The military promotes values that are not just essential on the battlefield or during training, but applicable to other areas of life. Teamwork, sacrifice, and competitiveness are essential tenets of the military that are also essential in any sport. Given this association, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many successful athletes served in the military prior to excelling in their respective sports. Here are six sports legends who exemplified greatness both in their service and athletic careers. 

Sport Icons veterans
The San Diego Chargers’ head coach Marty Schottenheimer gives an autograph to Lt. Ryan Phillips aboard USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) during the Chargers’ visit to the ship.

Marty Schottenheimer

Marty Schottenheimer was an NFL coach for 21 years, and despite never winning a Super Bowl, he is one of only eight coaches to reach 200 regular-season victories. Like all great coaches, Schottenheimer’s excellence isn’t limited to his numbers. He created “Martyball,” a gritty, simple style which he explained in an interview for ESPN: “Run the ball, don’t throw interceptions, don’t fumble the ball, and then, at the end of the day, if you are able to do those things, you are going to win a bunch of games.” 

Schottenheimer was nicknamed “The Great Resurrector for his ability to turn losing teams upside down. He best showcased that skill in the 2004 season, when he led the San Diego Chargers to a 12-4 record after a 4-12 mark on the previous one. He was named Coach of the Year that season. 

Schottenheimer was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2014 and recently passed away on February 8, 2021.

Veterans Sports Heroes
Gregg Popovich as an Air Force cadet.

Gregg Popovich

Popovich is widely regarded as one of the top five coaches in basketball history. Currently the head coach for the San Antonio Spurs and the U.S.A. Basketball men’s team, Popovich served in the Air Force for five years prior to starting his basketball career. His personality and coaching style is very much shaped by military values such as honesty, accountability, teamwork, and camaraderie. This piece, Michelin restaurants and fabulous wines: Inside the secret team dinners that have built the Spurs’ dynasty, illustrates with great detail how Popovich constantly applies a meticulous, larger-than-basketball, and collectively-oriented approach not just to coaching his team, but also in his personal life.

Popovich’s experience in the military helped him not only survive but thrive in one of the most competitive professional environments in the world: having won five NBA titles as a head coach of the Spurs, he is the only coach in NBA history, along with Phil Jackson and John Kundla, to win five or more NBA championships with the same team. He also is, by far, the longest-tenured NBA head coach having signed with the San Antonio Spurs in December of 1996. The next coach on the list? Erik Spoelstra, who has been Miami Heat’s head coach since April 2008. 

But these numbers alone don’t reflect the brilliance of Popovich’s career. In a league known for frequent changes of coaches, Popovich has not only managed to win consistently at the highest level, but has also created one of the most powerful and iconic basketball cultures worldwide, with teams always known for their passing, defense, and individual sacrifice for the benefit of the whole. 

“I know who I am and it started in the military where they broke me down to zero and put me in a box… And didn’t care if I was this, that or the other in high school. I was nothing. And they built me back up so that I knew what I could do and what I couldn’t do. I knew my strengths. I knew my place. I knew it wasn’t all about me. I knew it was about teamwork. And that’s how I live. That’s the deal,” Popovich said in a 2012 address to a crowd of All-Army, All-Air Force, All-Navy, and All-Marine Corps players.

Veterans sports Heroes
Former San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson speaks with a U.S. Army All-American West Team family member at the Blossom Athletic Center in San Antonio, Dec. 31, 2012. (U.S. Army Photo)

David Robinson

Widely regarded as one of the best power forwards in basketball history, San Antonio Spurs and NBA legend David Robinson is also known as “The Admiral” because of his service in the Navy from 1983 to 1987, after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy. 

Robinson’s impact in the NBA is remarkable. He won two NBA championships with the San Antonio Spurs, a team that epitomized collective play under head coach Gregg Popovich. Robinson is one of only five players in NBA history to record a quadruple-double, which consists of recording 10 or more in four of the following categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals, or blocks. Robinson recorded 34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, and 10 blocks on February 17, 1994. The Admiral features a unique basketball resume which includes Rookie of the Year, MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, two NBA championships, and three Olympic medals (two golds and a bronze). In 2017, the NBA included Robinson in an official list of the best 50 players in the league’s history.

During his service as a midshipman, Robinson worked as a civil engineer and helped the Navy’s recruiting efforts. 

“I know the price that people pay to serve our country, and so it’s just a blessing to be able to come in and encourage the families here that are paying that price for us,” he said in one of his frequent visits to military families. 

Sports Heroes Veterans
Gerald Ford, during practice as a center on the University of Michigan’s Wolverines football team in 1933. (Courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Library via Pentagon)

Gerald Ford

The 38th President of the United States and a World War II Navy veteran Gerald Ford was also a collegiate football phenomenon, a multidisciplinary athlete who would eventually coach football, swimming, and boxing during his time in the military, and a barrier-breaker. As this feature by the Department of Defense points out, in 1975, Ford “signed Public Law 94-106 admitting women to the all-male military colleges — West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy.”

While Ford is evidently more well-known because of his time as a president than because of his sports career, his athletic achievements are worth highlighting. He won collegiate football titles with the University of Michigan Wolverines in 1932 and 1933 and received offers from the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers from the NFL. Yet, he rejected them and instead decided to coach boxing at Yale University. Ford would say that his experiences as a football player helped him get ready for the “rough-and-tumble world of politics.”

Shortly after the start of WWII, Ford “enlisted in the U.S. Navy as an ensign and was assigned as a physical training officer of recruits in North Carolina. After repeated requests to be sent to a combat unit, Ford was sent to the Pacific aboard the U.S.S. Monterey, a light aircraft carrier. He would earn 10 battle stars by war’s end, for participation in engagements at Okinawa, Wake, Taiwan, the Philippines and the Gilbert Islands, among others.”

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Sports Heroes Veterans
Brooklyn Dodgers baseball player Jackie Robinson in 1950. (National Archives)

Jackie Robinson

Robinson was not only a historical figure in baseball and the civil rights movement, but also a four-sport star (basketball, football, track, and baseball) in high school and college, and a World War II veteran. Prior to debuting in the MLB with the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first-ever black player in the MLB in 1947, “Robinson was drafted and assigned to a segregated Army cavalry unit in Fort Riley, Kansas. In January 1943, Robinson was commissioned a second lieutenant.

Robinson never wavered in his determined stance against segregation. He experienced backlash around the country as an MLB player because of his race, but he was also a victim of racial abuse during his time as an enlisted soldier, as this feature by the U.S. Department of Defense recounts: 

“On July 6, 1944, Robinson boarded an Army bus. The driver ordered Robinson to move to the back of the bus, but Robinson refused. The driver called the military police, who took Robinson into custody. He was subsequently court-martialed, but he was acquitted. After his acquittal, he was transferred to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, where he served as a coach for Army athletics until receiving an honorable discharge in November 1944.”

Robinson would go on to become one of the best baseball players ever and the only one to have a number (42) retired league-wide. 

Veterans sports heroes
William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey mock punches magician Harry Houdini, who is held back by boxer Benny Leonard in a photo that dates back to the early 1920s.

William Harrison “Jack” Dempsey

Considered one of the best boxers of all time, World Champion and Hall of Famer Jack Dempsey was the epitome of a self-made man. In his autobiography, he mentioned that, despite growing up poor, he made some money with the bets placed on him to win fights in bars and saloons.

Dempsey jumped to stardom in 1919, when he defeated 6’7″, 245-pound World Heavyweight Champion Jess Willard. Dempsey was 6’1″ and 187 pounds. The videos from that iconic fight illustrate the remarkable size difference between them. 

“I had trained for Willard at the Overland Club on Maumee Bay, an inlet of Lake Erie. Nearly every day Kearns and Trainer Jimmy Deforest reported that I was shaping up much better than Willard. But when I saw big Jess across the ring, without an ounce of fat on his huge frame, I wondered if Kearns and Deforest had been bringing me pleasant but false reports to bolster my courage. I won’t say I was scared as I gazed at Willard, but I’ll admit I began to wonder if I packed enough dynamite to blast the man-mountain down,” Dempsey recounts in his book Championship Fighting.

Dempsey would go on to remain the world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926. Throughout his life, he displayed courage and the ability to sacrifice. During World War I, he worked in a Philadelphia shipyard and joined New York State National Guard when World War II started. He would then transition to a commission “as a lieutenant in the Coast Guard Reserve, where he was assigned as Director of Physical Education,” and made frequent appearances at “fights, camps, hospital, and War Bond drives… In 1945 he was on the attack transport USS Arthur Middleton for the invasion of Okinawa. In July of 1945, he was assigned to the Commander, 11th Naval District for assignment to Military Morale Duty. He was released from active duty in September 1945. He was given an honorable discharge from the Coast Guard Reserve in 1952.”

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