The tragic war story of Pat Tillman is well known.
The Arizona State and Arizona Cardinals football star turned down a large contract to enlist in the army, motivating by the Sept. 11 attacks on America. Tillman served several tours of duty before dying in a friendly fire incident.
The circumstances and motivations driving Tillman to forego millions of dollars and fame to instead serve his country piqued the interest of many, including Dr. Carson Cunningham, Carroll College’s men’s basketball coach.
“When the Pat Tillman story broke it was quite moving obviously,” Cunningham said. “Overtime I started thinking about what other prominent, well known athletes might have done a similar type of thing.”
The brainchild of “Fallen Stars” was born.
A decade in development (and outlined well before that), Cunningham’s fifth book, “Fallen Stars.” focuses on five incredible stories of patriotic athletes placing service of country above all else.
“As I researched it, I came across some very intriguing stories of remarkable lives,” Cunningham said. “I ended up with five athletes that I focused on for this book. My goal was to tell their stories, try to learn what animated and motivated them and learn how they resonated with the American public.”
Comparing and contrasting the coverage and overall time period of Tillman’s death, the book takes deep dives into the lives of Hamilton “Ham” Fish, Hobart “Hobey” Baker, Nile Ninnick and James Robert “Bob” Kalsu.
Fish (1873-98), who was a strong boxer, football player and a member of the Columbia Crew team that scored an upset at a nationally prominent crew race, elected to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Roughriders and serve in the Spanish-American War and eventually become the Roughrider to die in the war, taking a bullet for a fellow soldier. Fish came from an affluent family, as his grandfather served as the Secretary of State under President Ulysses S. Grant. Readers get a snapshot of the era Fish grew up in, one that romanticized exotic experiences and machismo. Beyond detailing of the culture, Cunningham – by visiting Columbia University, Salt Lake City, the Roughrider Museum, and libraries around the nation -- also explores the differences in wartime, and the lead up to the wars these tragic figures served in.
Hockey fans will recognize Baker (1892-1918). The top award each season America’s top college hockey player is the Hobey Baker Award, and Princeton’s ice rink is named after him. Baker, who starred on the ice and on the gridiron at Princeton, is another athlete who heard his calling. After graduating from Princeton, Baker went into banking, which didn’t deeply inspire him. Cunningham figures, after a Princeton education and a high profile athletics career, Baker “could have parlayed that, I’m sure, into some very nice and easy gigs.”
“He gives all that up to go fight,” Cunningham said.
As times and technologies changed, so too did warfare. Baker became one of the most daring fighter pilots for America during World War I. While warfare technological advancements made for deadlier ways, fighter pilots were viewed as aerial jousters, a more noble form of combat. Baker’s aerial exploits were covered by newspapers of the times. Baker went on to oversee a squadron before being discharged to return to the United States. Baker took one final flight of a recently repaired plane. A mechanical failure in the plane caused Baker to crash and tragically die. Cunningham compiled dairies, met family members in New York City and studied family papers to paint as full of a portrait of Baker as he could.
The book also details the life of Kinnick (1918-43), who, among many other reasons, was noteworthy for winning a Heisman trophy in 1939 as a member of Iowa’s football team. He also won the Associated Press’ Athlete of the Year award over the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Joe Lewis. Iowa’s football stadium is known as Kinnick stadium. Kinnick too died while trying to crash-land an airplane during his military service.
Then, readers get a feel for Kalsu, who was the last NFL player to die in a war before Tillman’s death in 2004. Kalsu died in Vietnam after earning offensive rookie of the year award with the Buffalo Bills, and playing in the Orange Bowl in college.
Tillman’s remarkable life is also reexamined.
The details and circumstances of all of these men are extraordinary and written about in pithy detail in “Fallen Stars.”
“I hope people check it out and read it,” Cunningham said. “I also feel like it was a deeply moving and rewarding experience just to spend time with these young men and learn about their lives and the people around them, what motivated them, what inspired them. It’s really worthwhile time.”
The book is published through Texas A&M University Press and be purchased online by searching for the title at Amazon.
Cunningham is also the author of 21st Century Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, American Hoops: US Men’s Olympic Basketball from Berlin to Beijing, Underbelly Hoops: Adventures in the CBA – AKA The Crazy Basketball Association and Before the Curse: The Chicago Cubs’ Glory Years.