Like most Medal of Honor recipients, Maurice Britt is often said to have “won” his medal. It’s an innocent but still irksome mistake to authentic heroes like Britt, who understood that combat is not a competition and that there are no real winners in war.
Britt, who earned the nickname “Footsie” because of his size-13 cleats, was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1941 following his graduation from the University of Arkansas, where he was football captain and twice All-American honorable mention. The Lions held the big end in high regard, paying him $150 a game.
The Lions were going nowhere in 1941. On November 16, they hosted the equally lousy Philadelphia Eagles. In the fourth quarter, with the Eagles ahead 17-14, Britt gathered in a pass from wingback Dick Booth for the winning score in the Lions’ 21-17 victory. The 45-yard touchdown wound up being the only reception of Britt’s truncated NFL career.
Three Sundays later, waves of Japanese planes sucker-punched the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. Suddenly America was at war, and hundreds of NFLers found themselves in the thick of it.
In ’41, the NFL didn’t enjoy anything near the popularity it does today. An idea of pro footballers’ comparative lack of celebrity at the time can be gleaned from the casualty lists. While most of their better known baseball counterparts were assigned by star-struck commanders to non-combat roles as phys ed instructors, where they frequently spent their days playing ball for the base team, a large number of NFL players – whose college educations made them prime officer material – found themselves near or at the front. Many, such as Britt, became line infantry officers.
Britt was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division and served in Africa and Italy. On November 10, 1943, on a mountain slope near Mignano, Italy, he practically singlehandedly beat back a German counterattack on his position. Employing several weapons and throwing 32 grenades, Britt stiffened his company’s resistance. He killed or captured several Germans, freed several American prisoners, and refused aid after being wounded.
A few months later, Britt led his company ashore at Anzio. He was inside a farmhouse when an enemy shell hit the building. The explosion ripped off Britt’s right arm and tore up a leg. It was on the hospital ship headed back to the states that the badly mangled officer was told that he had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery at Mignano.
Initially, “the medal was just a medal,” admitted Britt, who was more preoccupied with what the war had done to his goal of returning to the Lions. Remarkably, the St. Louis Browns fielded a one-armed outfielder named Pete Gray in 1945, as Britt was recuperating from his wounds. But the ex-grid star knew there was no demand in the NFL for a one-armed end. Britt returned to Arkansas, where he studied law, became a businessman, and raised a family. In 1966 he was elected lieutenant governor.
Britt died in 1995. Even with wounds that bothered him throughout the rest of his life, he always considered himself lucky. Twenty-three of the 638 NFL players who served in uniform in World War II never made it home alive, including three Lions. Charlie Behan, an end on the 1942 club, was killed in action on Okinawa. His teammate, tailback Chet Wetterlund, died in a plane crash in 1944. And Alex Ketzko, a tackle on the ’43 Lions, was killed in France two days before Christmas, 1944.
“War is not romantic, and I don’t want to romanticize it in any way,” Britt once said. “I remember dirt, filth, bugs, fatigue, futility, death – all those bad things – and I don’t know anything good that comes out of war.”