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Buffalo Bills G Bob Kalsu: A hero’s ultimate sacrifice

On Memorial Day, we remember First Lieutenant James Robert Kalsu — the only active American professional athlete to die in Vietnam — and his “promise to serve.”

Oklahoma’s Bob Kalsu... SetNumber: X12062

The Buffalo Bills have a long, rich history. As one of the original AFL franchises, the Bills have existed since 1960, and as a result, their story is intertwined with that of professional football. Over the course of their history, the team has had many players who’ve gained recognition for all sorts of accomplishments on the field — including several current Bills.

However, on this Memorial Day, we’re going to take this time to discuss a member of the Bills who made the ultimate sacrifice.

In today’s edition of “90 players in 90 days,” we’re discussing right guard Bob Kalsu — the only active professional athlete to die during combat operations in the Vietnam War.

Name: First Lieutenant James Robert “Bob” Kalsu

Number: 61

Position: G

Height/Weight: 6’3”, 235 pounds

Age: 25 at the time of his death on July 21, 1970. He’d have turned 26 on 4/13/1971.

Experience/Draft: 1; selected by the Bills in the eighth round (No. 199 overall) of the second-ever AFL/NFL common draft

College: Oklahoma

Acquired: Eighth-round draft choice

1968-1970 Recap: The Bills selected Kalsu in the eighth round of the 1968 AFL/NFL Draft, and he made an immediate impact for the team. Kalsu appeared in all 14 of Buffalo’s games, starting nine. He played well enough that he was voted Rookie of the Year by the team. The Bills were 1-12-1 that year, with their lone victory coming over the New York Jets, who would go on to victory in Super Bowl III at the end of that season. For the Bills, their poor record meant the No. 1 overall pick in the next draft — which they used on Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson.

However, that 1968 season would be the last professional year for Kalsu, who entered the U.S. Army at the conclusion of the year. He did so to satisfy his ROTC obligation. Kalsu relented from electing for the reserves (something active pro athletes were eligible for at the time) despite numerous pleas from his family, friends, and teammates, stating — “I’m no better than anybody else.” After months of training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Kalsu was sent to Vietnam in July 1969 as part of the 101st Airborne Division, known as the “Screaming Eagles.” Just a month prior to Kalsu’s deployment, President Richard Nixon had announced the withdrawal of 25,000 troops from the conflict; he would accelerate those draw-downs over the next year, announcing in March 1970 that 150,000 troops would be removed from the country over the following year.

With the troop withdrawal occurring, Kalsu’s regiment was the only full-strength division left in Vietnam as of early 1970. His unit began to rebuild Fire Support Base Ripcord in March of that year. On July 1, 1970, Ripcord came under siege by a North Vietnamese battalion. It was during this 23-day conflict that Kalsu lost his life along with 74 other American soldiers. On July 21, 1970, Kalsu was Killed in Action as a result of wounds sustained via 82-millimeter mortar rounds fired on him and his men. He was only 25 years old.

Kalsu left behind a wife, Jan, and young daughter, Jill. Jan was pregnant when he deployed to Vietnam, and just two days after Bob’s death, she gave birth to their son, James Robert Kalsu Jr. The elder Kalsu was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his heroism.

Just days prior to his death, Kalsu was wounded by shrapnel from a mortar strike. Rather than leave his unit, he chose to stay, continuing to lead supply runs. While he was the only active professional athlete to die in Vietnam, Kalsu wasn’t the only pro football player to lose his life in the conflict. Former Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Don Steinbrunner also died during the conflict, as he was shot down while spraying Agent Orange on July 20, 1967 — nearly three years to the day before Kalsu was killed.

Kalsu was posthumously honored in 1977 by the National Football Hall of Fame and was enshrined as a member of the Bills wall of fame on April 13, 2000 — the day he would have turned 55 years old. Inside the lobby entrance of Highmark Stadium resides a large plaque featuring a joint football and military display in memory of Kalsu’s service and tenure with the Buffalo Bills — and which closes with the following quote:

“No one will ever know how great a football player Bob might have been, but we do know how great a man he was to give up his life for his country.”

In 2016, the Kalsu family was honored during a pre-game ceremony by Buffalo Bills co-owners Kim and Terry Pegula. The year 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of Bob Kalsu’s tragic death during deployment to Vietnam. Despite the passage of time, Kalsu’s death, and the loss his family and loved ones endured serve as lifelong wounds paid by the greatest of heroes.

On this Memorial Day, let us remember the sacrifices made by those who fought for our country. To those of you reading this with family members who died in combat, to those of you who have lost friends in combat, or to those of you who feel a certain kind of solemnity on this day, it’s important to remember that all gave some, and some gave all.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for keeping First Lieutenant Kalsu’s memory alive.