(EDITOR’S NOTE: To listen to the Joe Horrigan interview, click on the following link: Ep 111: Joe Horrigan Returns To Remember Vietnam Veteran And Former Bills OT Bob Kalsu | Spreaker)
There have been 17 NFL players killed in armed warfare, with former Arizona star Pat Tillman – who died in Afghanistan in 2004 – the most well known. But before Pat Tillman there was Bob Kalsu, and if you haven’t heard of him you should.
Especially on Memorial Day.
Kalsu was an offensive lineman for the Buffalo Bills who, in 1968, was the team’s Rookie of the Year. But then he was called into active military duty as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, was sent to Vietnam and was killed on July 21, 1970, two days prior to the birth of his second child and only son.
James Robert Kalsu Jr.
Kalso’s story is tragic, mostly because – like Tillman – it didn’t have to happen. While other pro athletes sought military deferments or joined the reserves, Kalsu embraced his military obligations. As an ROTC student at the University of Oklahoma, he didn’t hesitate to serve following his first NFL season, telling friends and relatives that “I’m no better than anybody else.”
After eight months of serving at Ft. Sill in Oklahoma, he was sent to Vietnam and stationed at one of the most active battle areas, Firebase Ripcord in South Vietnam’s Thua Thien-Hue province in November, 1969.
“From then on,” said Joe Horrigan, senior advisor at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, on the latest “Eye Test for Two” podcast (fullpresscoverage.com), ”it was just a nightmare for him and everybody else serving there at that time… The whole story and the circumstances behind it and the timing are what really make it the sad all-American story. It doesn’t make it that happy ending that we often have when we tell these types of stories.”
Horrigan should know. The son of a Buffalo sportswriter who later became the Bills’ public-relations director, he served as the team’s ball boy. He was 17 when Kalsu was a rookie, and he was immediately impressed by what he saw on and off the field.
“The thing I remember most about Bob,” Horrigan said, “was what a friendly guy he was. A lot of rookies obviously didn’t have time to worry about the ball boys. They were worried about making the team and getting a job and so on. Bob was just one of those guys who – in my eyes – was just a quiet, friendly guy.
“What I do remember is that he was so well liked, not just by the rookies but by the veterans. They warmed up to him right away. That wasn’t always the case. That was back in the days when they had hazing and everything else.”
An All-American tackle at Oklahoma, Kalsu was the Bills’ eighth-round pick in 1968 and the 199th choice overall. But he wasn't considered a long shot for the pros, Horrigan said. He lasted that long because teams were wary of his military commitments and weren’t sure when … or if … he would play.
But he did, starting nine games as a rookie in 1968 in place of injured guard Joe O’Donnell.
“He wasn’t intimidated by anything.,” Horrigan said. “He just was there and did his job. Most of the rookies were like, ‘Yes, sir, no sir,’ and making all the right moves. He just seemed naturally comfortable, and some of the players that he had warm relationships with, you could see the camaraderie right away.”
In Vietnam, Kalsu was promoted to first lieutenant within months of arriving. As with the Bills, he was liked by the men who served under him. Unlike his football experiences, however, he was constantly in peril – especially by the summer of 1970 when his camp was encircled by the North Vietnamese Army.
He was killed that July, the victim of a mortar blast. He was 25.
Kalsu was buried a week later, with Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer among those who attended. When the funeral was over, Switzer said, he witnessed a poignant scene that he never forgot.
“Bob’s daddy got his wife and Jan (Kalsu’s wife) back to the car,” Switzer said on profootballhistory.com, “After everyone was gone from the gravesite, he went back and lay down on the casket.”
Bob Kalsu made a commitment, and he died fulfilling it.
“After the fact,” Horrigan said, “there were stories about how some of his friends had encouraged him to try to make that move and get that help from the team to say, ‘Hey, can you find a reserve unit to help me with?’ But he didn’t try any of that. That was kind of his mantra. He had made a promise to serve, and he was going to do it.
“That’s a very tough decision under any circumstance, but he’s a young married man with a baby daughter. So it was an even greater challenge for a young man to be facing at that time. This was 1968, 1969, (and) that’s the height of the Vietnam War.
“You knew how divisive it was. Guys were looking for college deferments. There was unrest in the streets with anti-war movements. This was kind of the most unpopular war ever fought, and yet he was going to live up to that obligation, whatever his personal feelings were.”
Prior to Pat Tillman, Bob Kalsu was the last NFL player killed in military action. He was honored in 1977 by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and named to the Buffalo Bills’ Wall of Fame in 2000.
“No one will ever know how great a football player Bob might have been” the Hall’s plaque reads, “but we do know how great a man he was to give his life for his country.”