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A Name On The Wall: Football player Bob Kalsu was the only U.S. pro athlete to die in Vietnam

The latest SI 60 selection is "A Name On The Wall," in which William Nack chronicles the life and death of Bob Kalsu, an NFL player who was the only athlete in a major sports league to die in Vietnam. 

In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories ever to run in the magazine. Today's selection is "A Name On The Wall," by William Nack. It is the story of Bob Kalsu, an All-America offensive lineman at Oklahoma who chose to go to Vietnam after his rookie season with the Buffalo Bills. It was originally published in the July 23, 2001 issue of SI.

The feeling had gone out of everything. It was like we were zombies. You didn't care anymore. July was terrible. The [North Vietnamese] whacked Ripcord, that hill we were on, with mortars and rocket fire. Day after day, night after night. I was getting shell-shocked. I didn't care if I got out. At night you could hear the [enemy] yelling from the jungles all around, "GI die tonight! GI die tonight!" This was our deathbed. We thought we were going to be overrun. --SPC. 4TH CLASS DANIEL THOMPSON, wireman at Firebase Ripcord, Vietnam, July 1970

There were always lulls between the salvos of incoming mortars, moments of perishable relief. The last salvo had just ended, and the dust was still settling over Firebase Ripcord. In one command bunker, down where the reek of combat hung like whorehouse curtains, Lieut. Bob Kalsu and Pfc. Nick Fotias sat basting in the jungle heat. In that last salvo the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), as usual, had thrown in a round of tear gas, and the stinging gas and the smoke of burning cordite had curled into the bunkers, making them all but unbearable to breathe in. It was so sweltering inside that many soldiers suffered the gas rather than gasp in their hot, stinking rubber masks. So, seeking relief, Kalsu and Fotias swam for the light, heading out the door of the bunker, the threat of mortars be damned. "Call us foolish or brave, we'd come out to get a breath of fresh air," Fotias recalls.

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It was Tuesday afternoon, July 21, 1970, a day Kalsu had been eagerly awaiting. Back home in Oklahoma City, his wife, Jan, was due to have their second child that very day. (They already had a 20-month-old daughter, Jill Anne.) The Oklahoma City gentry viewed the Kalsus as perfectly matched links on the cuff of the town. Jan was the pretty brunette with the quick laugh, the daughter of a successful surgeon. Bob was the handsome, gregarious athletic hero with the piano-keys grin, the grandson of Czech immigrants for whom America had been the promised land and Bob the promise fulfilled. As a college senior, in the fall of 1967, the 6'3", 220-pound Kalsu had been an All-America tackle for Oklahoma, a team of overachievers that went 10-1, beating Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. The next season, after bulking up to 250 pounds, Kalsu had worked his way into the starting offensive line of the Buffalo Bills, and at season's end he had been named the Bills' rookie of the year.

While in Vietnam, Kalsu rarely talked about his gridiron adventures. Word had gotten around the firebase that he had played for the Bills, but he would shrug off any mention of it. "Yeah, I play football," he would say. What he talked about--incessantly--was his young family back home. Jan knew her husband was somewhere "on a mountaintop" in Vietnam, but she had no idea what he had been through. In his letters he let on very little. On July 19, the day after a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter, crippled by antiaircraft fire, crashed on top of the ammunition dump for Ripcord's battery of 105-mm howitzers, setting off a series of explosions that literally sheared off one tier of the hill, the bunkered-down lieutenant wrote his wife. He began by using his pet name for her.

Dearest Janny Belle--

How're things with my beautiful, sexy, lovable wife. I love & miss you so very much and can't wait till I'm back home in your arms and we're back in our own apartment living a normal life. The time can't pass fast enough for me until I'm back home with all my loved ones and especially you Jan and Jilly and Baby K. I love and need you so very much.

The wind has quit blowing so hard up here. It calmed down so much it's hard to believe it. Enemy activity remains active in our area. Hopefully it will cease in the near future.

I'm just fine as can be. Feeling real good just waiting to hear the word again that I'm a papa. It shouldn't be much longer until I get word of our arrival....

I love you, xxx-ooo.

Bob

Kalsu was, in fact, involved in the gnarliest battle going on at the time in Vietnam: an increasingly desperate drama being played out on the top of a steep, balding shank of rock and dirt that rose 3,041 feet above sea level and 656 above the jungle floor. From the crest of this two-tiered oblong promontory, on a space no bigger than two football fields, two artillery batteries--the doomed 105s and the six 155-mm howitzers of Battery A, Kalsu's battery--had been giving fire support to infantrymen of the 101st Airborne Division, two battalions of which were scouring the jungles for North Vietnamese while pounding the ganglia of paths and supply routes that branched from the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, 12 miles to the west, spiderwebbing south and east around Ripcord through Thuathien Province and toward the coastal lowlands around Hue.

Atop that rock, Kalsu was caught in a maelstrom that grew stronger as July slouched toward August. On July 17, four days before his baby was due, Kalsu was made the acting commander of Battery A after the captain in charge was choppered out to have a piece of shrapnel removed from a bone in his neck. Kalsu and his men continued their firing missions as the NVA attacks intensified. With a range of 13 miles, Battery A's 155s were putting heavy metal on enemy supply lines as far off as the A Shau Valley, a key NVA logistical base 10 miles to the southwest, helping create such havoc that the enemy grew determined to drive the 300 or so Americans off Ripcord. As many as 5,000 NVA soldiers, 10 to 12 battalions, had massed in the jungles surrounding Ripcord, and by July 21 they were lobbing more than 600 rounds a day on the firebase, sending the deadliest salvos whenever U.S. helicopters whirled in with ammo and soldiers raced for the helipad to carry the shells on their shoulders up the hill.

Kalsu cover

​Kalsu humped those 97-pound explosive rounds along with his men, an officer exposing himself to fire when he could have stayed in the bunker. "A fearless guy, smart, brave and respected by his troops," recalls retired colonel Philip Michaud, who at the time was a captain commanding the ill-fated battery of 105s. "Rounds were coming in, and he was out there. I told him a few times, 'It's good to run around and show what leadership is about, but when rounds are blowing up in your area, you ought to hunker down behind a gun wheel. Or a bunker.' The guy thought he was invincible."

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The grunts loved him for it, and they would have followed him anywhere. David Johnson always did. Kalsu and Johnson, by most superficial measures, could not have been more different. Kalsu was white and the only child of middle-class parents--city-bred, college-educated, married, a father, devoutly Catholic. Johnson was black and the seventh of 11 children raised on a poor farm outside of Humnoke, Ark. He was single and childless, a supplicant at the Church of God and Christ. What the two men shared was a gentleness and childlike humanity that reached far beyond race. So James Robert Kalsu, 25, and Spc. 4th Class David Earl Johnson, 24, became inseparable. "They just clicked," recalls former sergeant Alfred Martin. "You saw one, you saw the other."

That lull in incoming fire on July 21 nearly brought the two friends together again. Johnson was standing outside Kalsu's bunker on the pock-marked hill. Cpl. Mike Renner, a gunner, was standing by his 155 with a sergeant who was dressing him down because the jack on the gun had broken, leaving the crew unable to raise it to a different azimuth. At that moment Kalsu and Fotias rose out of the bunker. They stood at the door for a moment, Fotias with his back to it, and Kalsu started reading to him from a piece of paper in his hand. "[It was] a letter he had received from his wife," Fotias says. "I remember the joy on his face as he read the letter to me. He said, 'My wife's having our baby today.'"

Some rounds you heard falling, some you didn't. Fotias did not hear this one. Jim Harris, the battalion surgeon, was across the firebase when he heard the splitting crack and turned his head toward it. The 82-mm mortar landed five feet from the bunker door. "I can still feel the heat of the blast coming past me and the concussion knocking me over," says Renner. "It flipped me backward, my helmet flew off, and the back of my head hit the ground."

Johnson fell sprawling on the ground. Fotias, at the mouth of the bunker, saw the sun go out. "I remember this tremendous noise," he says, "and darkness. And being blown off my feet and flying through the door of the bunker and landing at the bottom of the steps, six feet down, and this tremendous weight crushing me. I couldn't see. I couldn't hear. I had dirt in my eyes, and my eyes were tearing. I rubbed them, and then I could see again. I pushed off this weight that was on top of me, and I realized it was Bob."

*****

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​Kalsu was really a boy trapped inside a large man's body--a player of pranks whose high-pitched cackle would fill a room. He laughed so heartily that he drooled, the spittle coursing from the corners of his mouth down around his dimpled chin and on down his chiseled neck. Once, on hearing the punch line of an off-color joke, he slammed a fist so hard on an adjoining barstool that the stool broke into pieces. He had the appetite of a Komodo dragon, but he loved kids even more than food. Some valve must have been missing in his psyche: His ego, unlike that of most jocks, was not inflatable. He always favored the underdog (he arranged the selection of one girl as high school homecoming queen because no one paid her much mind), and he turned down a high school sports award on grounds that he'd already received too many. "It'll mean more to somebody else," he told his mother, Leah.

Kalsu was born in Oklahoma City on April 13, 1945, and he came of age in the suburb of Del City at a time when coach Bud Wilkinson was leading Oklahoma through its gilded age. From 1953 into '57 the Sooners won 47 consecutive games, still a record for a Division I school, and finished three straight seasons ('54 to '56) undefeated. Twice during that run, in '55 and '56, they were national champions. Like every other 18-year-old gridiron star in the state, Kalsu aspired to play in Norman. Even as Wilkinson's program faltered in the early 1960s--the Sooners were 16-14-1 in the first three years of the decade--the coach's aura was so strong that there was only one place for a local kid to go. When Wilkinson recruited Kalsu out of Del City High in '63, Kalsu signed on.

He was not the first in his family to make the big time in Oklahoma college sports. Bob's uncle, Charles Kalsu, played basketball at Oklahoma State for Henry Iba, whose legend in college hoops was writ as large as Wilkinson's was in football. The 6'6" Charles was a second-team All-America in 1939 and played pro ball with the old Philips 66 Oilers. Charles's brother Frank Kalsu, three inches shorter and two years younger, yearned to follow him to Oklahoma State. "Frank and Charles were extremely competitive," recalls their younger brother, Milt. "Frank went to Stillwater thinking he could play. He lasted half a semester and came home." Frank married Leah Aguillard, of French Canadian ancestry, became a sheet-metal worker at Tinker Air Force Base in Midwest City, Okla., and settled in Del City.

Frank saw in his son, Bob, an open-field run at fulfilling the dreams that he had left behind in Stillwater. "That's what made him drive his son to be a college athlete," Milt says. "He'd wanted to play basketball for Iba." Frank put the teenage Bob on a rigorous conditioning program long before such regimens were common. Milt still remembers Bob chuffing through four-mile cross-country runs among the tumbleweed and jackrabbits while Frank trailed behind him in the family car.

Early on, the boy began to live for the playing of games, for competition, and he approached everything as if it were a last stand. "He played every kind of ball imaginable," says Leah. "He was even on a bowling team. He loved to play cards--canasta, hearts. We'd play Chinese checkers head-to-head. We played jacks when he was seven or eight. He played jacks until he was in high school. He'd never quit when he lost. He'd say, 'Mom, let's play another.'"

Bob liked football well enough--the butting of heads, the grinding contact, the fierceness of play in the trenches--but the game he loved most was golf. He was a four or five handicap. On Sundays, Bob would go to 7 a.m. Mass at St. Paul's Church so he and Uncle Milt could make an 8:30 tee time. They sometimes got in 54 holes in a day, and they spent hours behind Bob's house hitting balls, always competing. "We'd see who could get [the ball] closest to a telephone pole," Milt recalls.

Kalsu never played a down for Wilkinson, who resigned after his freshman season. However, over the next four years, including a redshirt season in 1964, Kalsu matured into one of the best offensive linemen ever to play for the Sooners. He also developed his talent for leading men, which was as natural as the stomping, pounding gait that would earn for him the nickname Buffalo Bob. Steve Campbell, three years behind him at Del City High, remembers summers when Kalsu, preparing for the next Oklahoma season, would call evening practices for high school players and run them as if he were a boot-camp sergeant. He simply put out the word that he would be working out at the high school and that all Del City players should be there.

Kalsu would appear in a jersey cut off at the sleeves, in shorts and baggy socks and cleats, and begin sending the young men through agility and running drills, racing up and down the field with the players and finally dividing them up for a game of touch football. "We were ready and willing followers," Campbell says. "He had a very commanding air about him."

Fact is, in his comportment on and off the field, Kalsu rarely put a cleat down wrong. "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. We'd all be complaining through two-a-days, and he'd just walk around with a little smirk on his face. He was a little too goody-goody for some of us, but we respected him. And once you got to know him, you liked him."

By his third year of eligibility, 1966, Kalsu was starting on a squad that was showing signs of a pulse. The year before, in Gomer Jones's second season as coach, the Sooners had gone 3-7, and Gomer was a goner. In '66, under new coach Jim Mackenzie, Oklahoma went 6-4. When Mackenzie died of a heart attack in the spring of '67, Chuck Fairbanks took over, and his rise to the practice-field tower presaged the sudden ascension of the team, which would have one of the wildest years in Sooners history.

Like their 2000 counterparts, the '67 Sooners had not been expected to win their conference, much less make a run at the national title. For guards Eddie Lancaster and Byron Bigby, the tone of the season was set on the first play of the first game, against Washington State in Norman on Sept. 23, when they double-teamed a defensive lineman and rolled him seven yards down the field, springing tailback Steve Owens for a 12-yard gain. Next thing Lancaster knew, Kalsu was standing over him and Bigby and yelling, "Good god, awright! Look at this! Look at what you did!"

Bigby turned to Lancaster and said, in some amazement, "You know, we can do this." The Sooners won 21-0. They kept on winning too and nearly pulled off the whole shebang, losing only to Texas, 9-7. Kalsu was smack in the middle of it all. Elected team captain, he took the job to be more than that of a figurehead. He took it to mean that he should lead, which he did in the best way, by example.

Steve Zabel, an Oklahoma tight end at the time, recalls the day Buck Nystrom, the offensive line coach, got peeved at the taxi-squad players who were going against his linemen in the "board drill," in which two players lined up at opposite ends of an eight-foot-long plank and ran into each other like mountain goats, the winner being the one left standing on the board. Disgusted by what he saw as a lack of intensity, the 215-pound Nystrom--"the meanest coach I was ever around," says Zabel--got on the board and turned his cap backward. Without pads or a helmet, he took on all his linemen, one by one. Finally Kalsu got on the board.

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​Kalsu, at 220 pounds, had become the biggest hammer on the Sooners' offensive line. He took off down the board. "He hit Buck so hard that he lifted him off the board and planted him on the ground with his helmet on Buck's chest," says Zabel. "Everybody was running around yelling, 'Kalsu killed him! Kalsu killed Buck!'"

That night Zabel and center Ken Mendenhall were walking into a Baskin-Robbins when Nystrom came out, holding an ice cream cone in one hand and his two-year-old son, Kyle, in the other. He was wearing the same T-shirt he'd worn at practice, and his arms were discolored. "Zabel! Mendenhall!" Nystrom blurted. "Wasn't that the greatest practice you ever saw?" He handed his cone to Zabel, the boy to Mendenhall, and raised the front of his shirt, revealing the black-and-blue imprint of a helmet. "Look at this!" he said gleefully. "Boy, ol' Bob Kalsu liked to kill me!"

On the field that year Kalsu was everywhere, urging the troops on, picking them up off piles. Every time Owens, the tailback, looked up from the ground, there was Kalsu. Owens would win the Heisman Trophy in 1969, but in '67 he was an unbridled galloper who often ran up the backs of Kalsu's legs. One day the exasperated captain took Owens aside. "Listen, Steve, I'm on your side," he said. "Find the hole!"

Owens was in ROTC, and he remembers Kalsu, a cadet colonel, marching his battalion around the parade grounds like so many toy soldiers. "He was all over us all the time," says Owens. "He took that job seriously too."

Before Kansas State played Oklahoma, Wildcats coach Vince Gibson, who had been studying film of the Sooners, approached Fairbanks on the field. "Kalsu is the best blocking lineman I've ever seen," Gibson said. In fact, after the Sooners' coaches studied all their game film of 1967, Fairbanks said that "our average gain on all plays going over Kalsu, including short yardage and goal line plays, is 6.2 net yards rushing....This is what we coaches grade as...near perfection."

Kalsu "wasn't better than other players because of his ability," Fairbanks recalls. "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. You didn't have to try to motivate him. He came to practice every day with a smile on his face."

At season's end Kalsu appeared to have it all. An appearance in the Orange Bowl. All-America honors. A solid chance at a pro football career. And his marriage, after the Orange Bowl, to Jan Darrow. She and Bob had had their first date on Oct. 15, 1966, and she knew that very night she'd found her mate. "A really cute guy who made me laugh," she says. "I came home, threw myself on my sister Michelle's bed and said, 'I just met the man I'm going to marry.'"

Jan was the third of nine kids--five girls and four boys--and by the summer of 1967 Kalsu had been embraced as the 10th sibling in the Darrows' seven-bedroom house on Country Club Drive. "I always wanted brothers and sisters, and now I got 'em," he told Ione Darrow, the mother of the brood. Kalsu may have been a fearsome lineman, but what the Darrows discovered was a large, lovable kid who liked to scare trick-or-treaters by jumping from behind trees and who failed grandly in his experiments as a pastry chef. Diane Darrow, four years older than Jan, walked into the kitchen one day and saw Bob with his huge hands in a mixing bowl, squashing the batter. She asked him what on earth he was doing. He said he was making an angel food cake for Ione's birthday. Diane wondered why he wasn't using a wooden spoon. "The box says mix by hand," he said.