We’ve always considered professional athletes our heroes and there’s no doubt about it they inspire us daily. But a few of them are heroes beyond their sport. As we celebrate Veteran’s Day and those who have fought for our freedom, we honor these 5 athletes who have served our country.
One of the most iconic of these athletes is Pat Tillman. Tillman was drafted into the NFL in 1998 by the Arizona Cardinals. He worked his way to becoming a starter and set a team record for number of tackles in the 2000 season.
In 2001, tragedy struck the United States when the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center occurred. Shortly after the tragic event, Tillman decided to leave the NFL and enlist in the military. He and his brother trained to become army rangers and served a tour in Iraq. Tillman served several tours including one in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In April of 2004 while in Afghanistan, Tillman was killed on duty in a friendly fire incident. Since his death, the military has awarded him the Silver Star and Purple Heart in honor of his bravery and both the Arizona State University Sun Devils and the Arizona Cardinals have retired his number. We see his legacy honored through the Pat Tillman Foundation and the NFL, who starting in 2010 have awarded someone the NFL-Tillman Scholarship that honors an individual who “exemplifies Pat Tillman’s enduring legacy of service.”
A world class baseball player and athlete, Willie Mays began his career in the Negro American League at the age of 16. His contract was soon purchased by the New York Giants in 1950 and he became a center field starter immediately. At the end of the 1951 regular season, Mays was awarded Rookie of the Year and in 1952 he was drafted into the Korean War.
Mays played the first few weeks of the season with the Giants before reporting for duty in May of 1952. He served for two years, missing the rest of the 1952 season and all of 1953. Many major league baseball players had been drafted during this time period and Mays was able to spend much of his time at Camp Eustis in Virginia playing on the military baseball teams.
Mays was back at Giants spring training the day after his discharge in March of 1954. That same year he was named League MVP and won a world series. He continued to have an illustrious career in the National League earning 660 home runs, 24 all star games, 12 golden gloves, and 2 NL MVPs. Willie Mays was named to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979.
Ken Norton, Sr.
Ken Norton Sr. picked up boxing while enlisted in the Marines. Norton was an outstanding athlete growing up, earning all-state in football in 1960 and receiving a scholarship to play in college. After college, he decided to enlist in the Marines and served four years as a manual morse intercept.
During his time in the Corps, Norton picked up boxing. While competing in the Marines, he boasted a record of 24-2 and was en-route to winning 3 All-Marine Heavyweight Championships. Norton is known as one of the greatest Marine Corp boxers and in 1967 he turned professional.
In that same year in his first fight against Muhammad Ali, Norton entered the match as a clear underdog. It took 12 rounds, but Norton prevailed handing Ali only his second loss in his career. Norton continued on to have a great career. He retired in 1981 and was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1989, the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992 and the United States Marine Corp Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.
Prior to college Art Donovan served as an anti-aircraft gunner with the Marine Corps during WWII. He spent a little over a year at sea from 1943 to 1945, before volunteering to be a part of the Fleet Marine Force in Okinawa. Donovan was directly involved in some of the fiercest battles during the war including the Battle of Luzon and the Battle of Iwo Jima. He earned the Asiatic Pacific Area Ribbon and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon for his service.
Following his service Donovan completed his college career at Boston College. He then went on to become part of the NFL and in his first three years played on three different teams that folded. His career really began in 1953 when he began playing with the second Baltimore Colts. During that time the Colts won two straight NFL Championships in 1958 and 1959. Donovan was rewarded 4x First Team All Pro and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968. Art Donovan was the first pro football player enshrined in the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame.
Angela joined the Marines in 1979 and served as a military police officer and a member of the Women’s All Marine Corps Basketball team. In 1981, she suffered a back injury while playing basketball and was forced to medically retire. Several years later, while in surgery for the same injury she awoke to find herself paralyzed from the waist down.
This tragic accident left Madsen wheelchair bound and in search of something new. She eventually picked up rowing. Madsen joined competitions and won multiple gold medals and the world rowing championships. She joined the paralympic rowing team 3 times during her rowing career.
Madsen wasn’t satisfied with just competing, she moved on to breaking records. Madsen decided to row the oceans: she conquered the Atlantic (twice!) and the Indian ocean and even circumnavigated Britain. All of these were completed with a rowing partner or team. Her biggest goal was to row the Pacific Ocean from California to Hawaii alone. Madsen was able to complete the journey with a partner in 2014. Madsen passed earlier this year while attempting to reach this new record.