Kalsu's story touching and tragic.
Buddy Thomas The Standard Times
New Bedford, MA
Bob Kalsu never reached All-Pro status in the National Football League.
Probably because he didn't play long enough.
But the big lineman from the University of Oklahoma was voted the team's top rookie in his first and only season with the Buffalo Bills.
That was back in 1968 when the American Football League was on the threshold of a merger with the rival NFL, and the 1-12-1 Bills were hoping to re-discover the glory days of mid-decade.
I was two years removed from Vietnam at the time and still trying to re-adjust to civilian life. Part of that re-adjustment centered around watching professional football, trying to convince myself that the AFL was not just a cheap imitation of the real thing (NFL).
A year later I finally became convinced when the Jets beat my beloved Colts in Super Bowl III.
But I had never even heard of Bob Kalsu until sometime last week, when I saw his story on television.
I can't remember the exact night it was shown. It was mid- to late-week, I think. But I do know it was on the early version of ESPN's Sportscenter.
It probably was meant to be a filler piece. You know, one of those five-minute mini-features that help fill the hour-long time slot when off-nights, Mother Nature or a combination of both leave the scoreboard virtually empty.
What it became was, quite simply, the most heart-rendering piece I've ever seen.
It was a story of life, love and devotion interrupted by an untimely death.
Bob Kalsu played the lead role.
On July 21, 1970, the Bills' lineman became the only professional football player to be killed in Vietnam. Details of his death came from the lips of a teary-eyed former soldier who saw Lieutenant Kalsu fall while helping defend something called Ripcord Base on an isolated jungle mountaintop near the Ashau Valley.
All through his high school and college days, football was a big part of Kalsu's life. So was the ROTC -- Reserve Officers Training Corps. But the biggest part of Kalsu's life was his sweetheart, Jan, who he married the day after his final college game in the Orange Bowl.
The Bills selected him in the eighth round of the '68 college draft - after such not-so-notables as Pete Richardson, a defensive back from Dayton, running back Max Anderson of Arizona State and Mike McBath, a defensive end from Penn State. With the exception of first-round selection Haven Moses of San Diego State, the Buffalo draft list read like a roll call from the Society of Unknown Nobodies.
But Kalsu quickly became somebody in his first AFL season by earning the team's Rookie of the Year award with his stellar play at guard.
Sadly it would be his final season of football.
His wife had recently given birth to a daughter, Jill, and the future appeared bright. But following the '68 season, Kalsu began fulfilling his ROTC obligation with the United States Army and in November 1969, he received his orders to go to Vietnam.
He probably could have used politics to remain at home, but Kalsu said no.
After six months in Vietnam, 1st Lieutenant Bob Kalsu left his 11th Artillery unit of the 101st Airborne Division for a week of R&R in Hawaii.
There he was reunited with Jan, who was now pregnant with their second child.
Most of this information was recorded in newspaper articles - articles I never knew existed before watching last week's riveting television piece.
But while the written words put a lump in my throat, the spoken words induced tears that flowed freely from my eyes.
I sobbed when Jan told of the day she received word of her husband's death as she lay in her hospital bed after giving birth to her son, Bob Jr.
I sniffled when the young Bob revealed he had heard his father's voice asking him to have the first dance with his sister on her wedding day.
And I cried when Bob Jr. relayed how he saw his father sitting and smiling as he and Jill moved gracefully about the dance floor.
But when all was said and done, I probably felt worse about myself for never having known Bob Kalsu had even existed.