In celebration of the United States, its freedoms and those who have fought and died to protect those freedoms, The 33rd Team presents its All-Heroes Team — a group of men who excelled both on the field and in the United States armed forces.
QB: Roger Staubach (Dallas Cowboys, 1969-1979)
The real life, “Captain America,” Staubach starred at the U.S. Naval Academy and then had a complicated start to his NFL career due to fulfilling his military commitment. Drafted in 1964 for the Dallas Cowboys, he didn’t play until 1969 eventually heading to six Pro Bowls, winning multiple Super Bowls, and being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
RB: Paul Hornung (Green Bay Packers, 1957-1966)
A four-time NFL Champion and on the Super Bowl I-winning Green Bay Packers team, Hornung is about as bright a light as one can be in NFL History. In addition to dazzling at QB, RB, Safety and Placekicker on the field, Hornung was called into active duty for the U.S. Army in 1961 where he served during the week but was given weekend passes to play on Sundays.
RB: Mike Anderson (Denver Broncos/Baltimore Ravens, 2000-2007)
Anderson spent four years in the Marines after high school, playing football on the 11th Marines Contact Football Team while at Camp Pendleton. That experience caught the eye of an assistant coach at Mt. San Jacinto Junior College, which led to a career at Utah and in the NFL where he rushed for over 4,000 yards and was the 2000 Offensive Rookie of the Year.
RB: Rocky Bleier (Pittsburgh Steelers, 1968, 1971-1980)
After Bleier’s rookie season, Bleier was drafted into the Vietnam War where his heroics earned him the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. His injuries from being shot and receiving shrapnel from an enemy grenade led doctors to tell him he’d never play football again. All he did was win four Super Bowls and retire as the Steelers’ fourth all-time leading rusher.
RB: Ahmard Hall (Tennessee Titans 2006-2011)
A solid high school athlete, Hall enlisted in the Marines and served tours of duty in both Kosovo and Afghanistan. Following his four years of service, he enrolled at the University of Texas and walked onto their football team, playing fullback, and winning a National Championship in the process. He played in 85 games for the Tennessee Titans, helping pave the way for Chris Johnson.
OL: Clyde Turner (Chicago Bears 1940-1952)
Known more by his moniker, “Bulldog,” Turner started out his freshman year of college at 172 pounds and developed into one of the best centers of his era. In 1945, he was drafted into the Army Air Forces where he served as a physical training instructor for the end of World War II.
OL: Alejandro Villanueva (Pittsburgh Steelers/Baltimore Ravens, 2014-2021)
The son of a Spanish Naval officer, Villanueva was a rugby player before being recruited to play football for Army. He served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan before earning a tryout with the Eagles and then eventually joining the Steelers in 2014. He retired following the 2021 NFL Season.
DL: Chad Hennings (Dallas Cowboys, 1992-2000)
A standout high school football player, Hennings turned down multiple scholarship offers to join the Air Force Academy and then chose to commit to becoming a pilot, even though that would mean his post-graduation commitment would be 8 years long. Following the Gulf War, the remainder of Hennings’ commitment was waived, and he became a core defensive line rotational player and special teamer for three Cowboys Super Bowls.
DL: Bryce Fisher (Seattle Seahawks et al., 2001-2008)
Fisher was drafted in 1999 but did not play until 2001 because of his two-year Air Force commitment. During his playing career, Fisher continued in the Air National Guard where he currently holds the rank of Major.
LB: Chuck Bednarik (Philadelphia Eagles, 1949-1962)
Playing him at linebacker on this team because we’ve got Bulldog Turner and “Concrete Charlie” was one of the hardest hitters of any era, Bednarik was also one of the best centers of his time. During World War II, he was an aerial gunner who flew in combat missions over Germany, including participating in the bombing of Berlin.
LB: Kevin Greene (Los Angeles Rams et al., 1985-1999)
A feared pass rusher, Greene helped redefine the role of an edge player during his time with the Rams, Steelers and then Carolina Panthers and would go on to coach following a Hall of Fame career. During college, he joined the ROTC program and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Alabama National Guard. He earned the rank of Captain and was trained as a Paratrooper.
DB: Pat Tillman (Arizona Cardinals, 1998-2001)
An All-Pro safety, Tillman laid down a multimillion-dollar contract to enlist as an Army Ranger following the attacks of 9/11. His tragic death in Afghanistan was eventually determined to be the result of friendly fire, and he was posthumously awarded multiple service commendations, including the Silver Star, Purple Heart and Meritorious Service Medal.
LS: Nate Boyer (Seattle Seahawks, 2015)
Boyer had already lived a pretty full life as (among many other things) an aspiring actor and humanitarian services worker in Darfur before even joining the military. He became a Green Beret and served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before walking on at Texas and becoming a long snapper despite never playing organized football. He signed with the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted free agent in 2015 and currently works with FOX Sports Jay Glazer on their “Merging Vets & Players” (MVP) initiative.
LS: Joe Cardona (New England Patriots, 2015-Present)
Cardona started for four seasons in the Naval Academy where he was a part of four wins against Army. A two-time Super Bowl champion with the Patriots, Cardona is still an active Naval Officer with the rank of Lieutenant—a promotion he received on the same day he received his ring for the 2019 Super Bowl.
Because this is The 33rd Team, we can’t just end this on the field. Let’s take a look at the sidelines, the front office and even the owners box for some more men who served their country before, during and after their football careers.
Owner: Ralph Wilson (Buffalo Bills, 1960-2014)
In addition to owning the Bills for six decades, Wilson was a key player in the AFL-NFL merger and served in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters of combat while in the Navy during World War II.
Owner: Al Davis (Oakland Raiders, 1966-2011)
Many could be on this list as both a player/coach or player/executive, but few could be owner/coach/executive like Davis who used his love of football strategy to its utmost during his military career. Drafted into the Army in 1952, Davis coached at Fort Belvoir and then at The Citadel. Although he was never deployed overseas, he was asked to testify to Congress about the treatment of football players in the military.
General Manager: Eddie LeBaron (Atlanta Falcons, 1977-1985)
Recipient of a Bronze Star while injured during the Korean War, LeBaron was considered too small even by the NFL standards of the 1950s. He parlayed his 5’7” stature into a rookie of the year award and four Pro Bowls. He came out of retirement in 1960 to be the Dallas Cowboys first-ever starting QB. He was then General Manager and then Executive Vice President of the Falcons.
General Manager: Mike McCormick (Carolina Panthers et al., 1965-1997)
As a player, McCormick won multiple championships with the Cleveland Browns even though his career was interrupted by military service in Korea. He continued in the NFL as a coach but found his greatest success leading the expansion Carolina Panthers from 1993-1997.
Coach: George Halas (Chicago Bears, 1920-1983)
Serving in the Navy during both World Wars, Halas was a player/coach and owner who is about as synonymous with the Chicago Bears as one can be. After serving in the Pacific Theater during the 2nd World War, he was released from his duty as a Captain.
Coach: Tom Landry (Dallas Cowboys et al., 1954-1988)
Before leading the Dallas Cowboys to two Super Bowls as a nattily dressed field general, Landry was a pilot in World War II. He flew a B-17 Flying Fortress and was known for going deep into enemy territory and returning with minimum fuel.
Coach: Mike Priefer (Cleveland Browns et al., 2002-Present)
One of the top Special Teams minds in the NFL, Priefer played QB and WR at the Naval Academy before serving in the Persian Gulf as a helicopter pilot. He currently coaches Special Teams for the Browns and served as Head Coach while Kevin Stefanski was out with COVID-19.
Coach: Mike Sullivan (Pittsburgh Steelers et al., 2002-Present)
A defensive back at West Point, Sullivan served in the 25th Infantry Division, receiving the Expert Infantryman’s badge as well as the Army Commendation Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster. He’s bounced back and forth between both sides of the ball over his career but got his start with the same 2002 Jacksonville Jaguars team as Mike Priefer and currently coaches the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks.
Coach: Larry Zierlein (Pittsburgh Steelers, Arizona Cardinals et al., 2001-2017)
Although the dates reflect NFL careers, Zierlein has been one of the most influential offensive line coaches in football dating back to the 1970s. Before his coaching career, Zierlein spent two years with the Marines, including a tour of duty in Vietnam.
Coach: Rod Marinelli (Detroit Lions, Dallas Cowboys et al., 1996-2001)
Like Zierlein above, the dates here could stretch back into the 1970s and Marinelli is just as influential in terms of the defensive line. He also is a veteran of the Vietnam War where he was both injured and contracted malaria.
Coach: Ben Kotwica (Minnesota Vikings et al., 2007-Present)
A linebacker and team captain for the Army football team, Kotwica also became a captain in the Army as a helicopter pilot. He served in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Korea and is a veteran of the Iraq War.