As we honor all the men and women that have served our country and protected our freedoms today, we thought it would be a fitting time to acknowledge the best of the NFL who also served our country with time in the armed forces. So here’s our list of the top ten NFL “veterans” of all time.
10) Pat Tillman – Safety, Arizona Cardinals
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 changed the course of U.S. history forever, but only Pat Tillman was willing to walk away from millions to do something about it. Eight months after 9-11, Tillman turned down a multi-million dollar contract extension so he could join the Army. For many, Tillman’s aspiring career was simply put on hold. The reality turned into a tragedy, as Tillman gave the ultimate sacrifice…his life. We will never know how great Tillman could have been, but what we do know is that his heroism is second to none.
9) Rocky Bleier – Running Back, Pittsburgh Steelers
Drafted into the Army after his rookie season, Bleier was sent to Vietnam and was soon injured when an enemy grenade sent shrapnel into his leg. Facing the possibility of amputation and the certainty of his doctors that he would never play football again, Bleier spent the next two years healing his body and quickly becoming an integral part of the Steelers dynasty in the 1970s. Along with helping bring four Super Bowl titles to the Steel City, Bleier – along with Franco Harris – became the second running back duo in NFL history to record a pair of 1,000 yard rushers for a single season. While other NFL players may have greater statistics, no one has shown greater inspiration or determination than Bleier.
8) Lou Groza – Offensive Tackle/Kicker, Cleveland Browns
While some players take pride in revolutionizing a position, Groza created one. Known for his kicking prowess, Groza played the majority of his 21-year career as an All-Pro offensive tackle. Nicknamed “The Toe,” the 9-time Pro Bowler changed the way the league looked at “specialists” as most teams didn’t have a full time kicker on their roster. Upon his retirement in 1967, Groza held the career record for points at 1,608. Groza, who was named Player of the Year in 1954, served in the Army during WWII.
7) Gino Marchetti – Defensive End, Dallas Texans, Baltimore Colts
As effective against the run as he was pressuring the quarterback, Marchetti revolutionized the defensive end position and became one of the greatest linemen to have played the game. An 11-time Pro Bowler and 9-time NFL All-Pro first team, Marchetti led the Baltimore Colts to back-to-back NFL Championships in 1958 -’59. Before entering college at the University of San Francisco, Marchetti enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought at the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.
6) Charlie Joiner – Wide Receiver, Houston Oilers, Cincinnati Bengals, San Diego Chargers
Considered by coaching legend Bill Walsh as “the most intelligent, smartest, and most calculating receiver the game has ever known.” In his 18 years as an AFL/NFL receiver, Joiner, who served during the Vietnam War era, accumulated over 12,000 yards on 750 receptions and 65 touchdowns. His 16.2 yards per reception average is better than fellow Hall-of-Famers Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin, as well as contemporaries Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Marvin Harrison.
5) Chuck Bednarik – Linebacker/Center, Philadelphia Eagles
Long before he became the last of the NFL’s “Sixty-Minute Men,” Bednarik was flying combat missions as a waist gunner over Nazi Germany during WWII. Despite playing both offense and defense on a regular basis the 10-time All-Pro only missed three games in his 14-year career. Best known for knocking Hall of Fame running back Frank Gifford out of football for 18 months, Bednarik’s name is attached to the award given to the best collegiate defensive player of the year.
4) Ray Nitschke – Linebacker, Green Bay Packers
In the 1960s, no linebacker terrorized offenses more than Dick Butkus…and Ray Nitschke. The epitome of toughness, Nitschke was the anchor to Vince Lombardi’s vaunted defense that won 5 NFL Championships, including the first two Super Bowls. Along with being a 7-time All-Pro and the MVP of the 1962 NFL Championship Game, Nitschke also served during the Vietnam era.
3) Dick “Night Train” Lane – Cornerback, Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Cardinals, Detroit Lions
When a 24-year old showed up at the Los Angeles Rams’ training facility looking for a better job, no one expected they would find arguably the greatest defensive back in the history of the NFL. As a junior college dropout who joined the Army and served in the Korean War, Lane quickly revolutionized the cornerback position. Given the nickname “Night Train” for his aggressive tackling, Lane was also the premiere ball hawk in the league. In his 12-game rookie season, the 10-time All-Pro recorded 14 interceptions, a record that still stands today. For his career, Lane finished with 68 picks – more than Ronnie Lott, Deion Sanders, and Mel Blount.
2) Otto Graham – Quarterback, Cleveland Browns
Before he was becoming arguably the winningest quarterback in the history of the NFL, Otto Graham was protecting American shores during the Second World War. In his 10 seasons as a professional quarterback with the AAFC and the NFL, Graham led the Browns to the league championship game all ten years – including seven league titles (3 in the NFL). The nine-time All-Pro lost only 17 times in his illustrious career and is still considered by some to be the greatest quarterback who ever played the game.
1) Roger Staubach – Quarterback, Dallas Cowboys
For 11 seasons, the 1963 Heisman Trophy winner from the Naval Academy was instrumental in turning a proud franchise from North Texas into “America’s Team.” In addition to becoming the first quarterback to win both the Heisman and a Super Bowl MVP, Staubach led the Cowboys to 9 of a record 20 consecutive winning seasons, including five trips to the Super Bowl. Nicknamed “The Dodger,” Staubach was the predecessor of today’s mobile quarterback. He served four years in the Navy, including a tour of duty during the Vietnam War.