Death clearly defines hero

Published 1:50 pm Monday, April 26, 2004

By Staff
Last week, Americans got something we haven't had in a good while -- an athlete we can legitimately elevate in our hearts and minds, without touching off a debate over the difference between hero and an idol, role model and icon. Given the reaction to this long unseen phenomenon, it's something the country's been waiting for, anxiously, this blend of physical achievement and noble dedication to country. It's too bad a young man had to lose his life on the other side of the planet to make it happen, but he died doing what he wanted to do -- defending his homeland's safety and way of life.
When Pat Tillman, a former defensive back for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals, was killed while serving as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan, he became the first one-time professional athlete killed in combat since Bob Kalsu, a lineman for the Buffalo Bills, died while serving in Vietnam.
In an odd twist, last week, prior to news of Tillman's death being released, The Standard ran photos which bore Kalsu's name. A group of servicemen from this area, serving in Iraq, had mailed us snapshots of themselves, posed in front of a sign memorializing Kalsu, and detailing his service in Southeast Asia. It was a strange foreshadowing, as only days later Tillman's death made Kalsu's story timely once again -- along with that of others who've stepped off of ballfields and into combat zones.
Though there haven't been many in recent wars, there was a time when a number of professional athletes served their country in legitimate combat situations. The word "legitimate" is an appropriate qualifier, because there were also quite a few who spent time in uniform, but didn't any more risk life and limb than they would have fielding a grounder or taking a hand-off. For instance, the great Joe DiMaggio spent most of his military service during World War II playing exhibition baseball with other major leaguers who'd found their way into the service. This while many of his on-field rivals saw action in Europe and the Pacific which put them squarely in harm's way on a daily basis.
Hall of Famer Bob Feller, the first player from the Majors to voluntarily enlist in World War II, fought as an anti-aircraft gunner, and Hoyt Wilhelm, the first man to go into the Hall as a closer, earned a Purple Heart for wounds sustained during the Battle of the Bulge. Certainly there were many, less famous athletes who spent time in combat during that war, hailing from many different sports, including pro football.
There were also athletes who served during the Korean War, most famously Ted Williams, who flew combat missions as a Naval Aviator, often as wingman to Flying Ace and future Astronaut and Senator John Glenn.
During subsequent wars, the number of pro athletes taking up arms for their country tapered off, although there have certainly been notable exceptions along the way. Kalsu was the only athlete to die in Vietnam, but there were others who served, including Pittsburgh Steelers great Rocky Bleier, who was severely wounded in combat.
Those athletes served in different times, not to mention very different wars, spurred by threats unlike those we face today. Some volunteered, but many were drafted -- a possibility that no one, athlete or otherwise, currently faces.
And, since World War II, it isn't only pro athletes whose ranks inside the working, fighting military have dwindled. So have those of any number of other professions, as we've transitioned to an all-volunteer army, relying heavily on Guard units to bolster our forces.
During any time, during any war, it's a special person who walks away from anything and everything to risk their life for their country. What they did for a living before entering the military shouldn't matter, as they're all members of a group whose membership is much more exclusive than that of any sporting league.
Pat Tillman obviously understood that. The athlete-war hero image the media's created around him since his death is something he shunned in life, preferring instead to carry quietly the distinction of soldier and true patriot.
In a society where so much of what we celebrate is of the ballfield variety, here's a sacrifice that reminds us all what the word hero was coined to describe, and helps shine a light on those who've earned that label as it was meant to be earned.

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