On December 7, 1941, when the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service attacked the U.S. Naval Station Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, at 12:53 p.m. EST, three scheduled NFL games were underway.
The Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants were playing at New York’s Polo Grounds, where the announcer interrupted his commentary to tell all servicemen to report to their units. The same was done at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, where the Chicago Cardinals were hosting the Chicago Bears. However, at Washington’s Griffith Stadium where the Washington Redskins were playing the Philadelphia Eagles, the announcer paged high-ranking government and military personnel who were in attendance, but did not mention the attack to the stadium as a whole. Reporters were instructed to check in with their offices.
This was just the beginning of World War II’s impact on the National Football League and its players. Of course, World War II affected the entirety of American culture in various ways, but the war’s influence on American football culminated in 994 NFL personnel who served in the Armed Forces, 21 NFL personnel who were killed in action, and three NFL personnel who earned the Medal of Honor for actions during WWII, two of whom were players.
Among the NFL players who served during World War II were several future Hall of Famers, including: Washington Redskins halfback Cliff Battles, who served with the Marines; Philadelphia Eagles linebacker/center Chuck Bednarik, who served with the Army Air Forces; Green Bay Packers halfback Tony Canadeo, who served with the Army; Pittsburgh Steelers halfback Bill Dudley, who served with the Army Air Forces; Green Bay Packers fullback Clarke Hinkle, who served with the Coast Guard; Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman, who served with the Merchant Marine; Baltimore Colts defensive end Gino Marchetti, who served with the Army; Chicago Cardinals fullback Ernie Nevers, who served with the Marines; Chicago Bears tackle Joe Stydahar, who served with the Navy; and Chicago Bears center Clyde Turner, who served with the Army Air Forces.
In addition, Kenny Washington, the first black player to sign an NFL contract after African Americans were banned from the NFL in 1934, was a World War II veteran. In 1946, the LA Rams, the 1945 champions newly relocated from Cleveland, were required to sign African American players or lose their lease on the LA Memorial Coliseum, as it was located on public property. On March 21, 1946, they signed Washington to a contract, breaking the so-called “color barrier” in the NFL a full year before Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. During World War II, Washington served in the military on the USO tour as a sports ambassador, given his renown as a college football player for UCLA.
NFL owners also served their country during World War II, including Chicago Bears coach George Halas (who had also served during World War I), Brooklyn Dodgers owner Dan Topping, Cleveland Rams co-owners Dan Reeves and Fred Levy, Jr., New York Giants co-owner Wellington-Mara, and Philadelphia Eagles owner, Alexis Thompson.
21 NFL men died while serving during World War II, including 19 active or former players, an ex-head coach, and a team executive. One of the best-known players who died was New York Giants tackle Al Blozis, who was killed by machinegun fire as he searched for missing members of his platoon on patrol in the Vosges Mountains of France, just six weeks after playing in the 1944 NFL Championship Game.
Three members of the military with NFL connections earned the Medal of Honor for actions during World War II: Maurice Britt, who played end for the Detroit Lions in 1941 prior to serving in the Army; Joe Foss, who served as Commissioner of the American Football League from 1960-1966; and Jack Lummus, an end for the 1941 New York Giants who was awarded his medal posthumously.
In addition to professional football players serving their country, American servicemen played football overseas as recreation and to keep up morale. In fact, the first ever game of American football in Ireland took place on November 14, 1942 at Ravenhill Stadium in Belfast. Teams of U.S. Army servicemen adopted the names “Hale” and “Yarvard” and played in front of an estimated crowd of 8,000, most of whom were likely fellow American servicemen.
Because so many NFL players enlisted and served their country, many rosters were severely depleted, which led several teams to come up with creative ways to keep playing. In 1943, only seven players were available to play for the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers, so several retired players, including three future Hall of Famers, signed back up to play. This happened around the league with other teams also picking up previously retired players.
Some teams, like the Cleveland Rams, had to suspend play for the 1943 season, due to insufficient numbers. Rather than doing the same, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles agreed to merge so that they could have enough players. The “Steagles,” as they were known, split home games between the two cities and played together for the 1943 season.
The “Steagles” merger was dissolved prior to the start of the 1944 season, at which point the Steelers merged with the struggling Chicago Cardinals. Officially known as the Card-Pitt Combine, the team went 0-10, and was so bad that it was derided as the “Carpets” The next year, both Pittsburgh and Chicago operated separately, but the Boston Yanks and the Brooklyn franchise – renamed the Tigers – were forced to merge and played the 1944 season as the “Yanks,” with no city designation.
In addition to reorganizing teams so that they could continue to provide entertainment for Americans (much like baseball), the NFL as an organization also strove to support the war effort on the home front. One way that they did so was through selling War Bonds at NFL games, which generated $4,000,000 worth of sales in 1942 alone. Three Green Bay Packers – future Hall of Fame coach Curly Lambeau, quarterback Cecil Isbell, and future Hall of Fame end Don Hutson – received treasury citations for selling $2,100,00 worth in a single night during a rally held in Milwaukee.
The NFL also donated the revenue from 15 exhibition games to various service charities. The games produced a total of $680,384.07, which was reported to be the largest amount raised by a single athletic organization.
When the war ended on September 2, 1945, NFL personnel were among those celebrating, both as servicemembers overseas and on the home front. Many of these athletes had willingly given up or postponed their athletic careers in order to serve their country. Some would play again after the war, but many would not, whether because of injury or age, or because they were among the two dozen who lost their lives.
One of the most remarkable stories of survival is that of former Chicago Cardinals fullback Mario “Motts” Tonelli, who was taken prisoner in Bataan in April 1942. He was a part of the Bataan Death March, during which he and 75,000 other American and Filipino troops were forced to march 60-plus miles over a seven-day period. Tonelli was later transported from Manila to Japan and survived almost three and a half years as a POW. Although at the end of the war he weighed a mere 90 pounds, “Motts” attributed his survival to the rigorous workouts of pro football. Incredibly, he returned to the NFL as a member of the 1945 Chicago Cardinals.
NFL personnel, like all Americans, served their country in the military and supported the war effort from the home front throughout World War II. The connection between World War II and the NFL has persisted ever since the war, with several WWII veterans playing, coaching, and otherwise becoming involved with the league.