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On target

Published September 27. 2013 05:00PM

Prior to Super Bowl XXVIII, Buffalo Bills Coach Marv Levy was asked if the upcoming contest was a "must-win" game, given the fact that the team had suffered three straight title-game defeats.

Levy put the game in perspective with his answer.

"This is not a must-win; World War 2 was a must-win," he said.

Professional football has a long history with the military and the game itself has words like "blitz" and "long bomb" in its lexicon.

Legendary names like George Halas, Otto Graham, Chuck Bednarik, and Dick "Night Train" Lane were veterans who have deep imprints in the history of the sport.

Bednarik, a lifelong resident of the Lehigh Valley and the last of pro football's 60-minute men, is a good example. He joined the 8th Air Force right out of high school and flew in over 30 combat missions in Germany as a B-24 waist-gunner. Before entering the University of Pennsylvania after the war ended, "Concrete Charlie" had already been awarded the Air Medal (with four oak leaf clusters) and four bronze stars for his service.

Many other players sacrificed for this country in wartime. Last year, the Veterans United Network made a list of 10 NFL players that made their mark both in service to America, and on the football field.

One was Rocky Bleier who was drafted into the U.S. Army after his rookie season in the NFL in 1968.

Bleier volunteered for duty in Vietnam where he suffered a bullet wound to his left leg and grenade shrapnel to his right. He eventually overcome the serious leg injuries and helped the Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowl titles.

Ranked second on that list was Roger Staubach who won the 1963 Heisman Trophy at the Naval Academy. He was drafted in 1964 by the Dallas Cowboys but after graduating from the Academy, Staubach volunteered for a tour of duty in Vietnam to fulfill his commitment to the service academy. He didn't get to play pro ball for the Cowboys until five years later in 1969.

Ranked first on the list was Pat Tillman. After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, he walked away from the NFL - and millions of dollars - at the height of his professional career to become an Army Ranger. Tillman served in multiple combat tours before his death in Afghanistan in 2004, where he was killed by friendly fire.

These are just some personal examples of the partnership between pro football and the military.

The league's overall commitment is shown in its annual Salute to Service campaign. For every point scored during the NFL's 32 designated Salute to Service games, the league will donate $100 to each of its three primary military non-profit partners - Pat Tillman Foundation, USO and the Wounded Warrior Project.

A rogue individual sometimes surfaces to embarrass the league along with himself. Earlier this week, T.Y. Nsekhe, a former practice player from the St. Louis Rams, sent out a tweet that demeaned the talent of those in the military. Someone had tweeted him that it was hard to believe that a player in a helmet defendin' a football makes more money than a soldier in a helmet defendin' his country."

"It doesn't take much skill to kill someone," Nsekhe tweeted in response.

The backlash from that wacko comment brought Nsekhe a flood of criticism, forcing him to quickly apologize.

Fortunately, he lives in a country that allows him to speak out. The same soldiers he smeared actually earned him the right to voice that opinion.

By Jim Zbick

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