It’s NFL playoff time — the part of the season that TV sports commentators refer to as “life or death” for teams that still have a chance to win the Super Bowl. But in the league’s history a number of players have learned about real matters pertaining to life and death as a result of serving in the military during wartime.
Records show that 638 NFL athletes joined the military during World War II. Of those, 23 died. Over 200 NFL players fought during the Korean War, but there were no casualties. Twenty-eight players fought in Vietnam; two of them were killed in action. And one NFL player — the only one to sign up — was killed during the War in Afghanistan.
Here are details of four of these heroes of the gridiron who sacrificed their lives while answering a call that extended well beyond the lines on the field:
1st. Lt. Jack Lummus, Marine Corps, (end, New York Giants, 1941-1942) – Killed on Iwo Jima in 1945
Lummus was a defensive end for the New York Giants before earning his commission in the Marine Corps. In March of 1945 he fought with extreme valor at the Battle of Iwo Jima in the Pacific Theater of World War II, helping his platoon take out well-fortified enemy positions despite being wounded. He was eventually felled by a landmine, and before succumbing to his wounds he famously told the medic that was trying to save his life, “Well, doc, the New York Giants lost a mighty good end today.”
Lummus posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions.
Major Don Steinbrunner, Air Force, (Cleveland Browns, 1953) – Killed in Vietnam in July 1967
Steinbrunner, who joined the ROTC while in college, was called to active duty following his rookie season with Cleveland in 1953. Upon completion of a two-year tour of duty as an Air Force navigator, he considered returning to the Browns but opted to pursue a military career due to concerns that he would aggravate a knee injury he’d sustained during his first season.
In 1966, Steinbrunner received orders to Vietnam. Not long after his arrival, he was shot in the knee during an aerial mission. Due to his injury, he was offered an opportunity to accept a less dangerous assignment, but declined, preferring to return to his unit. On July 20, 1967, Steinbrunner’s C-123 was shot down over South Vietnam during a defoliation mission that involved spraying Agent Orange on the jungle canopy.
Posthumously, Don Steinbrunner was awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross. His citation read in part, “Disregarding the hazards of flying the difficult target terrain and the opposition presented by hostile ground forces, he led the formation through one attack and returned to make a second attack. The outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty displayed by Major Steinbrunner reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”
2nd Lt. Bob Kalsu, Army, (guard, Buffalo Bills, 1968-1969) – Killed in Vietnam in July 1970
Kalsu entered the Army as a second lieutenant following his promising rookie season with the Bills. Unlike many professional athletes who were draft eligible or had ROTC military commitments during those years, Kalsu did not seek the help of the Bills organization to arrange for a non-combat assignment in the reserves.
On July 21, 1970, following eight months of heavy fighting with enemy troops, Lieutenant Kalsu was killed when his unit came under heavy fire while defending Ripcord Base on an isolated jungle mountaintop. Two days later back in Oklahoma City his wife gave birth to their second child.
Cpl. Pat Tillman, Army, (defensive back, Arizona Cardinals, 1998-2002) – Killed in Afghanistan in April 2004
Pat Tillman gave up a multimillion-dollar contract to serve his country, motivated by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When he enlisted and started his training that eventually earned him his Ranger Tab, Tillman was just 25 years old and entering his fifth NFL season with one All-Pro season under his belt.
On April 22, 2004 Tillman was on his second combat tour when he was killed by gunfire in Afghanistan near the eastern border. The incident was originally reported as enemy action but eventually the Army admitted that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire during a patrol where another element of his squad lost spatial awareness and directed fire toward him. Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star (that the Army justified in spite of the fact it was awarded before the facts emerged) and Purple Heart.