The NFL and the Medal of Honor

Posted on February 2, 2011
By Clint VanWinkle

Nearly 28,000 people braved the rain to watch the New York Giants play the Detroit Lions at N.Y. Polo Grounds on a miserable November day in 1941. The Giants, who had started the season a perfect 5–0, were on a 2-game losing streak and needed a win to reclaim the NFL’s Eastern Division from the Washington Redskins.

Detroit’s entire 1941 season was basically a losing streak. Having only won 2 two games, they had resorted to letting their equipment manager play after he told the coach that he could “do better than most of those guys you’ve got.” The statement proved correct.  Still, the hype surrounding the game was huge. Detroit, according to The New York Times, was the Giant’s “jinx team.”

The hometown crowd got their money’s worth watching the teams slug-it-out on the soggy field. Detroit’s former equipment manager, Steve Belichick, whose son would eventually earn a few Super Bowl rings, even scored for Detroit, but the Giants rallied late in the game to win by 7-points. However, the real heroes of the game didn’t even get a mention in the papers.

While rookies Jack Lummus (N.Y.) and Maurice Britt (Detroit) didn’t stray far from the bench that game, they would gain glory on different fields and earn the distinction of being the only NFL players to earn the Medal of Honor.

Years later, Joe Foss entered the professional football picture as the commissioner of the American Football League, making him the third Medal of Honor recipient associated with the NFL.

Coincidentally, two of the three MOH recipients have Super Bowl connections. Jack Lummus’s New York Giants played in the 1941 NFL Championship game; Joe Foss helped establish the Super Bowl.

Lummus, Britt, and Foss are the true NFL warriors and a testament to the bravery of U.S. Armed Forces. Toast these men and all of the NFL’s military veterans during the Super Bowl. They deserve it.


Jack Lummus

U.S. Marine Corps / New York GiantsJack Lummus

Jack Lummus excelled in everything he did. He earned All-American honors in football and All-Conference in baseball while at Baylor University. He signed professional contracts for both sports when he graduated, but his courage as a U.S. Marine would dwarf all of his athletic achievements.

Following his rookie season with the New York Giants, Lummus joined the Marine Corps.  He completed Officer Candidate School, and then volunteered for the elite Marine Raiders—America’s first special operations unit.  The Raiders disbanded in 1944 and Lummus was sent to the newly formed 5th Marine division.

February 19, 1945, the 5th Marine Division landed on Iwo Jima. Lummus wouldn’t leave the island alive.

Before Lummus died he told the surgeon, “I guess the New York Giants have lost the services of a damned good end.” Jack was only 29 years old.

Nearly 9,000 of the Americans who fought on Iwo Jima were killed or wounded; 27 Americans, including Marine Lt. Jack Lummus, earned the Medal of Honor for their actions on the island.  “Uncommon valor was a common virtue” for the men who fought for that piece of real estate.

In 1946, Jack’s mom accepted the Medal of Honor on behalf of her son in a Memorial Day ceremony. Jack Lummus was buried at Myrtle Cemetery in Ennis, Texas.

Jack Lummus’s Medal of Honor Citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Leader of a Rifle Platoon, attached to Company E, Second Battalion, Twenty-seventh Marines, Fifth Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands, 8 March 1945. Resuming his assault tactics with bold decision after fighting without respite for two days and nights. First Lieutenant Lummus slowly advanced his platoon against an enemy deeply entrenched in a network of mutually supporting positions. Suddenly halted by a terrific concentration of hostile fire, he unhesitatingly moved forward of his front line in an effort to neutralize the Japanese position. Although knocked to the ground when an enemy grenade exploded close by, he immediately recovered himself and, again moving forward despite the intensified barrage, quickly located attacked and destroyed the occupied emplacement. Instantly taken under fire by the garrison of a supporting pillbox and further assailed by the slashing fury of hostile rifle fire, he fell under the impact of a second enemy grenade, but courageously disregarding painful shoulder wounds, staunchly continued his heroic one-man assault and charged the second pillbox annihilating all the occupants. Subsequently returning to his platoon, position, he fearlessly traversed his lines under fire, encouraging his men to advance and directing the fire of supporting tanks against other stubbornly holding Japanese emplacements. Held up again by a devastating barrage, he again moved into the open, rushed a third heavily fortified installation and killed the defending enemy. Determined to crush all resistance, he led his men indomitably, personally, attacking foxholes and spider-traps with his carbine and systematically reducing the fanatic opposition until, stepping on a land mine, he sustained fatal wounds. By his outstanding valor, skilled tactics and tenacious perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, First Lieutenant Lummus had inspired his stouthearted Marines to continue the relentless drive northward, thereby contributing materially to the success of his company’s mission. His dauntless leadership and unwavering devotion to duty throughout enhanced and sustained the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.

Maurice “Footsie” Britt

U.S. Army / Detroit Lions

Maurice Britt, an All-American offensive end from the University of Arkansas, had a promising future in the NFL. He played in 9 out of 11 games his rookie season and scored against the Philadelphia Eagles on a 45-yard play, his only career reception. But Britt willingly gave up his professional career join the U.S. Army.

A week after completing his rookie season with the Detroit Lions, Maurice Britt traded in his cleats for combat boots.  Two days later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Like his professional football career, Britt’s Army career was cut short. He’d already earned the Medal of Honor when an artillery shell severed his right arm on February 12, 1944. Still, his three years of Army service were nothing short of amazing: Britt was the first soldier to earn the U.S. Army’s top three valor medals in a single war and was the most highly decorated, U.S. soldier of WWII until 1945.

The year after Britt lost his arm, the Associated Press ran an article titled, “Lt. [Audie] Murphy of Texas Wins Two New Honors, Tying for Most Decorated Man in the Army.”

Britt returned to Arkansas after the war. He became a successful businessman and served two terms as the state’s Lt. Governor. Maurice “Footsie” Britt died November 26, 1995 and was buried Little Rock National Cemetery.

Maurice Britt’s Medal of Honor Citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Disdaining enemy hand grenades and close-range machine pistol, machinegun, and rifle, Lt. Britt inspired and led a handful of his men in repelling a bitter counterattack by approximately 100 Germans against his company positions north of Mignano, Italy, the morning of 10 November 1943. During the intense firefight, Lt. Britt’s canteen and field glasses were shattered; a bullet pierced his side; his chest, face, and hands were covered with grenade wounds. Despite his wounds, for which he refused to accept medical attention until ordered to do so by his battalion commander following the battle, he personally killed 5 and wounded an unknown number of Germans, wiped out one enemy machinegun crew, fired 5 clips of carbine and an undetermined amount of Ml rifle ammunition, and threw 32 fragmentation grenades. His bold, aggressive actions, utterly disregarding superior enemy numbers, resulted in capture of 4 Germans, 2 of them wounded, and enabled several captured Americans to escape. Lt. Britt’s undaunted courage and prowess in arms were largely responsible for repulsing a German counterattack which, if successful, would have isolated his battalion and destroyed his company.

Joe Foss

U.S. Marine Corps and S.D. Air National Guard / AFL CommissionerJoe Foss. Photo Credit: National Archives.

It’s hard to know where to begin with the story of Joe Foss. And really, there isn’t enough space to do anything but highlight his remarkable life.

Although Foss saw more time on the bench than he did the on the University of South Dakota football field, he had a major impact on professional football.

Foss was never officially associated with the NFL, but as commissioner of the American Football League, he helped broker the merger between the two leagues and laid the framework for the Super Bowl. His tenure at the AFL was just one of the many incredible accomplishments in this Medal of Honor Recipient’s life.

During WWII, Lt. Foss shot down 26 Japanese planes and damaged many others in an aerial frenzy over Guadalcanal. The act earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross and Medal of Honor. The June 7, 1943, issue of Life Magazine featured the hard charging Marine on its cover with the title “America’s No.1 Ace.”

A lesser man may have been content with being awesome, but not Joe Foss. The Marine Ace returned home, resigned his Marine commission, and helped raise the South Dakota Air National Guard. He became a Brigadier General in the ANG, and went on to win two-terms as that state’s Governor. He then served as the president of two organizations—The National Rifle Association and National Society of Crippled Children and Adults—and made time to host a successful television show called “”The American Sportsman” on ABC.

Joseph Jacob Foss died January 21, 2003. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Joe Foss’s Medal of Honor Citation:

For outstanding heroism and courage above and beyond the call of duty as executive officer of Marine Fighting Squadron 121, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, at Guadalcanal. Engaging in almost daily combat with the enemy from 9 October to 19 November 1942, Capt. Foss personally shot down 23 Japanese planes and damaged others so severely that their destruction was extremely probable. In addition, during this period, he successfully led a large number of escort missions, skillfully covering reconnaissance, bombing, and photographic planes as well as surface craft. On 15 January 1943, he added 3 more enemy planes to his already brilliant successes for a record of aerial combat achievement unsurpassed in this war. Boldly searching out an approaching enemy force on 25 January, Capt. Foss led his 8 F-4F Marine planes and 4 Army P-38’s into action and, undaunted by tremendously superior numbers, intercepted and struck with such force that 4 Japanese fighters were shot down and the bombers were turned back without releasing a single bomb. His remarkable flying skill, inspiring leadership, and indomitable fighting spirit were distinctive factors in the defense of strategic American positions on Guadalcanal.

CLINT VANWINKLE is the author of Soft Spots: A Marine’s Memoir of Combat and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (click here to read an excerpt) and an Operation In Their Boots filmmaker (click here to watch his film, “The Guilt”, which premiered Nov. 9, 2010 in Los Angeles. While in Iraq he served as an Amphibious Assault Vehicle section leader, attached to Lima Company 3rd BN 1st Marines, and commanded eighteen other Marines. After completing his enlistment, Van Winkle earned a BA in English from Arizona State University, then a MA in Creative and Media Writing from the University of Wales-Swansea, and began to publish pieces of this book in literary magazines. He currently in Phoenix, AZ with his wife Sara and teaches at Arizona State University’s West Campus. Visit his website for more information.

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