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Sports Heroes Who Served: Pro Football Player to Formidable Marine

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Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

Ernest C. Cheatham Jr. was a former defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Colts. He was also a Marine who led troops during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Cheatham played college football at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, for the Lions. In 1952 after college, he became a Pittsburgh Steeler.

A man poses for a picture.
Football Player
Ernest C. Cheatham Jr. is pictured here sometime during his time playing football for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1954.
Photo By: Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers
VIRIN: 541103-O-ZZ999-001

However, he put his football career on hold to serve in the Marine Corps during the Korean War in both Japan and Korea.

In 1954, after leaving the Corps, he played a total of six games in his short National Football League career: four for the Steelers and two for the Baltimore Colts.

Cheatham said he loved football, but he loved the Marine Corps even more, so he returned to active duty in March 1955 after deciding to make it a career.

In March 1955, he became a company commander at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California. During his tour at MCRD, Cheatham found time to play football for the San Diego Marines, a football team that no longer exists.

Man poses for picture.
Cheatham Photo
Ernest C. Cheatham Jr. is pictured during his time playing football for the Lions at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Calif.
Photo By: Courtesy of Loyola Marymount University
VIRIN: 501103-O-ZZ999-002

Monte Railsback was going through boot camp in 1956 and recalls watching Cheatham in a game against San Diego State. "Ernie gave those young college kids an education," he said.

In July 1967, Cheatham deployed to South Vietnam, where he commanded the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

In February 1968, the Tet Offensive was on, and house-to-house fighting in Hue City was raging. Hue was once the capital of Vietnam and was a city of strategic importance to South Vietnam.

A man poses for a picture.
Portrait Mode
Ernest C. Cheatham Jr. is pictured here sometime during his time playing football for the Lions at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, Calif. The photo is probably from about 1950 to 1951.
Photo By: Courtesy of Loyola Marymount University
VIRIN: 501103-O-ZZ999-001

On Feb. 2, 1968, Marine Corps Col. Robert D. Bohn, the 5th Marines commander, called Cheatham in and told him that he’d be going to Hue. "There's a problem up there," Bohn said. "Saddle up what you need. We're going to put you in."

Even before they arrived, Marine Corps combat correspondent Dale Dye participated in most of the battle for Hue until being wounded. "We got hammered fairly hard," he said, so elements of the 5th Marines were dispatched to Hue to assist.

"I don't want to say we were leaderless or dithering in Hue, but early in the fight I think everyone was in a bit of shock," Dye said. No one expected the enemy to be there in such strength, and no one knew much about fighting in a city. 

Man poses for picture.
Lions Photo
Ernest C. Cheatham Jr. is pictured here sometime during his time playing football for the Lions at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California
Photo By: Courtesy of Loyola Marymount University
VIRIN: 501103-O-ZZ999-003

"So, there was a lot of milling around trying to figure out what we were facing and what we needed to do about it," he said. "All that ended when Lt. Col. Ernie Cheatham, who commanded 2/5, arrived in the city. It was like watching a star quarterback trot out onto the field to save a crucial game." 

"He did two critical things," Dye continued:  "He swept away inter-service and international bickering. [He also] let everyone involved know that a hard-charging pro was in the game. It was fascinating to watch his effect on shattered and bloodied outfits. They seemed to gain new motivation when Cheatham showed up."

Cheatham, who was 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighed 255 pounds, "was a bull of a man and could be intimidating, but he was also inspirational, Dye said. I'm told he was fond of using football metaphors but I didn't hear much of that when I was around him. I do remember him using a stick and scratching at a patch of dirt to draw out his plan for an attack. I thought at the time he looked like a big kid in a neighborhood flag football huddle. I know of at least one case in early fighting near the [Military Assistance Command, Vietnam] compound during which Cheatham personally stood and traded fire with a [North Vietnamese Army] machine gunner."

A man directs tank fire.
Tank Fire
Marine Corps Lt. Col. Ernest C. Cheatham Jr. (foreground) leads the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division in combat in Hue City, South Vietnam, in February 1968.
Photo By: Courtesy of retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Ralph J. Salvati
VIRIN: 680203-O-ZZ999-001

After the battle, Cheatham was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism in the battle for Hue.

The citation reads in part: 

"Cheatham led his battalion in extremely heavy house-to-house fighting against a numerically superior North Vietnamese Army force. … The enemy resistance halted the Marines' advance during two days of bitter fighting. Nevertheless, Lt. Col. Cheatham remained steadfast in his determination to secure the enemy stronghold. Skillfully deploying a 106-mm. recoilless rifle squad into advantageous firing positions, he personally pinpointed the targets with M-16 tracer rounds and directed accurate fire on the enemy, which significantly reduced the pressure on his assaulting force."

The citation continues, describing the fighting and Cheatham "ignoring the hostile fire all around him, directing his men to covered positions while he fearlessly advanced to an exposed position from which he could locate the sources of enemy fire." 

"Cheatham's dynamic and heroic leadership and his unflagging example inspired all who observed him and contributed greatly to the defeat of the enemy and to their subsequent withdrawal from the city."

A man poses for a picture.
Ernest C. Cheatham Jr.
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Ernest C. Cheatham Jr. poses for a photograph in his dress uniform, Jan. 1, 1981. He later made lieutenant general before retiring in 1988.
Photo By: Courtesy of the Marine Corps
VIRIN: 810101-O-ZZ999-001

On Jan. 1, 1988, Cheatham retired as a lieutenant general. He is recognized in the Pro-Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, as the highest ranking military member to have played professional football. 

Additionally, he is a member of the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame in Quantico, Virginia. 

He died June 14, 2014, at age 84 and is buried in Quantico National Cemetery, Virginia. 

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Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200706-D-ZZ999-903

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