CRAWFORD | On Veterans Day, and the dividing line between sports - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | On Veterans Day, and the dividing line between sports and service

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — A few weeks ago, I read something that I haven't been able to quite shake. A ballplayer, it doesn't matter who or where, was asked about how tough his team's practices are, and he responded by saying, “You ever seen Saving Private Ryan? You see all the war and stuff? That's how it is at practice. We're at war at all times.”

He was, of course, just trying to convey as best he could that his team's practices are very contentious.

But Saving Private Ryan, in case you haven't seen it, is a depiction of the D-Day invasion of Europe during World War II, and a fairly graphic depiction at that.

I got to wondering whether for a young person today, there's any notion that it's more than just a movie, that young men their own age were on those landing crafts, floating into certain death, many of them, in perhaps the most courageous effort in the history of this nation.

I don't know what they teach in schools. But it's Veterans Day, and I think it's worth taking a moment to reflect on here.

Sports aren't war. War isn't sport. Too often we jumble the terminology, and it's bound to happen. I've tried to purge all that from my writing as I've gotten older, but occasionally “battle” will find its way into a story, and I'll get an email from a reader, and feel bad about it.

So I'm guilty, sometimes, too, which is one reason I don't want to be too hard on the ballplayer in this instance.

But no one in practice or games is being shot at. No one is putting his life on the line during those sessions. No one laces up his sneakers before going out wondering whether he'll ever make it back to the locker room or not. No one is at war.

I want you to read something extraordinary. It's held within the  University of Kentucky's Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History in Lexington, Ky., and was shared earlier this year on the 70th anniversary of D-Day by WUKY public radio host Alan Lytle and Nunn Center Director Dr. Doug Boyd.

The words belong to Jesse Beazley, a Kentucky native who was among those thousands who stormed the beaches of Normandy on that day of days in June, 1944. He was in the group that went up Omaha Beach, the very assault depicted in the early moments of Saving Private Ryan. Read his words:

“What was I thinking about?” Beazley said. “I was thinking about would I get killed the first thing? Would I make it to the beach? How would I get killed? Would it be a shell or would I get a bullet? All kind of things like that started going through my head. And I looked around on the ship. It was terribly crowded there, we were sitting on the floor and crowded, and all at once there was a blank expression on everybody's face. You look at a fellow maybe 18, 19 years old, and there was nearly a death look. No talking. No kidding. No nothing. I thought of my home, in Garrard County on the Kentucky River and my dog and my mom and my cousins, and I wondered if I'd ever see them again. This was something that I'd trained for and trained for and trained for, and now it's coming. I didn't know how I'd handle it.”

That's the real thing. It's what we celebrate today on Veterans Day, the men and women, past and present, who face that moment or who endure the hardships and separations that come with service.

So many athletes left the ball fields and basketball courts to volunteer for military service during World War II, and others have served in conflicts since.

Yogi Berra was one of six men manning a 36-foot long LCSS boat on D-Day. The letters stood for Landing Craft Support, small.  in a troop ship on D-Day. Berra joked that they called them “landing craft suicide squad.” The AP wrote about Berra's D-Day role on the 70th anniversary of the event this year.

I remember several years back interviewing Paul Jones of Corbin for a story about a little-remembered NASCAR race that was held there in 1954. Jones had been a Navy pilot, and one of his instructors was baseball great Ted Williams.

Williams worked his way through flight training in World War II and became an instructor, then was called back into duty for the Korean War six games into the 1952 baseball season. He was none-too-happy with the development. By then he was a nine-time all-star and a bona-fide star. And he was 34 years old. But he went, and flew 39 combat missions as a Marine aviator. His plane was hit by enemy gunfire three times, including Feb. 16, 1953, when a plane in distress descended on Suwon's K-13 Airbase in Korea, on fire, landing gear up, trailing smoke. The plane landed on its belly, flames all around. Witnesses saw the pilot escape from the cockpit and fall to the ground. The pilot was Ted Williams.

Later, Williams would call those Marines he served with the best men he ever met.

Bob Feller was a Naval hero in World War II. Warren Spahn saw action in the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded a Purple Heart.

For my story on the Corbin NASCAR race, I also interviewed Bob Terrell, who was a drill instructor at Parris Island and had baseball star Roberto Clemente in one of his platoons. The two remained friends until Clemente's tragic death.

Nor are all the stories of service from baseball.

In 1969, Rocky Bleier of the Pittsburgh Steelers was shot in the leg and injured by a grenade in Vietnam. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. In a hospital in Tokyo, they told him he'd never play football again. He'd been drafted after his rookie year with the Steelers, and he spent two long years trying to work his way back. He was waived twice. But he never gave up. He returned to the Steelers' starting lineup in 1974 and was there for the rest of his career.

On those occasions when the Pittsburgh Steelers met their rival Dallas Cowboys, you had Bleier on one side and Naval Academy graduate and Vietnam veteran Roger Staubach on the other, with Dallas coach Tom Landry having himself served, making 30 combat missions in a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II, and surviving a crash landing in Belgium after his plane ran out of fuel.

I'll always remember seeing an American Flag folded up in former UK equipment manager Bill Keightley's office after he died. He was a Marine, but almost never talked about it, and his service was only a line in most of his obituaries, though it helped to shape his life. For so many who served, this is the case. So big a sacrifice, so little mention. That's a shame.

Cliff Barker left UK after his freshman season and became a gunner in a B-17 Bomber. He was shot down over Germany, and was held there as a prisoner of war for 16 months, passing the time by bouncing around a volleyball. When he rejoined the Wildcats, he credited that volleyball with his ballhandling ability.

There are, of course, more modern examples. Pat Tillman springs to mind, but he isn't the only one.

The problem with a column like this, as you might imagine, is that you could go on forever. And even if you did, you'd still leave some people out.

The main reason for it, however, is to remember. The sacrifices we remember today weren't in the line of mere competition, but were to preserve a nation, and its way of life. We shouldn't forget that, or the service of so many thousands, today and every day.

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