As Americans all around the country honor the veterans who have served and kept the country free, it’s becoming easier and easier to notice just how intertwined the military and sports have in fact become.
Obviously, the National Anthem is played before a vast majority of competitions at levels ranging from pee-wee all the way to the pros. There are pre-game flyovers at major sporting events, like the Super Bowl and Major League Baseball’s All-Star game, and NASCAR is one prominent sporting organization who routinely invites service academies to sing the national anthem.
Patriotism is not limited to the giant sporting leagues, however. Minor league baseball teams honor veterans, either on-field or over a public address announcement. High schools across the country host Veteran’s Day assemblies in the gymnasium.
Yet, sometimes, it even goes a step further than that. Look no further than Cincinnati’s own Roger Staubach.
Staubach was born in the Queen City and attended high school at Purcell Marian. Upon graduation, he enrolled at the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, New Mexico, but he only stayed one season.
In 1961, Staubach joined the Naval Academy. He did not start for the Midshipmen immediately, and his first taste of gridiron action was, shall we say, less than successful. He went 0-f0r-2 on his passing attempts and was sacked twice, losing 24 yards.
One week later, however, he came into the game against Cornell and led his squad to six touchdowns, three of which he himself was responsible for, and his team blew out the Big Red 41-0.
That sparked a career that would see Staubach throw for over 3,500 yards and, eventually, an induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Before any of that, however, Staubach had an even bigger task ahead of him. During his junior year, he was declared color blind, which necessitated his joining of the Supply Corps. Upon graduation, instead of requesting an assignment in the United States, Staubach chose to go to Vietnam, where he served one year at the Chu Lai base.
While he was on duty, Staubach was drafted by both the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL Draft and the Kansas City Chiefs of the American Football League Draft. He would join the Cowboys in 1969 and, after sitting out the first year or so of his career, led the Cowboys to 10 straight wins, including a Super Bowl title.
There are so many stories like Staubach, so many athletes who have either delayed or, in the case of Ted Williams, paused professional careers to join the military. Williams won the Triple Crown in 1942, then joined the Navy in 1943. He served three years before being recalled at 33 years old to fight in the Korean War, where he flew 39 combat missions.
Not every example has to be from the early 20th century, however. Look no further than former Arizona Cardinal safety Pat Tillman. Tillman enlisted in 2002 and was killed in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan two years later.
Former Denver Broncos running back Mike Anderson served four years in the Marines after high school before a junior college coach noticed him and convinced him to attend the school. After two years, Anderson headed to Utah where he would set the career record for rushing yards per game (102.4). In 2000, he earned the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award after gaining 1,487 yards.
There are many, many more examples of athletes who stepped up exactly like the four above players did. Talking about all of them would fill up more newspapers than I’d even want to think about.
But their stories are made famous by what they did on the field, and there are many more people who make the decision to enroll in any of the branches of military, yet those people don’t always get the recognition they deserve. Maybe it’s because they would rather not relive it, maybe it’s because they just aren’t the kind of people who go out looking for attention.
So, as we honor the men and woman who have answered the call, regardless of their athletic prowess, there is only one thing left to do: Thank a veteran.