Today, we wanted to honor members of the armed forces across the nation and around the world who serve. Today, less than 0.5% of Americans are serving in the military. In honor of Memorial Day, we also wanted to pay tribute specifically to some of the great athletes who have served in the military. Many had promising college or professional careers that were put on hold. A few made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our nation. We would like to honor those heroes here.
We all have heard the amazing story of David Robinson, who, despite being the No. 1 overall pick in the 1987 NBA draft, served in the Navy for two years following his graduation from the United States Naval Academy. What many don’t realize, however, is that his assistant coach and ultimately head coach, none other than Greg Popovich, was a 1970 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy.
Similarly, we all know Roger Staubach for leading the Dallas Cowboys to two Super Bowl victories, but we forget that following his graduation from the Naval Academy, he volunteered for a one-year combat tour in Vietnam, or that his coach, Tom Landry, volunteered for the Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor. We also forget that, 20 years later, Air Force Academy graduate Chad Henning was on the team for three additional Cowboy Super Bowls after deploying twice as an A-10 pilot in support of the First Gulf War.
But there were some Buckeyes who served as well. The outbreak of World War I led many, including College Football Hall of Fame inductee Chic Harley, to join the armed forces. Despite two seasons as an all-American halfback for Ohio State, Harley enlisted in the Army Air Service (precursor to the Army Air Corps and Air Force). In 1917, amidst pressure to return to Ohio State, Harley told the Columbus Dispatch "I’m afraid I wouldn’t feel right by going back. I honestly am crazy to get into the service and have my decision made." By the time Harley finished his initial pilot training, World War I was closing out, and he was discharged from the Army in 1919.
In 1941, Woody Hayes (then-assistant football coach at Denison University) enlisted in the Navy in support of World War II, six months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hayes led a patrol craft in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans during the war. Following his service, Hayes’ love of the military continued throughout his time at Ohio State, where he remained a professor of military history.
The 1942 Ohio State football team was a small one. The Buckeyes lost 22 veteran players following the 1941 season to the armed forces or graduation as every able-bodied man was called to serve in World War II. That year, the Rose Bowl was moved to North Carolina -- the only time the venue has changed from Pasadena in its 101-year history.
One of the players who left Ohio State after the 1942 season was famed placekicker (and offensive tackle) Lou Groza. After attending Ohio State for just one year, Groza enlisted in the Army and was sent to the Pacific Theater, where he served as a surgical technician. He remained in the Pacific until 1945, when his former coach Paul Brown recruited him to the upstart Cleveland Browns franchise.
Don Scott, Ohio State quarterback and halfback from 1938-40, made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. Despite being selected ninth overall in the 1941 NFL Draft, Scott chose to join the United States Army Air Forces as a pilot. He died when his plane crashed during a training mission in England in 1943.
The list goes on: boxers like Joe Lewis who postponed his boxing career to join the Army during World War II; baseball legends Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Jackie Robinson who left professional careers to serve in World War II; basketball coaching legend John Wooden, who served in the Navy during World War II before beginning his coaching career; Bobby Jones, who insisted on serving overseas during World War II rather than golfing with the Army stateside; famed hockey star Hobey Baker, who died when his plane crashed during World War I; Nile Kinnick, Heisman Trophy-winning tailback from the University of Iowa, who lost his life in a training flight in 1943; and Pat Tillman, who left the NFL to join the Army after the September 11 terrorist attacks and made the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
There are many more stories like these -- stories of sacrifice and heroism -- that deserve the highest respect. This Memorial Day, we want to thank all service members and their families for the sacrifices they make every day on behalf of our nation.