Well, it’s that time of the year again AvGeeks. Whether you are in it for the love of the game, the Xs and Os, because the team of your local metropolitan sprawl happens to be in it, or, speaking for this crew, because of the pre-game flyover (the trifecta of USAF strike bombers this year), it is Super Bowl time. Maybe you are inspired by Tom Brady making it to his tenth Super Bowl appearance (like him or not, he is undisputedly the GOAT) or elated by my hometown Kansas City Chiefs’ electrifying performance with their phenom wunderkind Pat Mahomes and his supporting cast. Maybe you’re in it for the beer and chicken wings, which is utterly commendable.
However, we are taking a different angle on the Super Bowl, looking at famous sports crossovers. Perhaps the very most renowned crossover was baseball hall of famer Ted Williams who flew for the Marines in both World War II and the Korean War, which took around five years out of his tremendous playing career. But that is baseball; this is the ultimate day for football.
Famous Football Stars-turned-Soldiers
During the wartime era of the 1940s U.S. Military Academy (West Point) was an incredible winning machine under Red Blaik. Among his crowning achievements were back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. Now, Glenn Davis did become a pilot in the Air Force, so he mostly qualifies except he did not play professional athletics.
However, I do recall the 1995 Super Bowl quite vividly (Leon Lett should never be able to live down getting his touchdown stripped by Don Beebe). And on that roster was a former A-10 driver.
The Warthog Pilot Turned Dallas Cowboys Star
While I have always abstained from being a Cowboys fan (Chiefs Kingdom, Baby), as an Av Geek I was very interested in the individual who filled in for Leon while he was doing time on a suspension. Chad Hennings, a 6’6” defensive tackle who was taken relatively late in the 1988 draft by the Dallas Cowboys out of the Air Force Academy (USAFA).
Growing up in rural Eastern Iowa, Hennings was a multi-sport star at Benton Community High School. While he did have several offers, he attended the Air Force Academy, where he initially played tight end. He would later transition to the ball’s defensive side, winning the Outland Trophy in the process, which is no small potatoes.
Upon graduation from the USAFA, Hennings was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant, where he proceeded to the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas. All of the geeks out there are probably aware that this is home to Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT), a highly competitive program.
Back to football. You are probably wondering how Hennings would pull this off, playing in the NFL and flying in the Air Force? Well, he didn’t do it simultaneously. The Air Force was stingy in the late 80’s and denied his request to be released from his service commitment. So he had to settle for merely being a fighter pilot in the meantime. All jokes aside, this was a serious deal for a good athlete with a career on the gridiron on the line. Football skills are perishable, and he had to focus all of his energy on flying while in UPT.
Hennings Was Too Tall For Most Fighters
Hennings had limited airframe options due to his robust stature (I imagine the T-38 was cramped) and ended up in the Hawg, flying for the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Bentwaters, United Kingdom.
He did not spend all that much time in the seat, although he flew long enough to participate in the original Persian Gulf war. Thankfully for his future career in the NFL, the Air Force began a substantial drawdown after the Persian Gulf conflict ended, and Hennings was able to separate early from his commitment to his commission as a pilot. The rest, as they say, is history.
He went back to the Air Force reserve for a few more years while on the Cowboys’ active roster, but he hung up his wings for good after his stint at Bentwaters. He served in the capacity of liaison to the USAFA until he entered the inactive ready reserve.
Back on the field, he would play sparingly on special teams during his first handful of years but broke out and earned a starting role in the 1996 season. During his time with the team, of which he played his entire NFL career, he won three Super Bowl rings. I’d say no matter how you slice it; he had a pretty successful career.
A 2015 ESPN Sportscenter shared his story in honor of Veterans Day. It’s worth a watch.