NFL honors Memorial Day

Today Americans pause to remember those who lost their lives while serving our country. The true cost of war left an indelible mark on the NFL last year, when former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman died in April 2004 while serving in Afghanistan, after voluntarily forgoing pro football in favor of military service.

Tillman's ultimate sacrifice will be among the many honored on Memorial Day. His memory also brings to mind a time when war's impact was felt acutely by the NFL and the the Packers. World War II left no aspect of American life unafffected. Along with baseball, which was hardest hit, the ranks of pro football were so thinned by those flocking to service that the league struggled to continue.

By the spring of 1942 more than a third of the league's players had enlisted or were drafted into military service. About two dozen Packer veterans left the team to go into service, including fan favorite Clarke Hinkle. All but two of Curly Lambeau's 20 college draftees of 1942 headed overseas. All told, more than 600 NFL players, coaches or members of management served during the course of the war. Those staying behind found themselves part of reduced rosters populated with older and draft-deferred players. In an effort to go forth, substitution rules were altered, schedules and travel were planned to accommodate rationing, and some teams were even merged in an effort to go forth.

Then NFL-commissioner Elmer Layden defined the role of the league during the turbulent time: "While we believe profeswsional football has a definite place in the recreational program of a nation at war, nothing connected with it should or will be permitted to hinder the war effort," Layden said, according to NFL archives and book accounts.

Like the movie and music industries, one of the jobs of pro sports during wartime was to provide a morale boost and temporary diversion to both soldiers and civilians. There can be no diversion from war's ultimate price, however; some 60 years before Tillman's death, the league and the Packers were irreversibly affected by the loss of life during wartime.

World War II claimed the lives of 18 active or former players, as well as a former head coach and front-office executive, according to NFL archives. Perhaps the best known player killed in action was Giants lineman Al Blozis, who was killed by machine gun fire in France just six weeks after playing in New York's NFL Championship loss to the Packers in 1944.

The Packers family experienced a loss that had an immeasurable effect on the team, although the soldier killed was neither a player nor coach and had no official affiliation with the NFL. Green Bay's star receiver and team leader Don Hutson suffered the loss of this younger brother in the Pacific Theater in 1943. The grieving Hutson initally announced his retirement, but then reconsidered and somewhat reluctantly returned to aid his team and coach Lambeau, already desperate after the retirement of Cecil Isbell. While Hutson would play three more seasons and lead the Packers to another championship (the last under Lambeau in 1944), according to some accounts Hutson was never quite the same.

After the Allies' victory, team rosters and stadium seats were again filled with those returning from service and hungry to return to the routines and recreation of home. In memory of those who did not return, the NFL made a change that remains in place today and is echoed throughout the sporting world from school yards to Super Bowls. The National Anthem, which had become the league's pre-game tradition during the war, was officially instituted as a ceremonial lead-in to all NFL games. Commissioner Layden proclaimed in 1945 that the anthem "should be as much a part of every game as a kickoff," according to a quote in "Lambeau: The Man Behind the Mystique" by David Zimmerman.

"(The National Anthem) must not be dropped simply because the war is over," Layden said. "We should never forget what it stands for."


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