From The Football Field To The Battlefield


LB Chris Gizzi led the Packers out onto the field in their first home game following the September 11th terrorist attacks.

Argue all you want about the issue of using war metaphors in professional football during this time of crisis. How dare we talk about "aerial strikes" in a football game when U.S. fighter pilots are carrying out the real thing over Afghanistan, right?

Veterans of war and veterans of the NFL might have differing views on this matter. Let's hear the opinion of someone who lays claim to both titles. "I think it's harmless," says former Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Chad Hennings, the only NFL player to have served in the Gulf War. "It's just an analogy people like to use and I don't see any harm in it."

Hennings was first asked the question about war metaphors 10 years ago. That was before he began his career with the Cowboys but after he served as an A-10 pilot flying over northern Iraq. Hennings spent six months at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. As part of Operation Provide Comfort, he and other A-10 pilots escorted the airlifts that dropped supplies to the Kurds in Iraq.

Hennings was released from active Air Force duty in May 1992. An 11th-round pick of the Cowboys back in 1988, he joined the team for the '92 season and enjoyed a nine-year career before retiring after a neck injury cut short his 2000 season.

With Hennings no longer in the NFL, there are three active players who graduated from military academies: Bills defensive tackle Bryce Fisher and Packers linebacker Chris Gizzi attended Air Force; Packers offensive tackle Mike Wahle went to Navy.

Several NFL players are in the U.S. military reserves, including Fisher, Gizzi and 49ers defensive end John Milem, who served in the Marine Corps for three years after high school. Milem is not the most famous ex-Marine in the NFL these days, however. Broncos running back Mike Anderson, who rushed for 155 yards last week in his team's victory against Kansas City, participated in peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Kenya during his four years in the Marines.

According to Hennings, it is doubtful that any current NFL players would be called to active duty during the current U.S. conflict in Afghanistan. "As a supportive administrative person, the likelihood is slim -- it depends upon their job title," he said. The chances of Hennings himself being called up are also slim, because his main duties as an active reservist are marketing and recruiting for the Air Force Academy.

Still, Hennings is a throwback to a different era, when professional football players were not immune to participating in war. Another former Cowboy, Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach, graduated from the Naval Academy in 1963 and served in Vietnam before joining the Cowboys in 1969.

In fact, analyst Gil Brandt, who was the Cowboys' personnel director at the time, recalls shipping footballs out to Vietnam so that Staubach could practice. "He almost destroyed our budget," said Brandt.

Staubach still keeps in touch with many of his Navy brethren, including a former teammate from the Navy baseball team who now commands the Atlantic fleet. The two had been exchanging e-mails between the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the start of America's retaliatory strikes last Sunday.

"Of course, he can't [talk to me] about the strategy," Staubach told Live Radio on Sept. 25. "But he said, 'Hey, we're ready.' And the military is very diversified in what it can do. The men and women of the Naval Academy [are] being prepared as leaders, and they will be ready. They understand that this could end up as a very significant, hostile war that they'll be involved in. So we're very fortunate to have that leadership prepared to defend us."

While Staubach returned from Vietnam and went on to NFL stardom, others, tragically, were not as fortunate. Of the thousands of Americans killed in that war, the Pro Football Hall of Fame recently learned of one former NFL player -- Don Steinbrunner, who was a tackle on the Cleveland Browns squad that lost to Detroit in the 1953 NFL Title game.

The NFL's connections to Vietnam, the Gulf War or the current Operation Enduring Freedom pale in comparison to that of World War II.

A total of 638 NFL players served in World War II. Of those, 19 died for their country. Former New York Giants end Jack Lummus, who died in combat, and former Detroit Lions end Maurice Britt, who lost his right arm in the war, both received the nation's highest honor -- the Congressional Medal of Honor. Eight NFL/WWII veterans are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

As Hennings said, it is doubtful that active NFL players who are reservists will be called to duty in the nation's current military campaign. That does not mean players such as Green Bay's Gizzi don't have a job to do.

"I think the biggest thing I can do is continue the mission that I was given by the Air Force Academy," said Gizzi. "The biggest tribute that I can do for all those guys and gals that are out there putting their necks on the line is to do them proud on Sunday so they can look and say, 'Hey, that's one of ours. That is what we're fighting for.' "

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