On April 22, 2004, the American public was shocked to learn the news of Pat Tillman’s death.
Tillman had been a highlight-producing safety for the Arizona Cardinals from 1998-2001.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tillman turned down a lucrative extension with the Cardinals so he could enlist in the Army.
His passing was difficult enough.
It was made even more difficult when an official investigation revealed that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time an NFL player has been killed fighting for the United States in a war zone.
Bob Kalsu was also a member of the U.S. Army when he perished in July of 1970 from enemy fire while stationed in Vietnam.
#Bills OL Bob Kalsu left an NFL career & made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam http://t.co/lETxHevEqb #MemorialDay pic.twitter.com/oZJ0HrrlEI
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) May 26, 2014
Both Tillman and Kalsu, along with the many NFL vets who served their country, are true heroes and exemplify selflessness that made them beloved teammates.
This is the story of Bob Kalsu.
James Robert Kalsu was born on April 13, 1945, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
He grew up in an athletic family that included an uncle who played basketball at Oklahoma State University for the legendary Henry Iba.
Happy birthday to the man who started it all, Mr. Henry Iba. He would have been 112 today. #okstate pic.twitter.com/iLasozh7JN
— OSU Cowboy Basketball (@OSUMBB) August 6, 2016
Kalsu took to sports himself at an early age and initially played golf.
He then gravitated to basketball with the hopes of following in his uncle’s footsteps.
“That’s what made him (Kalsu’s father) drive his son to be a college athlete,” Milt Kalsu (Bob’s uncle) said. “He’d wanted to play basketball for Iba.”
Kalsu’s father, Frank, had other ideas and put his son on a tough training program to prepare him for football.
While attending Del City High School in Del City, Oklahoma, Kalsu finally began growing into his 6’3” frame.
By the time he graduated high school, Kalsu had become one of the most dominant offensive guards in the state.
College recruiters came calling and Kalsu couldn’t pass up the chance to play for Oklahoma and their coach, Bud Wilkinson.
All-American at OU
Kalsu arrived in Norman in 1963 and redshirted while learning the nuances of college football.
The following season, Wilkinson left OU and Gomer Jones took over.
For the next few years, Kalsu developed into a solid, if undersized, guard.
Bob Kalsu (Oklahoma, Buffalo Bills) was the only active American athlete to die during the Vietnam War. #MemorialDay pic.twitter.com/wNJSqzOPrB
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) May 29, 2017
At 220 pounds, it was a chore to block bigger opponents.
However, Kalsu practiced his craft diligently and played 100 miles an hour, every play.
“He did everything the way you’re supposed to,” says former Sooners defensive end Joe Riley, who was recruited with Kalsu. “He didn’t cut classes. He never gave anybody a minute’s trouble. He became the player he was because he believed everything the coaches told him. He didn’t complain.”
The Sooners under Jones struggled to duplicate Wilkinson’s success and lost 11 games combined in 1964 and 1965.
After the ‘65 season, Jones was fired and Jim Mackenzie was hired.
Oklahoma went 6-4 in 1966 and then Mackenzie died of a heart attack in the spring of 1967.
The school then hired Chuck Fairbanks, which proved to be a boon for the program.
In 1967, under Fairbanks and his enthusiastic assistant Barry Switzer, the Sooners turned their fortunes around immediately.
Two wins by a combined score of 56-0 opened the season. A close 9-7 loss to rival Texas followed.
Then, Oklahoma promptly won the rest of their games including a 26-24 thriller over the Miami Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl.
Kalsu helped lead the team that year as a captain.
His no-nonsense, team-first approach was loved by all and made an impression on his coaches.
“Bob was our best offensive lineman, the best athlete we had,” said-then offensive coach Barry Switzer. “Bob wasn’t only a great player, he was a great leader. He had the maturity and leadership abilities we needed at that time with our program in transition.”
Kalsu’s Oklahoma coaches and teammates weren’t the only ones to notice his stellar game.
By the end of the ‘67 season, he was named an All-American for his play.
Drafted by Buffalo
As an All-American at a program like Oklahoma, Kalsu was going to have some interest from an NFL team.
Every scout that watched the film of Kalsu at OU came away impressed, along with a vote of confidence from Fairbanks.
Kalsu “wasn’t better than other players because of his ability,” Fairbanks recalled years later. “He was better because he was smarter and technically better. He was a little more mature in his evaluation of what was happening on the field. There were no problems coaching him.”
Convinced of his potential as a pro, the Buffalo Bills picked Kalsu with the 199th overall selection in the eighth round of the 1968 NFL Draft.
Oklahoma Sooners star lineman Bob Kalsu, who went on to play for the Buffalo Bills, was the only athlete in a major sports league to die in Vietnam. The story from Sports Illustrated here: https://t.co/7osrLUbxzv
#MemorialDayRememberance #Bills #BoomerSooner pic.twitter.com/d3cQ6a5SaH
— Ebbets Field Flannels (@EbbetsVintage) May 25, 2020
Knowing full well the size of the men he would be facing in the pros, Kalsu beefed up to 250 pounds by training camp.
When camp ended, Kalsu was a backup guard.
He was then thrust into the starter’s role when Joe O’Donnell was injured.
Kalsu would start nine games that season and was voted as the rookie of the year by his teammates.
“The thing I noticed is that he was so mature for a young player,” said teammate Billy Shaw. “He wasn’t your normal rookie. He wasn’t in awe.”
Deployment to Vietnam
While at Oklahoma, Kalsu was a member of the school’s ROTC program.
After graduating from OU, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant but was not called into military service right away.
Not long after the Bills ‘68 season ended, the call finally came. Kalsu had been called up to active duty.
At the time, a number of pro athletes were eligible to be drafted into service but elected for the reserves instead.
Many of Kalsu’s friends and relatives encouraged him to do the same. Kalsu’s response was the same every time.
“I’m no better than anybody else,” he told them all.
A teammate of Kalsu’s, John Frantz, also asked his friend to reconsider his service commitment.
“Bob, it’s hell over there,” Frantz said. “You’ve got a wife, a child.”
Kalsu shook his head. “I’m committed,” he said.
After eight months of training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Kalsu received the news that he was being shipped off to Vietnam.
Bob Kalsu volunteered to go to Vietnam.
He didn’t come home.#RIP#MemorialDay #Bills pic.twitter.com/UL4RBdGsqc
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) May 25, 2020
At the time, Kalsu and his wife, Jan, had an infant daughter and Jan just found out she was pregnant with their second child.
Before he shipped out to the other side of the world, Kalsu and his wife had a tender exchange.
“Bob, please be careful,” Jan said.
“You be careful,” Kalsu said. “You’re carrying our baby.”
A Leader by Example
Kalsu was stationed at one of the most active battle areas in Vietnam, Firebase Ripcord in South Vietnam’s Thua Thien-Hue province in November of 1969.
In the early months of his tour of duty, Kalsu was promoted to first lieutenant.
Killed in action in Vietnam #BillsMafia #VeteransDay2021 pic.twitter.com/GTPzgjdwj5
— Put Steve Tasker in the Hall of Fame (@HOFSteveTasker) November 11, 2021
Just as he was at Oklahoma and in Buffalo, Kalsu carried himself well and was liked by the men who served under him.
“A fearless guy, smart, brave and respected by his troops,” recalls retired colonel Philip Michaud.
In his letters home, Kalsu would never share the horrors he was seeing with his wife.
However, she got a sense of what life was like for him during an R and R retreat to Hawaii in May of 1970.
The couple was sleeping one day when fireworks went off outside.
“He tore out of that bed frantic, looking for cover,” Jan said, “terror and fear on his face. I got a glimpse of what he was living through.”
After their time together in Hawaii, Kalsu returned to Vietnam.
By late July, Firebase Ripcord was besieged by North Vietnamese Army soldiers that had surrounded the base.
For days, the NVA frequently mortared the base, which kept Kalsu and his troops primarily in their bunkers.
Occasionally, the enemy would also send in tear gas.
Although the gas was brutal and choking, the U.S. soldiers didn’t always use their gas masks.
The oppressive heat in Vietnam only made the masks unbearable to wear.
Incredibly, the troops would wait for lulls in the shelling and leave their bunkers for fresh air.
In between attacks from the enemy, Kalsu would lead supply runs and help carry 97-pound explosive rounds with his men.
Former OU football All-America Bob Kalsu, the only NFL player to die in Vietnam, leads a class of 11 to be inducted into Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame https://t.co/2ZiQRbsq9D pic.twitter.com/TxDYUbkgb2
— Don Mecoy (@Mecoy) July 4, 2020
While on a supply run, he was injured from the shrapnel of a mortar strike.
Kalsu could have left the mountain on a medevac chopper.
Instead, he simply bandaged the wound and soldiered on.
Then one day, Kalsu received a letter from Jan telling him she was expected to give birth any day.
Kalsu excitedly shared the news with his fellow soldiers.
“I remember the joy on his face as he read the letter to me. He said, ‘My wife’s having our baby today,'” said Nick Fotias, who served alongside Kalsu.
On July 21, 1970, the NVA were once again shelling Firebase Ripcord.
Throughout the previous day, enemy soldiers would yell from the jungle saying, “G.I. You gonna die!”
At one point, the shelling stopped and Kalsu came out of his bunker with Fotias.
Kalsu pulled out a letter from his wife and read an update on her pregnancy.
Suddenly, an 82mm mortar round slammed into the ground only five feet from where the two stood.
“I can still feel the heat of the blast coming past me and the concussion knocking me over,” said Mike Renner, who was only yards from Kalsu’s bunker. “It flipped me backward, my helmet flew off, and the back of my head hit the ground.”
Fotias was blown into their bunker and remembered the sun going out.
With his ears ringing and his eyes filling with dirt and tears, Fotias realized he had a heavy object on him.
“I pushed off this weight that was on top of me, and I realized it was Bob,” said Fotias in 2014.
Fotias rolled his friend off of him and saw a gaping wound behind Kalsu’s left ear.
At that moment, the base’s medic came rushing in. Both soldiers quickly realized Kalsu was dead.
#OTD in 1971 the Buffalo Bills and their fans honor the late Bob Kalsu, former player killed in Vietnam the previous July. The Bills GM Bob Lustig presented the Kalsu family with a complete set of game shirts while Bills Fan Club set up a memorial fund. pic.twitter.com/R497d7modS
— ThisDateInBuffaloSportsHistory (@BuffSportsHstry) February 25, 2022
As Renner picked himself off the ground, he saw Kalsu being carried away from the bunker and panicked.
“Lieutenant Kalsu has been killed,” Renner said. “I don’t know what the hell we’re gonna do now.”
As word spread around the base that their fearless lieutenant was dead, several soldiers, including those in command, wept.
A Son is Born
Just two days later, on July 23, 1970, Jan gave birth to the couple’s son, Robert Todd Kalsu.
“Bob is going to jump off that mountain when he finds he has a boy!” Jan told Kalsu’s mother.
News didn’t travel as fast then as it does today and the Kalsu family had no idea Bob was gone.
A True All-American:
Bob Kalsu was one of the best tackles ever to play at Oklahoma. In 1969 he put aside a promising career with the Buffalo Bills to serve in Vietnam. Eighteen months later he became the only pro athlete to be killed there. Today we thank you for your service! pic.twitter.com/pAT1GDQZT5
— Bills Cold Front Report (@ColdFrontReport) May 27, 2019
Hours after Robert’s birth, an Army representative arrived and gave the family the awful news.
The funeral a week later was an understandably somber event and everyone in attendance was devastated.
Present at the funeral, Coach Switzer remembers one final scene that he still carries with him.
“Bob’s daddy got his wife and Jan back to the car,” Switzer says. “After everyone was gone from the gravesite, he went back and lay down on the casket.”
Through the years, the Kalsu family has kept Bob’s memory at the forefront.
The Kalsu children, Jill and Bob Jr., are now adults who were raised without a father.
“You start to see other people’s fathers at your ballgames, and there are other instances when you see fathers around, and you realize you’d like to have a father to speak to,” Bob Jr. said.
Bob Jr. has his own family and the contrast of his parental responsibilities and his father’s has overwhelmed him at times.
“The realness of my father for me came later in life, becoming a father myself and understanding the conflict that had to be present for my dad, knowing that he was leaving a young family behind to live up to his obligation,” Kalsu said.
Of the other notable pro athletes who served in Vietnam, former Pittsburgh Steeler Rocky Bleier also nearly lost his life in country.
During a patrol on August 20, 1969, Bleier’s unit was attacked by North Vietnamese soldiers and an enemy grenade landed near him.
The explosion tore into Bleier’s leg and right foot and he was later choppered out of the area.
With hard work and intense rehabilitation, Bleier eventually returned to the Steelers and won four Super Bowls with the franchise.
While Bleier’s story is inspiring, Kalsu has the unfortunate distinction of being the only American professional athlete to die in Vietnam.
Bob Kalsu. Buffalo Bills. KIA in 1970. Only NFL player to die in Vietnam. Real hero. Salute. RIP pic.twitter.com/8BQr0em62t
— cannoncbs (@jvzanghi) May 25, 2020
In 1977, the Pro Football Hall of Fame officially recognized Kalsu with a plaque.
The plaque reads, “No one will ever know how great a football player Bob might have been, but we do know how great a man he was to give up his life for his country.”
Meanwhile, Kalsu’s children have spent the past several decades learning about who their father was and wishing every moment that they had known him better.
“One of the things that I’ve always felt, and as a kid I remember thinking, is that he didn’t have to be everyone else’s hero,” Bob Jr. says. “He only needed to be mine.”
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