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Memorial Day 2024: Roger Staubach, Pat Tillman among 10 notable NFL players to serve in U.S. military



Throughout NFL history, countless men have been recognized for their on-field efforts, memorialized in team and national Hall of Fames for their accomplishments. But dozens of players have also lent their service to the military, putting their lives on the line to help defend the United States of America. 

In the spirit of Memorial Day, here’s a look at some notable names to take the NFL field and serve in the armed forces:

Roger Staubach

Widely regarded as one of the best quarterbacks of all time, the six-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champion helped headline the Dallas Cowboys‘ dominance of the 1970s. Prior to his prestigious NFL career, Staubach won the Heisman Trophy at Navy and served a volunteer tour of duty for the U.S. Navy in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. He was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Sid Luckman

The face of the Chicago Bears during their 1940s dynasty, in which he led four NFL titles as a league MVP, Luckman is widely considered a revolutionary passer, entering the Hall of Fame in 1965 as one of the NFL’s most prolific downfield throwers. Immediately following his MVP season, he volunteered stateside as a U.S. Merchant Marine ensign during World War II, joining more than a dozen teammates in service.

George McAfee

“One-Play McAfee,” the former No. 2 overall draft pick was a do-it-all playmaker for the Luckman-era Chicago Bears, starring as a runner, receiver, return specialist and cover man to see his No. 5 jersey retired in Windy City. In the middle of his All-Pro career, McAfee volunteered to join the U.S. Navy during World War II, serving the force from 1942-1945, then playing another five seasons in the NFL.

Paul Hornung

The first overall pick in the 1957 draft, “The Golden Boy” was a staple of the Green Bay Packers‘ offense into the 1960s, when Wisconsin saw its franchise win five NFL titles, including the first two Super Bowls. Hornung was called into active duty with the U.S. Army in 1961 amid his MVP career, though a connection between coach Vince Lombardi and President John F. Kennedy enabled him to suit up on weekends.

Rocky Bleier

Born Robert Bleier, “Rocky” won four Super Bowls as a running back and fullback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but only after a two-year playing hiatus from 1969-1970, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army, shipped to the Vietnam War and later required rehab from shrapnel in his leg. He went on to play 10 more seasons following his tour of duty, and was awarded both a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Mike Anderson

The NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2000 while starring for the Denver Broncos, Anderson spent nearly a decade playing running back, also topping 1,000 rushing yards for Denver in 2005. Prior to his pro career, the South Carolina native served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, partaking in peacekeeping missions in both Kenya and Somalia before his honorable discharge.

Chuck Bednarik

One of the NFL’s last two-way players, “Concrete Charlie” is revered as an all-time great of the Philadelphia Eagles, spending his entire 14-year NFL career in the City of Brotherly Love, earning 10 All-Pro nods and helping guide two league titles as a tenacious center and linebacker. Prior to his pro career, Bednarik flew 30 combat missions as a B-24 gunner for the U.S. Air Force during World War II.

A two-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2014-2020, the 6-foot-9 blocker originally went undrafted out of Army in 2010. Commissioned into the U.S. Army following graduation, Villanueva served three different tours of duty in Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star for rescuing wounded soldiers during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Pat Tillman

An underdog story out of Arizona State, Tillman garnered All-Pro recognition as a breakout safety for the Arizona Cardinals in 2001, only to voluntarily enlist in the U.S. Army the following spring, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Deployed to Afghanistan, Tillman was killed in 2004 at the age of 27 due to friendly fire. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart medals.

The current long snapper for the New England Patriots, Cardona became the second-highest-drafted player at his position when he was made a fifth-round pick out of Navy in 2011. A two-time Super Bowl champion with New England, Cardona is an active member of the Navy Reserve, serving as lieutenant while overseeing hundreds of sailors’ needs via the naval station in Newport, Rhode Island.

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