Former Bills lineman Kalsu died as soldier not a hero

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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On a day made for parades and 21-gun salutes, there probably aren't a whole lot of marching bands or uniformed batteries queuing up on Monday to specifically honor Bob Kalsu, who died more than 40 years ago trying to defend a barren stretch of hilltop real estate in Vietnam.

Bob Kalsu only got to play one NFL season before heading off to Vietnam.  
Bob Kalsu only got to play one NFL season before heading off to Vietnam.    
The only active NFL player to sacrifice his life in the Vietnam conflict, Kalsu has been about as forgotten as an unpopular war many in the country, certainly of this writer's vintage, would prefer to have purged from the personal memory banks. It has become far more fashionable in recent years to recall the sacrifice of Pat Tillman, and such recollection of the former Arizona Cardinals standout safety is clearly more than appropriate.

But likewise, especially on Memorial Day, is it fitting to recognize Kalsu.

It was 10 years ago that this correspondent first wrote about Kalsu. After a decade of annually recalling him in mind but not print, it seemed a retelling of his story was overdue. And not even a failed attempt to reach his son, Robert Kalsu Jr., an attorney in the Oklahoma City area, should forestall the exercise for another year.

The baseball record books in particular are filled with examples of star players -- Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, among them -- whose Hall of Fame feats would have been even more prodigious had they not trudged off to war. Tillman went to Afghanistan as an Army Ranger rather than allow his deep-rooted sense of responsibility and outrage over 9/11 expire in a graveyard of good and lofty intentions. Former Pittsburgh running back Rocky Bleier, a player whose exploits I once documented as a young reporter, nearly had his foot blown off in Vietnam. Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach served in the war as well.

All of those men are much more celebrated, it seems, than Bob Kalsu. But the rugged Oklahoman, who played just one NFL season, the 1968 campaign for the Buffalo Bills, is no less deserving of honor.

"As solid a player and more important, as solid an individual, as they make," Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw, who played the guard spot opposite Kalsu with the Bills in '68, once noted. "He would have been a great player, believe me, and not just because he was a great athlete. He just wanted to be good, that's all. And he wanted it so badly, that would have been enough. He wasn't the kind of guy who was going to just settle. He wanted to be special."

As a player, well, not so much, although Kalsu was elected the Bills' rookie of the year in 1968, after starting in nine of 14 appearances. But as a person, and a man whose selfless bent was and still is obvious, there is no debate.

At a time when it was not only acceptable but also expected for professional athletes to defer their military service, Kalsu felt obligated to honor the ROTC pledge that had been almost as much a part of his life at the University of Oklahoma as his All-American status on the Sooners' football team. And so, when he received a draft notice of another kind, not the eighth-round call from Buffalo officials in 1968, Kalsu left a pregnant wife and toddler daughter to fulfill what he deemed a sacred responsibility.

He never came back, sacrificing not only his burgeoning football career, but his life as well.

In writing for Sports Illustrated in 2001, William Nack eloquently documented the story of 1st Lt. Robert Kalsu's experiences at the desolate Fire Support Base Ripcord, where he died on July 21, 1970, and where 60 colleagues also gave their lives. His family and friends have debunked the legend that Kalsu was gunned down as he sprinted across an open field to a helicopter that he felt might be delivering news of the birth of his second child.

Truth is, Bob Kalsu Jr. was born within 24 hours of his father's death. It took years for the younger Bob Kalsu to reconcile the death of his father in a war that seemed to mean so little to so few. A few years ago, the junior Kalsu recalled that his father "never meant to be a hero to anybody."

But he was and is.

For a while in '01, Nack's poignant and forceful narrative about Kalsu and the hellish conditions at Fire Base Ripcord for the 11th artillery unit of the 101st Airborne, pinned down for weeks by relentless enemy fire, thrust the late Buffalo guard into the public consciousness. The fog of two more recent wars, unfortunately, has dulled the memory a bit.

This humble effort at recollecting Kalsu, probably one of the less recognizable names on the ring of honor at Ralph Wilson Stadium, isn't particularly an attempt to renew the memory as much as it in an exercise to remind people on Memorial Day of heroes in something other than NFL uniforms.

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