In this SI 60 Q&A, William Nack discusses his moving story on Bob Kalsu, the only U.S. pro athlete from a major sport to die in Vietnam, plus his own experiences in the war and why it was his last piece for Sports Illustrated.
Before coming to Sports Illustrated in the late 1970s, William Nack spent time in Vietnam as a lieutenant. As his nearly quarter-century long association with the magazine came to an end in the summer of 2001, he was in the midst of working on a story about Bob Kalsu, the only American professional athlete in a major sport known to have died in that war. It would prove to be Nack's last story for the magazine, and one of the best to ever run in SI. I spoke to him recently about Kalsu, Vietnam and how and why he left Sports Illustrated.
SI: An NFL player dying in war: It seems hard to believe that this story was so unknown. How did you find out about it?
NACK: I got a phone call from Bob Curran, who worked for the Jockey Club. His father had been a columnist for the Buffalo News and was a longtime iconic figure in Buffalo. Something was coming up and we were chatting and at one point he said to me, "By the way, have you ever heard of a guy named Bob Kalsu?" I said, "Never heard of him." He said, "He was a football player for the Buffalo Bills and he had played at Oklahoma. I know his widow. He was the only NFL player or major sports figure to be killed in Vietnam." And I immediately said, "Oh boy, this is a story." Because I was a [Vietnam] veteran, and I didn't know of any major athletes who had even gotten injured over there.
I had one foot out the door of the magazine, and I thought this might be a good ender for me. I said, "Bob, this sounds very interesting. I might be interested in doing that." He said, "Let me call the widow. She’s never been remarried. In fact, one of their children was just born and they were in the hospital when she found out he had died." I said, "This is even better as a story, but what a terrible way to find out your husband has been killed."
I asked him when this happened and he said in the early 1970s, as the war was winding down. I had left in '68 during the Tet Offensive. He said he'd call Jan Kalsu and find out if she wanted to do it. The next day he called and said she’d be willing to talk to me and that she hadn’t talked to anyone about this. That really piqued my interest, because this was virgin territory.
I called her on the phone and we talked for an hour. She got a feel for me and I got a feel for her. I said, "Miss Kalsu, I’d like to do this story." She said, "I’ll help you with it." I asked if she'd be willing to share some of her and Bob's correspondence with me and she said, "I’ll share some of it but not all of it." I said, "Fine, whatever you’re willing to share I’d love to see."
She sounded like a very nice lady, which she turned out to be. I told her I was going to call the office and bounce this story off them but I didn’t think this would be a problem.
You never knew about [former SI managing editor Bill] Colson but I knew [senior editor] Chris Hunt would like it. I called Chris and I told him about it and he said that it sounded terrific.
SI: Did any of these conversations jog any recollections of Kalsu or of his dying in the war?
NACK: No. We had a researcher call the various leagues and in fact [Kalsu] was the only one in the major sports who died over there. That got everybody really excited at the office. One guy? Out of all these hundreds of athletes? Chris said to me, "I wonder why he went. Nobody else had to go?" I said, "I’ll try to find that stuff out."
I flew out and had a long meeting with Jan, his widow. There was a book about the battle where Bob got killed, the battle on Firebase Ripcord, this little hill about the size of a football field. And I started networking and finding people who were up there. I called the Pentagon, I found some guys in the 101st Airborne. Every year there was a Ripcord reunion and I started talking to guys who were on Ripcord when Bob was there.
I flew out to Sigourney, Iowa, to talk to last guy I quoted in the story, Corporal Mike Renner. He was in the construction business. I understand later when he got the magazine and Bob was on the cover he couldn’t read it. All these memories came back. It affected him deeply.
SI: Was it difficult to find these veterans, or to get them to talk?
NACK: The one guy I could not find was this fellow who was with him when he died. Somebody told me Bob was reading a letter to this guy from his wife telling him she had just given birth to their son when a mortar round came in and killed him. I finally found him, I talked to his mother first, and she told me that her son lived alone. So I called him on the phone and it was a very emotional conversation. He could barely talk.
I said, "I need to know what Bob’s last moments were. I’m not making a big deal out of it." He said, "Yes you are." I said, "Well, I guess I am." He said he hadn't talked about this in a long time. Bob's widow didn't even know who he was.
It’s the opening anecdote of the story. He was absolutely the lead, because I know the way I structure stories if somebody dies I like to start out with the death and then flash back. He said, "We were blown back into the bunker, and this guy was lying on top of me." He said he could feel [Kalsu] was dead. Jan didn’t know any of this stuff. And I was a little bit, um, what's the word?
NACK: Yeah, hesitant, that's a good word. Not that I wasn’t going to use it -- I had to, it was the story -- but I was hesitant because I knew she didn’t know this stuff.
SI: Did you tell her before the story ran that you had found this guy and what he told you?
NACK: I don’t remember, but I’m sure I did. That was my style. I probably called her and said, "Hey, by the way I talked to the guy who last talked to Bob. His name is so-and-so." She said, "I don't know if I want to know all this."
SI: Ironically, a few weeks after this story ran, the 9/11 attacks took place. Pat Tillman, another NFL player, volunteered to fight in the military and was killed overseas, which was a huge story. Why do you think Kalsu's story fell through the cracks?
NACK: I don’t know. It was a big story in Buffalo but it just never caught on nationally. If it did, I missed it. I was a newspaperman in those days and I don’t remember reading about Bob Kalsu. I certainly remember reading about Pat Tillman. Maybe people were tired of the [Vietnam] war. I think that had something to do with it, now that I think about it. It was such an unpopular war. People were not very sympathetic back then.
SI: Did you tell the people you spoke with for this story that you were also a Vietnam vet?
NACK: I told them all of it. I know I told Jan. You feel a little funny about it because I came home and he didn’t. But absolutely, I told everybody.
I had gone over as an infantry lieutenant to lead a platoon into combat and ended up writing and editing a pamphlet on rest and rehabilitation places. It probably ended up saving my life. These pamphlets listed eight or nine places you could go -- Kuala Lumpur, Taiwan, Japan, Hawaii -- and we distributed them to all of the units. They’d go on R&R, screw for a week and drink mai thais with little umbrellas in them.
[U.S.] General Westmoreland put out a newspaper called The Observer which dealt with the constructive things the Army was doing over there: building schools and bridges, performing inoculations . . . it was really a propaganda newspaper. I edited that. I was also the assistant editor of the publication at my last assignment before flying over, at infantry school in Fort Benning, Ga, and I had been the sports editor of the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois under Roger Ebert when he was the editor. I had a degree in journalism. So I had a lot of background in that.
When I went over to Vietnam I thought I'd be leading a platoon in combat, but I informed them of my journalism background, not expecting it to make any difference. All my friends went to the first cavalry division and that’s where I thought I was going. Instead I got on a bus and went into Saigon.
SI: So did you ever face combat after all?
NACK: No, I never had to do that, but I was involved in the Tet Offensive for six or eight weeks.
In fact, the morning of Tet -- the same morning that police chief shot that guy in the temple [in a famous photograph] -- I was just driving along and didn’t know anything was going on. This MP waved me over and he said, "Lieutenant, where are you going?" I said, "I’m going to work." He said, "Where'd you come from?" I told him and he said, "You drove through a battalion of Viet Cong."
He said, "You are so lucky, did you take a meandering way?" Well, I had taken a meandering way the whole way there. I could have gone down a side street and seen five of them with AK 47s and been blown right off the bike. I got really lucky, really lucky.
SI: Were you at all reluctant to do this story because of your experiences?
NACK: No my experience wasn’t like Bob’s. I can’t imagine having been on Firebase Ripcord. It was hard, though. I lost friends over there, and I saw the war and I felt the war. I was there and it was all around me. It did have an affect on me. When I heard these stories from people I interviewed for the Kalsu story I could picture stuff. I knew what the jungle looked like, and I knew how hot it was, and what it was like to walk around in heavy fatigues with an M-16.
I tried to bring the reader into it so the reader could feel it and smell it and taste it. That’s what I always wanted to do with my stories and this story offered a lot of possibilities for that. I don’t know if you know what it’s like to be around a round that goes off.
SI: I don't.
NACK: Well, it’s really loud. The sound of it, the concussion, will knock you on your ass. It’s just horrendous. I can see these guys up on the hill right now. There was enough description by me and guys who were up there that I can still see them. I haven’t been up there physically, but I’ve been up there. They made me live it with them. I can still see Bob Kalsu standing at that door.
SI: At the end of the story you write about his grown children. His son, who you quoted, seemed to be struggling with his father's decision to serve when he didn't have to. Why do you think Kalsu chose to go to Vietnam?
NACK: That was a very tough decision but I think he was the son of immigrants and he loved the country and there was just no way he was going to not go to Vietnam once he had worn that gold bar, which is the lieutenant's bar. People told me who talked to him that he said, and this is critical, "If I don’t go somebody will have to go in my place." It was very selfless.
It was noble of Bob. And people like that stuff, that kind of nobility that you don’t see very often. You certainly don’t see it around modern athletes. It's all "Me, me, me" and "What am I going to get out of it?" Then here’s this All-American football player with a pretty wife and daughter, and he felt it was his duty to go. His country called and he answered. That’s very unusual. He could have gotten out of it and he didn’t.
I think that’s what captivated the editors at the magazine. They put him on the cover. Maybe they thought the country would want to read about a real hero.
SI: What kind of impact did the story have?
NACK: When it came out I heard people had read it on Capitol Hill. I lived there, and there was a guy, the commanding officer of the home of the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Ky., and that incoming center where people come into the base and get assigned -- that was named the Bob Kalsu Center. There was a big party there and I was invited. I had dinner with the troops and the story was framed and put up on the wall.
I also heard that it was being taught in leadership classes at West Point because of the way he led. He didn't ask anybody to do anything he was not willing to do. That’s leadership. And he showed that and the Army recognized it. I thought that was cool. I was more proud that they liked the story and that Kalsu had made an impact. You talk about a guy for whom glory was deferred. He finally made the cover of SI.
SI: Did you know it would be on the cover?
NACK: I wasn’t quite sure. When I saw it I was kind of hoping my name would be on the cover. They do that sort of thing all the time now but they didn't do it then.
SI: That was your last story for SI wasn't it?
NACK: I filed it and it ran a couple of weeks later. While I was reporting this story and in the midst of it they offered a buyout and I had to fly up to New York to talk to the buyout people and I decided to take the buyout. And I got back to my house on Capitol Hill in D.C. and I didn’t know who to resign to. I called up [executive editor] Peter Carry and said, "I've decided to take the buyout. I don’t know who else to resign to, I’ve never done this before." He said, "Really?" I said, "Yeah, really." He said, "Oh boy. Did you tell Bill?" I said, "No, why don’t you tell him."
I still had this story that was three-quarters done. I was so excited and anxious about leaving the magazine, which had been my home for almost 25 years, that I couldn’t do anything for a few days. I’d wake up and say "I quit the magazine!" I called someone and said, "What do I do?" They said, "You don’t do anything, you don’t work here anymore." They said, "By the way, that story you were working on: Are you going to finish that?" I said, "Absolutely, that’s my last story." So I sat down and I finished it.
SI: Did you have any thought at any point of not finishing it?
NACK: There was no way, noooo. That was going to be my swan song and it was.
After I filed it, I flew out to Hawaii to be with my second daughter, Rachel, who lived in Hawaii. I lived with her and her fiancee for a month. I was driving around Maui one day and I got a phone call and it was Chris Hunt on my cell. He said, "You know, everybody loves this story." I said, "I’m glad, I liked it too." He told me it was going on the cover, then we talked about a couple aspects I can’t remember. I said, "Well, tell the fact-checker if he needs me for anything, call me." That was it. That was the end of it. When it came out one of the secretaries Fed Ex'd me the story in Maui.
SI: Have you continued to hear about the story a lot?
NACK: You won’t believe this, Ted. My daughter went to a gym up in the hills of Maui, and there was a trainer up there named Thomas Lane. [While I was there], my daughter said to me, "Dad, I think Thomas was in Vietnam." I said, "Oh good, we’ll have something to talk about."
So I go up there and he says, "Your daughter tells me you were in Vietnam." I said, "Yeah." He says, "I was over there in '70, '71." I said, "Oh really, I just wrote about a guy who was over there and got killed by a mortar round. It was my last story for Sports Illustrated. He was on a base called Firebase Ripcord." He said, "That’s where I was."
I said, "You’ve got to be kidding!" He said, "Yeah, I knew Kalsu." I said, "Thomas, where were you five weeks ago when I was looking for people who knew him?" He was so stunned, he could not believe it. He said, "I didn’t think anyone knew about Ripcord." I said, "This guy is going to be on the cover."
When I got the cover I gave it to him. He opened it up and he read it and he got teary. You talk about a wrap up. It was so stunning, one of the most vivid small world stories I'd ever seen. I kept up with Thomas, too. I introduced him to the Firebase Ripcord Association, that group that meets all the time, and he came to the annual thing to mix with the guys.
SI: Have you kept up with the Kalsus at all?
NACK: I got a Christmas card from Jan two years ago. She had gotten remarried but now they’re divorced. The boy became a lawyer and the daughter gave me a cranberry buckle recipe that I use occasionally. I cook a lot, and I ate at their house one night and she made this thing that was great and gave me the recipe. I still hear from Jan. I sent her a Christmas card last year and I’ll send her another one this year.
SI: With all that was going on for you personally with and around this story, what are your feelings about it now?
NACK: I was really proud how I persevered with it. I could have bagged it but there was no way I was going to do that. It represented for me the last chapter of what had been a wonderful run at the magazine. It represented a final exclamation point on my time there. I could not have ended my career there in a better way.