It’s no secret that the NFL and the concept of American patriotism have not exactly been synonymous, as of late. For what had long been considered the most popular sport in the United States, pro football has recently had some difficulty with its public image. In fact, NFL fandom has lately become one of the more divisive topics in the country.
It wasn’t always this way. It was not so long ago that the NFL personified patriotic pride. There was something inherently American about the game, its players, and its fans. It brought us together, as one. Even though we cheered for different teams, we were all united as football fans every Sunday.
As we prepare to celebrate Veteran’s Day, we are reminded that there is no greater American team than the United States Armed Forces. Despite our political, ideological and sociological differences, we can each agree on honoring all our men and women who have bravely served to secure our freedom.
Presenting this list is not intended to make a political statement. It neither supports or condemns the choices made by players to exercise their beliefs. Rather, it is intended to serve as a reminder that patriotic pride can still be found on the gridiron. It is still possible to love both professional football and the United States of America.
In honor and memory of my grandfathers, Albert A. Bucci, Sr. (Veteran, United States Army) and Raymond D. D’Abate, Sr. (Veteran, United States Navy), it is my privilege to present to you the ten most Patriotic moments in NFL history.
10.) Villanueva Takes a Stand
As the National Anthem played across Soldier Field in Chicago, on Sunday, September 24, 2017, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive tackle, and U.S. Army Veteran, Alejandro Villanueva stood alone…with his hand over his heart…just outside the team’s entrance tunnel.
With the rest of his team conspicuously absent, the image of Villanueva paying homage to his nation was one of the most striking, on what was a day of unprecedented protests around the league. Many other NFL players, owners, and even fans had been participating in peaceful protests such as locking arms and kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem. While these actions were (and continue to be) criticized by some, Villanueva’s were described as an act of patriotic defiance.
Truthfully, Villanueva was neither making a political statement nor trying to disrespect his teammates. In fact, he would later apologize to them for any negative connotations brought about by his actions. His decision to stand for the National Anthem was an act of doing what came naturally. In short, he was simply showing his respect to the Nation he had sworn to defend. His stance on his beliefs was as American as those who chose to kneel for theirs in protest. In doing so, Alejandro Villanueva helped to remind everyone that there is more than one way to define patriotism; as long as that patriotism comes from a place of honor and conviction.
9.) The NFL implements ‘A Salute to Service’
In November 2011, the NFL announced their Salute to Service campaign, which showcases the military appreciation work of the NFL and its teams. The program typically takes place every November, near the time of Veterans Day.
Throughout November, teams designate home games as special military appreciation games. During these games, teams display “Salute to Service” banners on their sidelines, in addition to hosting ceremonies to honor the service and sacrifice of our nation’s troops. Camouflage equipment and military apparel are often worn by players and coaches, as well.
Although the publicity for the program has been painted with a cynical brush, “Salute to Service” has done much to extend the appreciation for our veterans, current soldiers, and their families. It has also helped the NFL to extend their support of programs such as the USO and the Wounded Warrior Project. As a result, the NFL continues to be among the leading organizations to support and honor our Armed Forces.
8.) The NFL Marches On during World War II
Baseball has often been linked with the legacy of World War II. From the numerous high-profile Major Leaguers being called to military service to the formation of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, it has often provided one of the greatest backdrops in American sports history.
However, many have forgotten that the NFL’s ability to survive, during those same years, was just as remarkable. Unlike Major League Baseball, the NFL was still in a state of relative infancy. They were in a precarious financial state, and most teams lacked sufficient players to field a full squad. Rather than fold, the NFL chose to make some bold moves, which eventually proved to pay off. Understaffed teams were forced to merge. The Steelers joined forces with the Eagles to create the Steagles. Later on, when the need reemerged, the Steelers merged with the Cardinals to create the Card-Pits. Somehow, during those less-than-ideal circumstances, the league survived when it was still in a state of relative infancy.
The War-Era survival and maturation of the NFL serve as an example of persistence and determination during times of adversity. As has far too often been the case, tragic events will not force Americans to completely sacrifice their way of life or abandon their passions. Even though we were are war overseas, the American spirit endured at home. While it was only a small reminder, the NFL’s refusal to surrender did embody the perseverance of the U.S. in the face of adversity.
7.) Super Bowl XV
On January 25, 1981, Super Bowl XV was played between the Oakland Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles. For the Eagles, it would be their first championship game berth in 20 years. For the Raiders, they would become the first team to reach the Super Bowl as a wild card. led by resurgent quarterback Jim Plunkett. IT has the makings of a classic, based on just the game alone.
However, many of the games great storylines would be overshadowed by the spirit of a much different kind of hero. Only five days prior to the game, a resolution to the Iranian hostage crisis had been achieved. On the same day in which Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the 40th President of the United States, 52 American hostages returned home to U.S. Custody.
Amidst a sea of patriotism and gratitude, the NFL used its biggest stage to honor the Americans who survived 444 days of captivity. During the pregame ceremonies, the Southern University band performed, as the fans in attendance waived yellow ribbons in support of the hostages. In addition, the Louisiana Superdome (the site of Super Bowl XV) was fitted with an enormous yellow bow to signify the end of the harrowing event.
The Raiders defeated the Eagles 27-10, and Plunkett won the game’s MVP honors. However, this Super Bowl will always be remembered for its pregame ceremonies, as much as the action on the field.
6.) The Return of Rocky Bleier
The Pittsburgh Steelers have long been the NFL’s example of blue-collar, hard-working grit. To this day, they are the most decorated NFL team, in terms of championships. They boast an impressive collection of hall-of-famers, and a defense that will forever be known as the “Steel Curtain.” It’s an example that is as American as any other in professional sports.
However, one of the most indelible images of the heart and courage of a Veteran can be found in former Steelers halfback Rocky Bleier.
After his rookie season in 1968, Bleier left the Steelers upon being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. While in combat, Bleier was shot in the thigh and took shrapnel in his leg via an exploding grenade.
For his valor, Bleier was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. However, a return to the NFL seemed nearly impossible.
Nevertheless, despite struggling just to walk, Bleier defied all odds and returned to the Steelers just one year later. He earned a key offensive place on one of the NFL’s all-time greatest dynasties. Bleier would go on to win four Super Bowls and became a symbol of both sacrifice and resilience. Quite simply, Bleier never gave up. His bravery serves as an example on the battlefield, as well as the football field
5.) Super Bowl XXXVI
Before SpyGate, DeflateGate or JealousyGate, the 2001 incarnation of the New England Patriots were among the biggest “Cinderella Stories” that the NFL had ever seen. Taking on the heavily-favored St. Louis Rams, the Patriots faced more than just a tall task. The Rams, dubbed “the Greatest Show on Turf” were expected to easily defeat the Pats, who featured a second-string quarterback, an unproven head coach, and a collection of role players. My, how times have changed.
Given the circumstances that surrounded the entire 2001 season, the Patriots ended up being the perfect example of perseverance that America needed. The NFL was overshadowed by the events of 9/11, and rightfully so. It seemed all too fitting that a team named in the spirit of the Revolutionary War’s Continental Army (the original underdogs), defeated the more glamorous and heralded opponent. On this night, red, white and blue proudly waved once again.
In addition to the patriotism on the field, the NFL also solemnly assured that we all remember those who tragically lost their lives on 9/11. In a display that ensured there would be no dry eye in the Superdome, a screen displayed the names of those who perished as the band U2 played at halftime.
4.) In Memory of Our Fallen Leader
The late Pete Rozelle once described it as the greatest regret during his 29 years as NFL Commissioner. Some have praised it. Many have condemned it. However, history has shown that Rozelle’s decision to play the NFL’s full slate of games just a few days after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was a necessity.
Amidst the shock and sadness, felt helpless and paralyzed in the aftermath of the President’s death. The next day, the country would lay their leader to rest. Football was not considered a priority, and few would argue otherwise.
However, with the baseball season having ended, the NFL felt compelled to set an example and aid in the healing process. After receiving the blessing from Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger) prompted Rozelle to go through with the seven NFL games scheduled for Sunday, November 24, 1963.
Whether one perceives it as right or wrong, Rozelle’s decision gave thousands, if not millions, of Americans a brief respite from the sadness of the largely beloved president’s tragic assassination. Although it was a time of sorrow, Americans have since found the patriotism in carrying on in the face of tragedy.
3.) Honoring Pat Tillman
The loss of former Arizona Cardinals safety and U.S. Soldier Pat Tillman was a terrible tragedy for both America and the NFL. But as tragic, depressing, confusing and painful as it was, the outpouring of emotion and love that followed was a fine example of American patriotism.
Even though his death has been clouded by controversy, his sacrifice and spirit were, and will, always be remembered.
Tillman set aside a successful, and lucrative, pro football career to defend his nation by serving in the U.S. Military. Following his death, the Cardinals honored him and retired his jersey during the September 19, 2004, game between the Cardinals and New England Patriots at Sun Devil Stadium. In addition, the remaining NFL Teams, as well as all fans paid memorable tribute to a true American hero.
2.) Returning After Tragedy
Few moments have polarized history as did the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Like the aforementioned assassination of President Kennedy, its one of the moments in which everyone knows their precise location when they heard the news.
After the postponement of the league’s 2001 Week 2 schedule, play resumed 12 days after the September 11 attacks. Throughout each of 15 sites that hosted games that week, there were tremendous displays of patriotism, both on the field and in the stands.
Fans and players cheered, in unison, as American flags blanketed the stadiums and the playing fields. Stadium loudspeakers blasted “America the Beautiful, “God Bless America,” and the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Although it had been deeply wounded, America looked to be as united as ever.
But the most patriotic element on display that day may well have been the red, white and blue banners on display in every end zone, which read “United We Stand.” There is no greater American sentiment than unity. It’s a tragedy in and of itself that tragic events have to remind us all of that very fact.
1.) Whitney Houston sings the National Anthem at Super Bowl XXV
With Operation Desert Storm only 10 days old, American patriotism was at an all-time high. Our country was rallying around its troops, and American Flags and yellow ribbons adorned nearly every door and street corner in the U.S. At the same time, there were serious concerns about the safety of Americans both at home and those abroad serving in the military.
However, patriotism and pride were about to reach a new level. It is one that perhaps no other American sports scene has ever experienced. It happened just prior to the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants kickoff in Super Bowl XXV on January 27, 1991.
Just before U.S. F-16s flew over a stadium filled with more than 70,000 fans holding miniature American flags, Whitney Houston delivered the “Star-Spangled Banner” with such zeal and passion that it brought players, coaches, and fans to tears. Houston’s performance of the song just resonated so closely with so many Americans that it will forever be linked to that event, as well as each Super Bowl itself. It remains the most famous performance of America’s national anthem of all-time.
From my pen…
On a personal note, I wish to express my admiration and gratitude to each and every member…past and present…living and deceased…of the United States Armed Forces for their bravery and dedicated service to our country. Happy Veteran’s Day. Thank you for your sacrifice.
–Mike D’Abate is the Managing Editor for cover32.com/Chargers and covers the Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots. He is also a National Content Writer and covers the NFL for cover32.com.