Seventy summers ago, NFL players began to filter back to the league after getting discharged from the military. The lucky ones, at least. Some, who’d lost a sizable chunk of their careers to
World War II, walked away from football with barely a backward glance. Others, like Chicago Cardinals back Mario “Motts” Tonelli — a survivor of the Bataan Death March and a captive of the Japanese for nearly four years — simply weren’t up to the rigors of the game anymore.
Then there was Steelers guard Jack Sanders. The war had taken a heavy toll on him, too. While serving with the Marines on Iwo Jima, he’d lost his left hand and wrist in an explosion. He’d also suffered shrapnel wounds and significant hearing loss, and one of his legs was broken in three places.
That should have been it for Sanders as a pro football player. But then he saw Pete Gray, baseball’s one-armed wonder, scurrying around Philadelphia’s Shibe Park for the St. Louis Browns, and told himself, “If he can do it, so can I.”
At the time, Sanders was being treated at the Naval Hospital in Philly, where a brace and pad were made for his arm. As a courtesy, the Steelers loaned him to the Eagles so he could try to keep playing while receiving therapy. (Actually, “try” might not be the best choice of words here. If at all possible, coach Greasy Neale was going to find a place for him on the roster. It was just the way things were in 1945.)
Sanders returned to the NFL in a preseason charity game against the defending champion Packers. The crowd topped 90,000 and included tens of thousands of servicemen, many of whom had been wounded or were amputees themselves. The Philadelphia Inquirer described the scene thusly:
The thunderous crescendo rolled from one side of Municipal Stadium and back again as Lieutenant Jack Sanders of the Marine Corps ran onto the field to take his place in the Eagles’ starting lineup. . . . Every eye was focused on the courageous athlete, who lost part of his left arm at Iwo Jima. The sincere wishes of every man, woman and child in the huge stadium went with him as he stepped forward to make his comeback – a personal ambition for him as well as a shining example for other fighting men who have returned from the battlefronts wounded.
Sanders appeared in three games that season — his fourth in pro football — before retiring at 28 and turning to coaching. In an interview with the Corpus Christi Times in 1951, he said his arm guard, which was made of steel and cowhide and weighed five or six pounds, could double as a weapon if he felt so inclined. But he rarely did. Opponents, after all, were awfully deferential toward him.