A Veterans Day Salute To Our Heisman Winners Who Served

1939 Heisman Reception For Nile Kinnick.

Saturday is Veteran’s Day and today is the national holiday for it, so we wanted to re-visit our salute to our nation’s veterans while also honoring the many Heisman Trophy winners who served in our armed forces. 

It is always worthy to shine a bit of light on the sacrifices these men made, which were but a fraction of the millions of Americans who have defended our nation.

The Heisman Trophy’s first few decades were populated with many winners who served and it is always a worthy endeavor to look back on their history and share some of their stories 

The first winner of the Heisman Trophy, Jay Berwanger of Chicago, enrolled in the Navy’s flight-training program and became a naval officer during World War II, serving as a flight instructor and reaching the rank of Lieutenant Commander before going into private business.

1937 winner Clinton Frank of Yale attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Air Corps, serving five years during World War II, and also served as an aide to General Jimmy Doolittle, who led the Tokyo raid in 1942.

Iowa’s 1939 winner Nile Kinnick is the only Heisman winner to die in service and the first to die. 

Kinnick, the Hawkeyes’ student body president as a senior, was a very articulate young man who didn’t shy away from sharing his feelings on the politics of his time.

After he won the Heisman Trophy — and two years before Pearl Harbor — he gave a memorable speech at the Heisman ceremony about how grateful he was to be able to play on the gridirons in the states and not the battlefronts over seas. 

The following spring, he gave a commencement address at a dinner with his fellow 1940 graduates at Iowa, which included these thoughtful remarks:

“Injustice, oppression and war will ultimately bring on their own destruction — suffering and misery eventually awaken the human race,” Kinnick declared. “But that is the long, sad unenlightened road we have taken in the centuries past. Now is the time for these problems to be solved by enlightened thought and understanding. We can accomplish much if we implement mental discipline and inspiration with a real mental courage.”

His comments during his 1939 speech reflected an isolationist frame of mind of many in the country. By 1941, moods had shifted.

Kinnick entered law school in the fall of 1940 but left after one year and enlisted in the Naval Air Reserve, reporting for induction three days before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

On June 2, 1943, Kinnick was on a routine training flight from the aircraft carrier USS Lexington — this ship’s initial voyage — when his F4F Wildcat developed an oil leak. Kinnick was forced to execute an emergency landing in the water four miles from the ship, but he died in the process, five weeks shy of his 25th birthday.

Per a biography called Kinnick: The Man and The Legend, he once wrote: “There is no reason in the world why we shouldn’t fight for the preservation of a chance to live freely, no reason why we shouldn’t suffer to uphold that which we want to endure. May God give me the courage to do my duty and not falter.”

1940 Heisman winner Tom Harmon enlisted in the Army Air Corps in November of 1941 and served as a pilot. Twice, planes he piloted went down during World War II, included once in 1943 when, en route to North Africa, he was forced to parachute into a South American jungle. Four days later, he was found after safely walking into Dutch Guiana.

Harmon was later awarded a Purple Heart and a Silver Star for his service with the 449th Fighter Squadron.

Minnesota 1941 winner Bruce Smith, like Kinnick, gave a similarly moving speech during his Heisman acceptance speech just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

Smith, who would go on to serve in the Navy as a fighter pilot, re-wrote his speech on the train to New York where he was to receive his trophy.

Reflecting the new sobering reality of many young men such as him, he spoke eloquently at the Heisman ceremony.  You can listen to it here.

“In the Far East, they may think American boys are soft, but I have had, and even have now, plenty of evidence in black and blue to prove that they are making a big mistake,” Smith said. “I think America will owe a great debt to the game of football when we finish this thing off. If six million American youngsters like myself are able to take it and come back for more, both from a physical standpoint and that of morale. If teaching team play and cooperation and exercise to go out and fight hard for the honor of our schools, then likewise, the same skills can be depended on when we have to fight to defend for our country.”

Coverage of the Heisman ceremony had to be cut short that night as President Franklin Roosevelt was set to give a radio address to the nation from the White House at 10 p.m.

Georgia’s 1942 winner Frank Sinkwich briefly served in both the U.S. Merchant Marines and the Air Force. He was already enlisted in the Marine reserves upon winning the Heisman and wore his uniform to the ceremony. 

Instead of receiving the bronze statue that had become the norm, he received a scroll honoring his achievement. A shortage of materials made the Downtown Athletic Club decide to use scrolls until the war ended.

Notre Dame’s 1943 winner, Angelo Bertelli, enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves in 1942 while still with the Irish and he missed the initial trophy presentation while in Marine Corps training. 

Bertelli rose to the rank of second lieutenant in 1944 and participated in combat operations in the Pacific in 1945, including at the Battle of Iwo Jima, where he was nearly killed by a closely landed mortar. He was stationed in Nagasaki when World War II ended. He laster joined the Marine Corps reserves and served until 1957, reaching the rank of captain.

Ohio State’s 1944 winner Les Horvath graduated from dental school in 1945 and joined the Navy, where he was a junior lieutenant for three years (1945-47) as well as a dentist. His service included travel to China as a naval dental officer.

Army’s 1946 winner Glenn Davis served three years in the Army and reported to Korea (before the war).

His teammate and 1945 winner Felix ‘Doc’ Blanchard chose to embark upon a career in the U.S. Air Force as a fighter pilot. He garnered a commendation for bravery in 1959, while with the 77th Tactical Fighter Squadron, for preventing his faltering F-100 Super Sabre from crashing into a village. Despite it being on fire and having the opportunity to parachute to safety, he stayed with the plane and made a perfect landing.

Doc Blanchard

He later flew 113 missions from Thailand during the Vietnam War, 84 of them over North Vietnam, and retired from the Air Force in 1971 as a colonel.

Notre Dame 1947 winner John Lujack bookended his time in South Bend around two years serving in the Navy. He served on naval submarines, hunting German subs in the English Channel as an ensign. 

Lujack talked about the training and preparation he underwent here.  

SMU’s Doak Walker, who won the 1948 Heisman, served in the Army for a year in 1946 and, like Lujack, saw his time in the service split his college play in half.

Princeton 1951 winner Dick Kazmaier, the last Ivy Leaguer to win the Heisman, spent three years in the Navy and attained the rank of lieutenant.

Oklahoma’s 1952 winner Billy Vessels served one year as an officer in the U.S. Army. Notre Dame winners John Lattner in 1953 and Paul Hornung in 1956 served in the Air Force and Army, respectively. Lattner served two years in the Air Force and Hornung served in 1961, five years into his NFL career with the Green Bay Packers. 

Hornung did, however, receive weekend passes that fall so he could play for Green Bay, enabling him to lead the NFL in scoring for the third year in a row.

Army’s 1958 Heisman winner Pete Dawkins became the highest-ranking Heisman winner. Dawkins, who spent three years studying at Oxford after finishing at West Point, began his military career with stints in Infantry, Parachute and Ranger training before getting posted to the 82nd Airborne in 1963, where he commanded a Rifle company. 

Pete Dawkins (right)

Assignments in Vietnam led to commands of a Battalion in Korea, a Brigade at Ford Ord and an assignment as an Assistant Division Commander of the 7th Infantry. He commanded the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne en route to becoming a Brigadier General. His final posting was in the Pentagon as the Army’s Deputy Director of Strategy, Plans and Policy.

Dawkins received two bronze stars for valor for his service in Vietnam.

Asked once about his affinity for the airborne branch, Dawkins said: “(It) was appealing because elite units, from Seals and Special Forces to airborne and Rangers, bear a strong resemblance to championship athletic teams in spirit, attitude and elements of success.”

Navy 1960 Heisman winner Joe Bellino served through 1965, achieving the rank of lieutenant. He served on a destroyer during the Cuban Missile Crisis, his ship part of fortifications at Guantanamo Bay.

Joe Bellino

He became an executive officer of a minesweeping ship that was deployed three times in Vietnam. Following that, he spent another 24 years in the Navy Reserves, retiring as a captain.

The last Heisman winner who served was 1963 winner and Navy quarterback Roger Staubach, who served for two years in Vietnam as part of the U.S. Navy as a supplies corps officer and attaining the rank of lieutenant. 

Interestingly, he was assigned to the Supply Corps because he was color blind, something missed during his pre-admission exam and something that would have precluded his service. He was allowed in the Supply Corps because “it did not necessitate being able to tell the difference between red (port) and green (starboard) lights or to discern the color differences in electrical circuitry.”

Staubach, who was stationed at a base in Da Nang for six months and did another half year at Chu Lai, serviced mainly Marines based in the area. He commanded over 40 men.

Roger Staubach

In an interview with the U.S. Army web site, he said he volunteered to join the service “because I wanted to give something back.”

“I came to love the Marine Corps,” he said in the U.S. Military article, adding that he loves all of the services “but the Marines, I saw them in action. Some of my teammates were Marines, some were shot and killed. It wasn’t a popular war but we were asked to do it. It was a shame how our Vietnam veterans were treated.”

He later was awarded a Purple Heart and a Silver Star for his actions with the 449th Fighter Squadron.

Staubach was recently honored at a Navy home game.

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