The NFL Should Honor Its True Heroes. Like This One.

by Bill Murphy Jr.
Originally Published: 

To the Selection Committee:

In August, not long before the NFL was rocked by scandals involving players allegedly beating their wives and abusing their children, the Pro Football Hall of Fame changed its criteria for admitting new members. Specifically, the Hall added a new category—contributors—defined on its website as individuals who “made outstanding contributions to professional football in capacities other than playing or coaching.”

There are many people the committee could select for the inaugural class in this category. You could make a compelling case for Eddie DeBartolo, for example, who was the owner of the San Francisco 49ers when they won five Super Bowls, or for the late television commentator Howard Cosell, who helped pioneer Monday Night Football beginning in 1970. However, I’d like to suggest someone else—an admittedly unusual choice who might be more daring and yet more fitting in these troubled times for pro football—a player almost no current fan has ever heard of: Maurice “Footsie” Britt, a Detroit Lions rookie who left the league for the U.S. Army at the very start of World War II, and who went on to become one of the most decorated combat soldiers in the war.

© University of Arkansas, Special Collections

As a football fan and a veteran myself, I am often surprised at how few people know who Britt was—and how rarely the NFL mentions him. Pro football players enlisted in great numbers when the U.S. entered the war, and among those who survived and came home, none had a more compelling story than Britt. Moreover, every time he was described in the media as not only a war hero, but an “ex-Arkansas Razorback and Detroit Lion war hero,” he elevated the league by his example—at a time when comparatively few people were paying attention to it.

Britt went straight into the U.S. Army infantry. A year later, he was part of the first American ground troops fighting the Germans, in North Africa, and he went on to become the first American soldier ever awarded every one of the U.S. Army’s top medals for bravery. Eventually, he was badly wounded in combat—including the loss of his right arm, and with it, his pro athletic dreams. He came back home to the United States in 1944, raised a family, worked in business, and ultimately was elected to statewide political office in Arkansas. He died in 1995.

Championing Britt for the Hall might seem a quixotic quest. In fact, while I was researching this article, several members of the selection committee sought to discourage me from even raising the idea. “I seriously see no morsel of merit by which to consider Britt based on any contribution to pro football itself,” wrote Frank Cooney, a committee member and publisher at SportsXchange. “Understand that a contributor would be a team owner, a team or league executive or somebody with a direct impact on the game of pro football in some way.”

I get that, and I suspect that this is in fact probably why the Hall established the contributor category—to reward people who put money directly into the NFL’s pocket. However, the Hall doesn’t actually articulate the criteria in such a limited way on its website. As a result, pro football has an opportunity. When the NFL is trying so hard to turn the page on some of its current troubles, perhaps the smartest thing the game could do is to honor a forgotten hero from its past.

The NFL and World War II

The NFL of the early 1940s that Britt played in was a very different creature than it is today. Baseball was America’s sport, the Super Bowl was more than 25 years in the future, and players made nowhere near as much money as they do now. Britt starred on the field at the University of Arkansas, and in 1941 he received a degree, a reserve commission in the Army. He had interest from at least two NFL teams—the Lions and the New York Giants. Their recruiting language sounds quaint now, assuring Britt that the NFL was a place for “clean living young men,” and that playing in the NFL might help Britt if he ever wanted to coach later in life, or if he “need[ed] some money to help … pursue a particular branch of studies.”

© University of Arkansas, Special Collections

Britt played for the Lions in 1941, but the fact that he already had a reserve commission meant he saw combat against the Germans while many of his pro football peers were still in training. Perhaps you’ve read Band of Brothers or seen the HBO miniseries, for example, about the paratroopers of Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Regiment, in the 101st Airborne Division. Those were brave soldiers, but they got their first taste of combat fully 18 months after Britt went to war. In fact, Britt was standing on the field at the football stadium in Arkansas, saluting with his left hand and receiving the Medal of Honor, at almost the exact moment that those troops were taking off from England to parachute into France on D-Day.

About 1,000 NFL athletes served in World War II, but the league itself continued playing. Washington won the NFL Championship while Britt was part of the invasion of Africa; Chicago won the following year, while Britt was in intense combat in Italy. Here’s what he was doing instead of playing football during that 1943 season:

September 1943

Britt’s commander was wounded during the U.S. assault on Salerno, Italy on September 19, 1943. As the second-ranking officer, he took charge. Three days later, a German machine gun crew had his company pinned down. Britt grabbed a rifle grenade and crawled half a football field to knock out the machine gun, killing two enemy soldiers. He was later awarded the Silver Star.

October 1943

On October 29, 1943, near Pietravairano, Italy, one of Britt’s men was wounded by a German sniper, and “fell down a steep, rocky hill,” according to the official report. Britt climbed down to rescue him, completely exposed to the enemy sharpshooter, and carried the soldier back to safety. He was later awarded the Bronze Star.

© University of Arkansas, Special Collections

November 1943

A German unit of at least 100 soldiers attacked Britt’s unit. He ran from position to position, firing his carbine and rallying his troops. When he ran out of bullets, one of his soldiers later recounted, and while bleeding from the head, Britt took a weapon from a wounded soldier and ran toward the Germans in a wooded area.

“A few minutes later,” the soldier said, “I saw him throwing grenades, disregarding machine pistol bursts hitting all around him. I marveled that he wasn’t hit.”

Another soldier in his unit reported: “I saw him throw approximately 10 to 12 grenades, with German automatic fire and grenades coming back all the time.”

And another: “His canteen was pierced with bullet holes and his shirt covered with water; his field glasses case too. … I was throwing hand grenades at the Germans, and Lt. Britt asked me for some, as he had thrown all he had. … He must have thrown at least 32 grenades.”

Finally, other U.S. soldiers reached Britt’s unit. When those reinforcements arrived, they found that Britt’s unit was surrounded by the bodies of 35 dead Germans. (When news of the battle reached Arkansas, the headline read, “Former Arkansas Star Kills 11 In Attack”—and it was meant as a compliment.)

It was for these actions that Britt was later awarded the Medal of Honor.

© University of Arkansas, Special Collections

January 1944

The fighting continued into Italy. In one battle, Britt’s company was “pinned down by intense small arms fire from all sides,” according to an official military account. Britt moved into the open, less than a football field away from the enemy, and called in mortar and artillery fire. An enemy tank opened up on him, and Britt ran across 75 yards of open terrain to a house, where he set up a machine gun and called in mortars and tank destroyers. During the battle, he knocked out “three enemy machine guns, two personnel carriers, and several mortars.”

He was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

February 1944

Britt was wounded several times in combat, but it was the devastating wounds he received in February 1944 that impacted him for the rest of his life. He was taking cover in a house during a battle, calling in artillery fire on German tanks and troops.

“A German high explosive shell came whistling through the window,” Britt later explained. “It tore off my arm and shattered most of the bones in my foot. The 47 wounds in my back [seemed] insignificant after those.”

Britt came back to the United States in spring 1944, and it was while traveling home on a hospital ship that he learned he’d be receiving the Medal of Honor. Thousands filled the football stadium at the University of Arkansas for the ceremony.

The next day, the invasion of Europe bumped him off the front pages.

© University of Arkansas, Special Collections

After the war

After the Army, Britt started law school, left to help his then father-in-law’s furniture business, and then started and ultimately sold an aluminum products firm. He was divorced, remarried and raised a family. Eventually, he got involved in politics, and was elected lieutenant governor of Arkansas. Britt served two terms in the 1960s, and had the experience of being a Republican presiding over a state senate made up entirely of Democrats. He became the state director of the U.S. Small Business Administration, and ran for governor in 1986—losing the Republican nomination and the chance to challenge then-Governor Bill Clinton.

© Courtesy of Patricia Britt

Looking through Britt’s papers at the University of Arkansas, you are confronted over and over with images of him smiling brightly—as a child, as a football player, even as a soldier learning to deal with an above-the-elbow amputation of his right (dominant) arm, and as an old man who eventually lost a leg as well, to diabetes. But it’s clear that he faced some intense difficulties as a result of his disabilities, and that if it hadn’t been for his wounds, he had every intention of returning to pro football after the war.

He was honored time and again by the military and by his home state of Arkansas, but there are few surviving mentions of the NFL or the Lions claiming him as one of their own. That neglect persists today. In addition to contacting individual members of the selection committee, I reached out to the Lions and the Hall of Fame itself in Canton, Ohio—but heard nothing more than a pro forma reply. One of the top sports bloggers in the Detroit area replied to my inquiry by saying he’d never heard of Britt.

The nomination

No discussion of NFL veterans who served their country is complete without mentioning Pat Tillman, who walked away from his contract with the Arizona Cardinals after September 11, 2001 to join the U.S. Army Rangers and was killed in action in Afghanistan. During the Vietnam War, Pittsburgh Steelers halfback Rocky Bleier was drafted into the army and was wounded in combat in Vietnam. For that matter, when the 1941 Lions took the field against the New York Giants on November 9 of that year, two future Medal of Honor recipients suited up against each other: Britt and the other recipient, the Giants’ Jack Lummus, who was killed in action as a Marine Corps officer in Iwo Jima in 1945.

Still, Britt should be remembered—both on his own merit, and as a symbol of the kind of players of which he is an exemplar: the best examples of pro athletes as citizens, leaders, and true heroes who sacrifice their own dreams for others’ benefit.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame has been notoriously stingy about how many league veterans it admits. There are many other deserving NFL veterans who brought great credit to the league as a result of things they did off the field after their playing days, and who remain unhonored by the league. Byron “Whizzer” White, who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (later renamed the Steelers) and later was Britt’s teammate on the Lions, went on to become an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Meantime, a convicted felon like O.J. Simpson retains his Hall of Fame honors.

Still, the fact that the Hall has excluded worthy candidates in the past seems a poor reason to suggest that it should continue doing so in the future. So let’s go to the by-laws of the Hall itself.

According to the rules posted on the Hall of Fame website, “any fan may nominate any qualified person who has been connected with pro football in any capacity simply by writing to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. … Every nomination received will be processed and forwarded to the Selection Committee.”

In that case, I nominate the late Maurice “Footsie” Britt—Detroit Lion, Medal of Honor recipient, public servant, American hero, and elevator of the reputation of the game—for consideration as a contributor member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

© University of Arkansas, Special Collections

Author’s note: Thanks are due to the University of Arkansas Special Collections Department, which maintains the Maurice “Footsie” Britt Collection (Manuscript Collection #1238), and which gave permission for the use of the images in this article.

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