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Remembering NFL players who died as soldiers

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Jarrod Thurman @JarrodChiefsFCS  Chiefs Focus @Chiefsfocus

On Memorial Day we remember soldiers who lost their lives in service of their country. In this article, I will honor NFL players who lost their lives in battle after ending their careers to join the military. For the sake of article length, I won’t be including players who were officially free agents when they enlisted, players killed in training exercises, or players who joined prior to the beginning of a war. The article will be broken up by war. There were no deaths of NFL players in the Korean War, Operation Desert Storm, or Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

World War II (1939-1945)

Mike Basca was the first to be killed in battle in a war. After playing halfback for the Eagles in 1941, he joined the Army. He was a part of the Army unit that stormed the beaches at Normandy on D-Day. He achieved the rank of corporal before dying when his tank was struck by a German anti-tank round in Obreck in German-occupied France.

Basca, Michael M | Chester County Hall of Heroes, PA
Chester County Hall of Heroes

Alex Ketzko played for the Lions in 1943 before being drafted into the Army. He was killed in the Battle of Bulge in France in 1944, however, no specific circumstances of his death could be found.

Don Wemple played for the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1941 as an end. He was drafted into the Air Force in 1942. He was killed when his airplane was shot down in 1943 over India.

Charlie Behan played End for the Lions in 1942 before enlisting in the Marines. Before his death, he had achieved the rank of First Lieutenant. He died in the Battle of Okinawa in Japan. He had initially been hit with shrapnel in his mouth but insisted on staying on the frontline. He was shot and killed by a Japanese machine gun in 1945.

Al Blozis played for the New York Giants before and during his enlistment. He was an offensive tackle. He enlisted in the Army in 1943 and played in 3 games in 1944 while on furlough. He achieved the rank of second lieutenant. He was initially considered lost after members of his platoon failed to return after a patrol in the Vosges Mountains in France in 1945. He was later confirmed to have lost his life there. The specific circumstances of his death are not known.

Memorial Day Tribute: Giants legend & American hero Al Blozis

Young Busey, who played for the league champion Bears in 1941, informed George Halas after the 1942 College All-Star game (defending NFL champs vs college all-stars) of his intent to enlist in the Navy. He achieved the rank of Lieutenant before dying in the Philippines in 1945. Busey was thrown from his ship after taking a mortar blast. He reportedly took a shot to the chest and lost his arm in the blast. Unfortunately, his body was never recovered.

Howard “Smiley” Johnson played guard for the Packers in 1941 and 1942 before enlisting in the Marines. He was a first lieutenant. In the famed battle of Iwo Jima when he took a mortar shell.

Remembering Howard "Smiley" Johnson - ProFootballTalk
Pro Football Talk

Jack Lummus played for the Giants in 1941 as an end before he enlisted. He was initially in the Marine Reserves before being activated. He achieved the rank of First Lieutenant before his death. He also died in the Battle of Iwo Jima. He stepped on a land mine which fatally wounded him. He’s the only NFL player to die in battle and receive the Medal of Honor.

How to explain Baylor's football problems to Jack Lummus?
Dallas Morning News

Waddy Young played two seasons for the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers before enlisting in the Army Air Corps. He was an end for the team. He achieved the rank of captain. Young died in a collision as a he tried to protect a friend’s plane from a kamikaze pilot in 1940 over Tokyo.

Young a war hero, kind man Ex-Sooner, killed near Tokyo in 1945, has been gone 62 years but never forgotten
The Oklahoman


Vietnam War (1955-1975)

Bob Kalsu was the only professional athlete killed in Vietnam who joined during the war. He played for the Buffalo Bills in 1968. He joined the Army to satisfy his Reserve Officer Training Corp obligation. He was killed in the Battle of Fire Support Base Ripcord in 1970. His unit came under fire but his family declined to share the specific circumstances of his death.

Oklahoma football: Readers tell stories about Bob Kalsu
The Oklahoman


War In Afghanistan (2001-2021)

The most well-known example of an NFL player being in killed in action is Pat Tillman. Tillman was a safety for the Cardinals from 1998 to 2001 before joining the Army following 9/11. He had initially been deployed to Iraq, he was deployed to Afghanistan. Tillman was killed in a friendly fire incident in Spera. His death was originally reported as having been by an attack by enemy combatants but it was determined to be friendly fire following an investigation.

Pat Tillman Elected To Arizona Sports Hall Of Fame


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