Writer  |  Soldier  |  Pilot

My Year as a Professional Athlete

During my life, I never saw myself as a professional athlete.  But it happened.

In the Roxbury grade school, growing up, there were no sports.  Roxbury had no Little League teams; no Boy Scout teams.  My sports were hunting, shooting, and fishing.  My high school offered only two team sports:   basketball and baseball.  Neither held any interest for me.  In college, as a freshman, I was a member of the wrestling team and the freshman heavyweight rowing team.  At the end of my freshman year, I was kicked off the rowing team because I was on academic probation.

But growing up in Roxbury, my passion was shooting, shotgun and rifle.  Family friends, Bob Kuhn and Chet Cummings, spent hours with me shooting clay pigeons and punching small groups in paper targets.  With their help and years of practice I became an excellent shot. 

At age 19 I dropped out of college and enlisted in the US Marine Corps.  In October 1958, after a combat tour in the Middle East, at Camp Lejeune, I was assigned as a coach at the rifle range.  Graduating from college, commissioned from Army ROTC, assigned to Ft. McClellan, AL, I was coach and captain of the Post Pistol and Rifle team, and a pistol shooter.  Then I was transferred to Ft. Benning, GA.

As a platoon leader in a rifle company in the 2nd Infantry Division, I received orders to parachute school.  On my third jump (July 1963), I broke my hip, spending 3 months in the hospital.  With a one-year profile (meaning no running, jumping, or other physical activities), I was assigned to the battalion headquarters as the assistant personnel officer and as the captain of the battalion pistol and rifle team, to prepare them for the Ft. Benning Post matches.

Shooting sports in America were popular beginning in the 1600s.  Pistol shooting became recognized at the 1896 Olympics.  Some US Olympic shooters came from colleges, yet most from military marksmanship teams, primarily the US Army Marksmanship Training Unit at Ft. Benning, GA.  Their shooters came from major Army Marksmanship Detachments, scattered at bases around the world.

In the 1960s, professional athletes were barred from the Olympics.  So professional football or basketball athletes, boxers, wrestlers, golfers, or tennis players, etc. who were paid to play, were ineligible to compete in the Olympics.  Most Olympic athletes came from teams of high schools and colleges.  Many athletes, though, came from military sports teams.

Olympic athletes could not accept endorsements or monetary prizes for competing.  This edict deprived many superior athletes from becoming Olympians as they needed money to live.  Many Olympic athletes, serving in the Army, trained solely as athletes full-time.  In 1989, the Olympics allowed professional athletes to compete.  During the 1992 Olympics, most US basketball players were NBA stars, comprising America’s Dream Team.

On the day of the Ft. Benning Post matches in the fall of 1963, one of my pistol shooters was absent.  I shot in his place (I was the coach, not a shooter), won the pistol matches and was assigned to the 2nd Division Marksmanship Detachment as a pistol shooter.  I was paid to shoot and compete, full-time.  As a potential Olympic shooter, I was classified an amateur, but by practical measure, being paid to shoot, I was a professional athlete.  Most matches we competed had cash awards, but our coaches took the cash and bought trophies for our winners.  At the end of my year as a shooter, I had several shelves of trophies.  In 1981, I donated all of them to the Post shooting teams where I retired.

When my one-year physical profile ended in late 1964, I left the Marksmanship Detachment and returned to the Infantry.  But during my year as a professional athlete, I attained two milestones.  I won the 1964 Third US Army indoor .22 pistol championship and achieved the highest National Rifle Association Outdoor Pistol Competition classification of Lifetime Master.  I never regretted my year as an Army pistol shooter.  And to think, it all began, growing up in Roxbury.