in World War II.

Army Lt. Maurice Britt had been an end for the 1941 Detroit Lions before he shipped off for Italy. There, Britt -- described as a "one-man army" – was seriously wounded in a firefight with German troops but continued to fight an enemy "superior in number." He was the first World War II soldier to receive the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and a decoration from the British government.

The other two Medal of Honor recipients were Marine Capt. Joe Foss, who went on to become the American Football League commissioner from 1960 to 1966, and Marine Lt. Jack Lummus, who received his medal posthumously after being killed in action on Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands. He played for the 1941 New York Giants.

Those who weren't overseas supported the war effort at home by selling war bonds. People connected to the NFL sold bonds that generated $4 million worth of sales in 1942 alone. At one rally in Milwaukee, three Green Bay Packers sold $2,100,000 worth of war bonds. For their efforts, hall-of-fame coach Curly Lambeau, Cecil Isabell and hall-of-famer Don Hutson received Treasury Department citations.

Later, players went off to the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Some again traded uniforms; others went as part of what became a United Service Organizations program that continues today.

In 1965, then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle had an idea to send players on "goodwill tours" to Vietnam. The first tour went over in 1966, and the NFL's affiliation with the USO began in 1971. Air Force Reserve Capt. Steve Purvis of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, toured the exhibit and said he knows service members appreciate the USO trips.

More recently, players have supported the military and the country in other ways. After 9/11, the NFL Players Association contributed $10 million to disaster relief.

The exhibit seems to have impressed its visitors.

"It's very moving, especially the Pat Tillman display," said Anthony Giantonio of West Milford, N.J., who came here with his father for the Aug. 8 induction ceremony for new hall-of-famers Bob Brown, Carl Eller, John Elway and Barry Sanders.

Lou Nuccio of Clifford Beach, N.J., echoed that sentiment. "Very nice, very informative," Nuccio said. "You don't realize how many (pro football players) fought and died in conflicts."

Headquarters Marine Corps