Wearing the Uniform
We recently witnessed the spectacle that is the NFL Draft. Each of our favorite teams announced their next great hope for a championship – a promising young player culled from the ranks of our nation’s colleges. But some teams got their prospect from another institution. The Philadelphia Eagles recently signed a 6’10” defensive end named Alejandro Villanueva. Villanueva came to football a bit late. His first love was rugby, which he learned while living in Spain. But he’s not Spanish. His father was a NATO officer, and Villanueva was born on a Naval Base in Meridian, Mississippi. After living in Mississippi, Rhode Island, Spain, and Belgium, he returned to the States, and won a position at West Point, playing for the Army Black Knights. After West Point, where he was voted team captain, the Army gave him the opportunity to go pro. He tried out for the Cincinnati Bengals, but failed to make the squad. So in 2001, he honored his obligation to our Armed Forces, and entered his military service. After various training schools and receiving his commission as a second lieutenant, he deployed to Afghanistan for the first of three tours. In addition to his tour and combat ribbons, he is a recipient of the Bronze Star. The Eagles have a pretty recent history with scooping up service members. In 2010 they signed wide receiver Chad Hall, a second lieutenant with the United States Air Force. Perhaps no story has resonated with us quite like the story of Pat Tillman. After a decorated career at Arizona State, he was selected 226th by the Arizona Cardinals. At one point, the Rams offered him a sizable raise to switch jerseys, but he was a Cardinal, and couldn’t be swayed. After several outstanding seasons with Arizona, Tillman was shaken by the attacks of September 11. Turning down a lucrative contract offer, he instead enlisted in the Army, where he completed Ranger school. Along with his brother, Kevin (who had a contract with the Cleveland Indians), he deployed to Iraq in 2003. In 2004, he began a second tour in Afghanistan, where he was tragically killed in a friendly-fire accident. He was awarded a Silver Star, Purple Heart, and Meritorious Service Medal. No time in history has pulled unlikely military heroes out of professional sports as World War II. Yankee Legend Yogi Berra participated in the D-Day Invasion. Players like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams served with special services units, drumming up support for the War Effort. Cleveland Indian Bob Fuller enlisted in the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor. He spent three-an-a-half years in the service. Not satisfied glad-handing troops for photo-ops, he enrolled in gunnery school, and participated in numerous attacks in the Pacific Theater. Warren Spahn was a Cy Young winner for the – then – Boston Braves. He was also a 14-time All Star. When America entered the War, he enlisted in the Army, where he fought in The Battle of the Bulge. In Germany, he was injured, and received a Purple Heart. He returned to the Bigs in 1946, and in 1951, served up the first career homer to Willie Mays (who subsequently spent three years in the Army). Spahn told reporters of his pitch to Mays, “For the first 60 feet, it was a hell of a pitch.” Warren Spahn ended a 25-year career in 1965 with the New York Mets. Many argue that, were it not for his military service, he would have set every record in the books. We’re all about sports, and proudly wear the jerseys and hats of our favorite teams. But, especially on this day, it’s important to honor a uniform of much greater significance: the one of our country.