They Lead

Meet 5 Male Athletes Who Have Served

Mackenzie Meaney

The intersection between athletics and armed service is deeper than some may think.

Working together with a team, and giving your all, while being fearless and ready to take on any challenge are characteristics that transcend combat, and weave their way into athletics and other areas of life. There are numerous athletes — past and present — who have served in the military, and then played professional sports, or left their sport to join the service. Out of the thousands of athletes who have served in the United States Military, here are five athletes who have given their all to their teams and their country.

Pat Tillman

Pat Tillman Foundation’s Instagram
"Passion is kind of an important word for me, whether it’s playing sports or whether it’s just living or whatever you’re going to do," said Pat Tillman said. "In my opinion, you should be passionate about it or else, why do it? "

One of the most well-known and historic stories in all of professional football is the story of Pat Tillman. The football legend was drafted to the NFL 226th overall in 1998 to the Arizona Cardinals after a stellar collegiate career at Arizona State.

Tillman played in the NFL until the end of the 2001 season and went on to join the U.S. Army following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, turning down a multi-million dollar contract extension. Tillman was killed in combat in 2004.

"Somewhere inside, we hear a voice," Tillman said. "It leads us in the direction of the person we wish to become. But it is up to us whether or not to follow."
Joe Cardona's Instagram

Joe Cardona

There seems to be a trend between the military and the NFL, which has had over 1,000 athletes over the years that had served in the military. Joe Cardona has been the long snapper for the New England Patriots since they drafted him in 2015 (fifth round, 166th overall) and was a part of the team when they won Super Bowl LI and LIII.

Cardona attended the United States Naval Academy, where he was one of the best long snappers in the history of the football program. Cardona moved on to join the Naval Reserve Corps where he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on the day after the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and the promotion ceremony took place right at Gillette Stadium.

“Getting promoted to Lieutenant, it is a big accomplishment personally," Cardona said in an interview with WEEI.com. "It hasn’t always been easy to balance my two careers, but just to get to share it with my teammates was a big deal for me -- to share it with the people that I am working day in and day out with.”

Cardona added,

“With each rank you get you get more responsibility and more is expected of you. I am going to continue to do the very best that I can off the field.”

Joe Greenspan

Joe Greenspan is another Navy alum, but for the soccer team. Drafted to the MLS in 2015, Greenspan originally planned to put his soccer career on hold in order to serve and fulfill his commitment. Fortunately, Greenspan was able to work it out with both the Navy and MLS to do both, so Greenspan signed his contract with the Colorado Rapids in 2015.

After his professional debut in which Greenspan helped his team defeated the Colorado Switchbacks 4-1, he went on active duty for the Navy for a year before being transferred to the Reserves. Greenspan then continued to pursue his profession soccer career. In 2019, Greenspan was name USL Champion Defender of the Year and joined the San Diego Loyal SC for its first season in the league.

"Service and soccer are so intertwined for me," Greenspan said in a tweet. "I pour everything into playing soccer and being in the Navy Reserve. I'm grateful for the opportunity to do both."
Wikimedia Common

Ted Williams

"Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel, not just to be as good as someone else but to be better than someone else.," said Ted Williams in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 1966. "This is the nature of man and the name of the game."

Ted Willams is one of the greatest Red Sox players of all time and was drafted to serve for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps in both World War II and the Korean War. Williams had an illustrious baseball career — 19-time all-star, two-time American League MVP, six-time AL Batting Champion, and two Triple Crowns. Williams retired from baseball in 1960 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, which was only six years later. Still to this day, Williams remains one in only 29 players to have played across four separate decades in Major League history.

"A man has to have goals - for a day, for a lifetime - and that was mine, to have people say, 'There goes Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived," Williams said in My Turn at Bat.
Nate Boyer’s Instagram

Nate Boyer

Prior to joining the Seattle Seahawks in 2015, Nate Boyer was a Green Beret for the U.S. Army, completing multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was honorably discharged after six years of service. Boyer never played football until college, when he joined the University of Texas team as a walk-on. Boyer eventually signed with the Seahawks and played in only three plays during the first preseason game before being let go.

Boyer also advised Colin Kapernick in 2016, who made the decision to kneel during the National Anthem, saying,

“In my opinions and in my experience, kneeling’s never been in our history really seen as a disrespectful act. I mean, people kneel when they get knighted. You kneel to propose to your wife, and you take a knee to pray. And soldiers often take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave to pay respects. So I thought, if anything, besides standing, that was the most respectful.”

Photo credits: Pat Tillman Foundation’s Instagram, Joe Cardona’s Instagram, Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, Nate Boyer’s Instagram