Parkview Elementary School students in Oklahoma City learn on a yearly basis about character and sacrifice through the lens of Bob Kalsu, the Buffalo Bills offensive lineman who lost his life serving in the United States Army in Vietnam. The school's principal, Bryan Kalsu, is Bob's cousin.
"One thing I always do is make a copy of that article and share it with our fifth grade boys and girls, and I tell them it's not about being a great football player, which he was - he wasn't drafted in the first round, but he was a great football player - but he was a good character man," Kalsu told me last week. "He was a good Christian man. He believed in hard work and working together as a team, and not putting himself first. That's what's great about him and his legacy. He was just a good character, value man that put others first and him second. I'm just very proud to have that name of Kalsu because of what he stood for."
Bob Kalsu most certainly put others first when he was called up to fight in the Vietnam War after serving in the ROTC at Oklahoma University. When he was told he didn't have to fight, he didn't want to shirk his responsibility. His family understood, because that's the way he was raised.
"My dad would always say people from the Buffalo Bills or the ROTC would say 'We can get you out,' but he was committed to staying with what he said," said Bryan. "We're that type of people. He committed to the ROTC, and he felt committed to staying with his word."
"His upbringing, his mom and dad, were very loving, loyal, disciplined, Catholic family. His mom, Leah Kalsu, was such a strong person," said her nephew. "Tough lady, never complained, had a smile on her face. She was one of those ladies that if you went to her house, she went to the kitchen and brought you something to eat or drink. Whether it was a cookie or if it was dinner, she was cooking a roast. Just your good, All-American family."
Bob's father, Frank, was the old-guard disciplinarian and pushed his son, even coaching his Little League team. There was love, says Kalsu, but his dad always pushed Kalsu to be a better man.
"He was a disciplinarian, and when you went over to his house, you knew it was work first, play second," Bryan said. "If that meant you mow the yard, you mow the yard. If that meant you go pull some weeds, you're gonna work and then you can go play. And that's how he raised his son, and that's why he was such a good man."
Kalsu took that "work first, play second" mantra with him into adulthood, and gave up a promising career in the NFL for a spot on the ground in Vietnam. Named the Bills' rookie of the year in 1968, Kalsu was the heir apparent to future Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw. That career was cut short by shrapnel at Fire Support Base Ripchord.
"Of course, it was such a blow to him and his wife," Bryan states. "But they were a very strong, Catholic upbringing, disciplined family. I can't imagine having your only child - and the only child having a bright future - and passing away."
While in Vietnam, Kalsu shielded his family from the troubles of war, not sharing many details. He would write letters, but the majority were filled with questions of Oklahoma and the family, not his days in Vietnam. That continued after his death, when details were scant. They knew he had died from shrapnel wounds, but further detail of that day were scant until an investigative article in 2001 gave them the truth.
"When that Sports Illustrated article came out, it was interesting to read about his actual military days there in Vietnam, because when he would write letters home to his mom and dad and to his wife, he wouldn't talk about Vietnam much," said Kalsu, who spent several evenings a week as a young boy visiting with Robert's grieving parents. "It was interesting even to my dad about his friends that he connected with in Vietnam, because for so many years we didn't know much about how he had passed away. We knew he had shrapnel and that he died with shrapnel wounds.
"For many years, Robert's son Bob thought his daddy died going to the helicopter that had the letters. We did not know the details until that Sports Illustrated article came out, and spoke to those underneath him and with him and the actual day he passed away."
Kalsu died two days after his son was born. When Kalsu's body was returned to Oklahoma, Frank Kalsu didn't want to believe it. In shock and denial, he sent his brother to identify the body at the airport.
"He asked my father to go to the airport, and my dad still remembers to this day going out to Oklahoma City airport -Will Rogers airport - and seeing his body in a casket," said Bryan. "His face was wrapped up in white wrapping, but my dad said he saw Robert's hands. And my dad knew him very well, and knew his hands, and he had a birthmark on his arm, and that's how they identified him."
After Bob's passing, the Buffalo Bills continued to stay in touch with the family. Kalsu was inducted into the team's Wall of Fame in 2000, and just last year, Robert Kalsu, Jr. was in Buffalo to accept a jacket on his father's behalf as the organization honored its Wall of Famers.
"His widow and his son, to this day, just adore the Buffalo Bills organization, and they'll stay in contact because of what the Buffalo Bills have done," Bryan relays. "His son has DirecTV, and I go over to his house about two or three times in the fall and we watch the Buffalo Bills together. His son is a very big Buffalo Bills fan."
"I can't tell you how much I appreciate the organization staying in contact with his son, his daughter, and his wife and still make them feel very proud of what he did in Buffalo in that short period of time."
At Del City High in Oklahoma City, Kalsu's name graces the stadium, and a large picture of him in his Oklahoma Sooners uniform hangs in the gymnasium. It's a reminder that play is important, but so is the hard work that must go along with it.
Work first. Play second.