Military veterans of the National Football League

Before becoming a Hall of Fame linebacker, Kevin Greene joined the ROTC program while at Auburn University. After earning his commission, he served 16 years in the Army Reserve, earning his “jump wings” and ultimately reached the rank of captain.

Drafted in the 16th round of the 1968 NFL draft, Rocky Bleier figured that he would be sent to the National Guard or Reserves like many of the other NFL draftees, but he was instead sent to Vietnam with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. Bleier was hit by rifle fire and grenade shrapnel, and informed by his doctor that he would never play football again. However, he eventually returned to become the Steeler’s fourth all-time rushing leader and won four Super Bowls.

Joseph Bellino: Earned the Heisman Trophy in 1960 for the Naval Academy, and was drafted by both the NFL’s  Washington Redskins and the AFL’s New England Patriots in 1961. Bellino joined the Navy and served a total of 28 years before retiring as a Captain.

John Butler: Served four years with the Marine Corps, including service in Vietnam. Although his playing career was cut short by a knee injury, Butler eventually became the General Manager of the San Diego Chargers. Butler died from cancer in 2003.

Joe Haering: Received his commission after graduating from Bucknell – where he earned all-conference honors at linebacker – and served as a company commander in Vietnam. Haering would go on to become an assistant coach for numerous teams in the NFL.

Ralph Heywood: After playing only five games for USC in 1943, Heywood was drafted by the Marine Corps and sent to the South Pacific aboard the USS Iowa. Despite his short season, he was selected as an All American end and punter. Following the war, he played five seasons for both the NFL and AFL before returning to the military for the Korean War. Heywood remained in the Marines for 32 years before retiring as Colonel. He is the only NFL player to have served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Heywood passed on in 2007.

The Cowboys drafted Naval Academy graduate Roger Staubach in 1964, but the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback first had to fulfill his military commitment. Staubach served on active duty for four years, including a one-year tour in Vietnam, where he served as a supply officer. After serving his country, “Captain Comeback” went on to lead Dallas to four Super Bowls – winning two – over his 11 year Hall of Fame career.

Bob Kalsu: Drafted in 1968 by the Buffalo Bills and was the team’s rookie of the year. In order to complete his ROTC commitment, Kalsu became a second lieutenant and went to Vietnam as a member of the 101st Airborne Division. He was killed in action on July 21, 1970 near the A Shau Valley.

Don Steinbrunner played eight games at tackle for the Cleveland Browns in 1953 before being called to fulfill his ROTC service commitment. He was assigned to the Air Police and later became a navigator and assistant football coach at the Air Force Academy. Steinbrunner was wounded on a mission in Vietnam and offered a safer assignment – which he turned down. On July 20, 1967, the C-123 carrying Maj. Steinbrunner and five other airmen was shot down over Kontum, killing all on board.

Kalsu and Steinbrunner are the only NFL veterans to be killed in combat during the Vietnam War.

Les Steckel: Enlisted in the Marines and served in Vietnam with the infantry. Served for 30 years before retiring as a Colonel. Played on the Marines’ Quantico football team after Vietnam. Worked as a coach or coordinator for numerous college and NFL teams for several years.

Andy Russell: After being drafted by the Steelers in 1963, Russell played one year before joining the Army from 1964-1965 and serving as a lieutenant in Germany. Russell went on to be a seven-time Pro Bowl selection at outside linebacker. (h/t John)

Sid Brooks: The longtime equipment manager for the San Diego Chargers served in the Air Force during both the Korean and Vietnam wars before retiring as a Senior Master Sergeant. Brooks passed away in 2007.

Charlie Johnson: Drafted by the Eagles in 1973, Johnson served as an MP in Vietnam before going on to become a three-time Pro Bowler as a defensive tackle.

Eddie LeBaron: Played 11 seasons at quarterback for the Redskins and Cowboys from 1952-1963. LeBaron served as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps during both the Korean and Vietnam wars, earning a Bronze Star.

Before breaking nearly receiving record at Colorado State University, Willie Miller served two tours in Vietnam with the Special Forces, earning the Silver Star, Soldier’s Medal, and the Purple Heart. Despite being 28 years old during his rookie season, Miller played seven years at wide receiver and went to the Super Bowl with the Rams.

Before becoming one of only seven professional athletes to serve in Vietnam, Woody Campbell was an All-American standout at Northwestern University and an All-Star running back with the AFL’s Houston Oilers in 1967,

Ray Nitschke, Charlie Joiner, Willie Betlon, Gary Bugenhagen, Ernie Cheatham, Jim Clack, Moses Denson, Glen Ellison, Alvin Hall, Cliff Harris, Cornelius Johnson, Howard Kindig, MacArthur Lane, Gary Larsen, Joe Don Looney, Mike Montler, Don Talbert, and Herb Travenio are also listed as having served in Vietnam.

Author: Chris Carter

9 thoughts on “Military veterans of the National Football League

  1. Staubach returned to the NFL in 1969 and would PLAY IN four Super Bowls, WINNING TWO and be inducted to the Hall of Fame.

  2. Warren Spahn, a combat engineer officer in World War II, wounded and decorated.

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