By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
The Super Bowl is almost upon us, everyone! It’s an annual football, food and fun fest that draws in about 114 million American viewers a year, including service members stationed all over the world.
Those service members aren’t just watching football, though. Many times in the National Football League’s history, they’ve been the ones doing the hitting, passing and blocking.
While Pat Tillman often comes to mind when thinking of NFL athletes who honorably served, there are many more. Here are just a few of them.
Army, running back
Glen Coffee was a storybook success when it came to football. After an illustrious college career at the University of Alabama, he decided to enter the NFL draft in 2009 and was picked up by the San Francisco 49ers. He had a promising first season, playing in nearly every game; however, few knew that it would be his last.
It turns out football wasn’t Coffee’s true passion – he said he wanted to do something more meaningful in life. So he quit after one season, pondered life for a few years and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2013, becoming a paratrooper. He has kept a low profile since his playing days, but according to a Washington Post article, he is now assigned to the 6th Ranger Training Battalion at Army Ranger School at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
Navy, long snapper
Considering he just spent his rookie season with Tom Brady’s New England Patriots, chances are good that you’re going to hear Joe Cardona’s name more often. You might also recognize him from his time at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was considered one of the top long snappers in the country.
Since the Patriots narrowly missed out on the Super Bowl this year, his football job is done for the moment – but his Navy career isn’t. Cardona, who was commissioned as a naval officer last May, still has four more years of a five-year military commitment remaining, so he’s making both work. The Navy allowed him to split his time with the NFL this past season, working one day a week at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Rhode Island. According to reports, he’s now in Norfolk, Virginia, getting more training before he serves his duties on the USS Zumwalt. If all goes well, we’ll see him on the field again next year.
Army, offensive tackle
Alejandro Villanueva is another name you might recognize after this season, as he started 10 games for the Pittsburgh Steelers. One of those games was against the Patriots, where he was pitted against Cardona – a mini Army-Navy rivalry that played out in the big leagues.
Villanueva’s football career started in the Army, where he was an integral part of the U.S. Military Academy’s team until he graduated in 2010. Afterward, when a tryout for the Cincinnati Bengals didn’t work out, he chose to become an Army Ranger. Villanueva spent four years on active duty, including three tours of duty in Afghanistan, and was promoted to captain before trying to rekindle his football dream.
In 2014, Villanueva signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. A few months later – the same week he officially became a civilian – he was picked up by the Steelers, where it appears he has a promising career ahead.
Air Force, defensive lineman
Chad Hennings is one of the best football players to come out of the U.S. Air Force Academy. After winning the Outland Trophy in 1987, Hennings was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1988. But like Coffee, Hennings felt a higher calling. He chose to commit to the Air Force, where he became a pilot. During his four years of service, Hennings was deployed twice to the Persian Gulf, including during the Gulf War, and he flew 45 successful combat missions in A-10 Lightning II jets.
Once his time with the Air Force was done, though, it was back to football. In 1992, Hennings made the Cowboys team as a 27-year-old rookie. While he didn’t actually start until four years later, his impact was definitely felt. Hennings played nine years in the NFL, winning three Super Bowls with the Cowboys.
Air Force, defensive end
Bryce Fisher wasn’t far behind Hennings. After graduating from the Air Force Academy in 1999, he was drafted by the Buffalo Bills. His playing time would have to wait, though. Through an agreement with the Air Force, Fisher served two years on active duty and another nine in the reserves.
In 2001, the defensive end finally did play for the Bills. He hopped around to a few other teams in the years after that, from the St. Louis Rams to the Seattle Seahawks – where he helped them win the NFL Championship in 2005 – before finishing his career with the Tennessee Titans.
Throughout his football career, though, he served in the Air National Guard on his days off. Fisher continued his service as a captain and public affairs officer even after he retired from football in 2008.
Marine Corps, running back
Football was not something Mike Anderson grew up with, but a desire to serve was. Right out of high school, Anderson signed with the U.S. Marine Corps and became a communicator in an artillery battery. His military career included peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Kenya.
It was when he was serving that Anderson’s football prowess developed. He played a lot of rec football during his days in the Marines, and after his four year commitment was up, he was recruited to play in college, eventually become a star at the University of Utah. Anderson was drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2000, where he had an amazing first season – he even set an NFL rookie rushing record with 251 yards against New Orleans.
Anderson went on to play five more years with the Broncos and two with the Baltimore Ravens before he retired in 2007.
While those players are a little more current, let’s not forget the MANY icons who served and played years before many of us were born.
Army, running back
Rocky Bleier’s story was so popular that it was turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1980 called “Fighting Back: The Story of Rocky Bleier.”
Bleier was selected in the 1968 NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had not even finished his rookie season when he was picked in another draft – this time, by the Army. A few months later, he was deployed to Vietnam, where he was shot in the thigh in a firefight with enemy soldiers.
Bleier was determined to play football again, though, so despite two years of recovery and many odds, he made the team again in 1972. He went on to play in 150 regular-season games after his return, eventually becoming a star running back for the Steeler dynasty that saw four Super Bowl wins during his tenure.
Army Air Corps, center/linebacker
Known as “Concrete Charlie,” Chuck Bednarik was one of the most dangerous NFL tacklers of his time, and he was one of the last in the NFL to play both offense and defense. Long before that, though, he served as a B-24 Liberator waist gunner in the Army Air Corps during World War II, completing 30 bombing missions over Germany.
Bednarik’s talents on the field got noticed after the war when he attended the University of Pennsylvania. In 1949, he was picked first overall in the NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles, and over his 14 years in the league, he didn’t disappoint. He missed only three games in that time, helped ensure a 1960 NFL Championship for the Eagles and was selected to eight Pro Bowls.
Bednarik was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, his first year of eligibility. He died in March 2015 at the age of 89.
Navy, running back/receiver/punt returner
George McAfee was a feared player for the Chicago Bears in the 1940s, dominating on both offense and defense as a running back, wide receiver and punt returner. But when World War II broke out, he wanted to fight, so he enlisted in the Navy, serving from 1942-1945.
Once he returned to the Bears, McAfee was never quite the same, missing games due to injury up until his retirement in 1950. But his service to our country and to football were always appreciated – he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966. McAfee died in 2009.
When people argue over the best quarterbacks to ever play, a name that most likely pops into the conversation is Roger Staubach.
After winning the Heisman Trophy and becoming the only midshipman to win the Naval Academy’s Thompson Trophy Cup three years in a row, Staubach went on to serve four years on active duty in the Navy, including a tour of Vietnam in 1969.
When his service concluded, he entered the NFL, playing his entire 11-season career with the Dallas Cowboys, back when they were actually considered “America’s Team.” Staubach was a six-time Pro-Bowler and led his team to four Super Bowls – two of which he won (VI and XII). In 1985, he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
The Super Bowl is a special time of year for Staubach, since it also falls around his birthday (Feb. 5). So happy 74th birthday, Roger!
There are many more great service members who have played over the years. Whether they made this list or not, be sure to salute them this Sunday!
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